Helena Christensen's... Big-time sensuality
Helena Christensen's dusky Danish/Peruvian looks made her the most sensuous of the original 1990s' supermodels. Twenty years on, age has not withered her, and she celebrates every freckle - and even wrinkle. Jane Mulkerrins discovers Helena's beauty and parenting secrets, and finds her still ambitious two decades after her heyday
In an age of extreme and widespread hyperbole, every catwalk regular whose name is vaguely recognisable is now casually referred to as a "supermodel". But back in the 1990s, when the title was first coined, it was the sole preserve of a highly select set of women who dominated fashion and front pages, and grew to be so well known that their surnames became superfluous.
Along with Christy (Turlington), Kate (Moss), Naomi (Campbell), Cindy (Crawford) and Linda (Evangelista), Helena Christensen regularly graced the covers of Vogue, Elle and Harper's Bazaar, fronted fashion campaigns for Prada, Versace, Lanvin and Hermes, was one of the original Victoria's Secret Angels, and once appeared on a six-by-12-metre billboard in Times Square, naked but for a strategically placed banana leaf.
As she says herself: "I realise now what an amazingly interesting and unique career it has been, and how lucky I am that I got to be part of a moment that will probably never happen again."
As a teenager with a major magazine habit during that decade, my most favourite super was always Christensen. Not only because of her exotic, feline beauty - the glorious alchemy of Danish and Peruvian genes - but also her rock 'n' roll edge; she dated the late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence for five years, before he left her - tragically, it would turn out - for Paula Yates.
So as I await her arrival at a cafe close to her home in New York's West Village, where she lives with her 15-year-old son, Mingus, and her boyfriend, Paul Banks, of the band Interpol, I feel a flutter of something akin to first-date nerves. And when she strides purposefully towards our table - tall, slender but womanly, with a strut perfected in Paris and Milan - it is clear that, at 46, she could still quite easily cause a serious traffic situation outside on Seventh Avenue.
In the flesh, her much-photographed face does not disappoint either, with plump lips and a perfectly angular jawline that I struggle to stop staring at. Initially, I'm a little worried that she might not be quite the fun date I had always imagined. She refuses the offer of anything to eat - "It's too late, I've already had lunch," she says, shrugging at the waiter - and wants to drink only water.
But as soon as she gets talking about her myriad projects - perfume, a clothing line, photography, as well as a modelling career now well into its third decade - she is animated and amusing. With the help of a French perfumer, Christensen has created a high-end, small-batch perfume oil called Dead of Night. "It is such an unusual, sensual and mysterious scent," she enthuses, ruffling her wavy dark brown hair. "It did something to my brain that no other scent had ever done before; it hypnotised me in some way."
The oil is made from oud, "the truffle of the perfume world". Produced by agarwood trees in Borneo, oud is the sap secreted by the tree when attacked by a particular fungus, and will form the basis for a forthcoming second scent, too. "This time it's going to have notes of chocolate and iris pulp, so it'll be sweeter, but fresher," Christensen explains. "Whereas Dead of Night is very dark, alluring and hypnotic, very sensual.
Oud is an aphrodisiac," she adds, raising an eyebrow. Not that, one imagines, Christensen often needs the assistance of aphrodisiacs. Aside from her physical attributes, she still has a charmingly lilting Danish accent, and a lexicon of delightful mixed metaphors - "all hot air in a balloon", and "like a slap with a dead fish in your face."
Her style and attitude are endearingly quirky and free-spirited too; today, she is wearing Vivienne Westwood high-waisted jeans, and a black vintage sweater decorated with flowers. Aside from a slick of deep-fuchsia lipstick, she's not wearing any make-up. A longtime vintage enthusiast, for a few years she ran Butik, her own second-hand shop in the West Village, with her friend Leif Sigersen. She no longer has the store and, in fact, has lost the shopping bug altogether.
"I don't have a lot of wardrobe space and I will only buy things that I know I am not just going to wear once or twice," she says. "I recycle everything in my life that I can - my mother has a second-hand shop in Copenhagen, so lots of our clothes go there. I need to buy ethically; mass production freaks me out."
She's dedicated to keeping her own collaborations small and personal, too. This summer, she'll begin a three-year project designing collections for the Danish clothing company InWear, and has a small jewellery collection with Skagen (also Danish) launching this June. "I don't have a huge ambition to start something grand and contribute to mass production," she says simply.
Christensen favours oil across the beauty board. "I love that shiny, soft, dewy look and the sensation of using it. I'm probably clogging all my pores, but I'm always pouring serums and oils on my face," she says. And her entire beauty aesthetic runs counter to that of the regimented, stay-out-of-the-sun brigade. "I feel happiest outdoors, by the ocean," she says.
"I love a beautiful tan, I love slightly burned cheeks and freckles."
I recount to her the time a Manhattan facialist suggested lasering my freckles off. "No!" she cries, horrified. "Freckles are happy little moments of summer joy. I tell make-up artists to bring mine out, and to give me more if they can."
The flawless grooming ethos of New York women does not appeal. "To me, 'perfect' is messy hair and interesting skin where something happens," she maintains. "I don't want it to be matte, I don't want it to be even; I want the freckles, I want the shine, I want the beachy, bed-head hair."
Her own beauty icon is her Danish grandmother, Ketty, who will turn 98 in July, and who, Christensen says, has never used anything more sophisticated than Nivea and Vaseline. "And she still has skin like a baby," she sighs.
Christensen's own routine, however, is rather more product-heavy. "I love testing different products; I love the feeling and the texture and the scent of them," she rhapsodises. "If I go into a pharmacy to pick up a prescription, in the five minutes I'm waiting, I'll be lured into buying all sorts," she continues, with a wry smile.
"This one takes care of the third wrinkle between your eyebrow and your hairline - obviously I need that." I definitely can't see three wrinkles between her eyebrow and her hairline. Christensen does look her age, but in the very best way, with no evidence of artificial intervention. She's not ruling it out for the future, though.
"If I turn 65 and I look in the mirror and I'm like, 'Hmm, I look tired, or I look sad', and if by that time there are even better methods, where you push a button and it wipes five years away: perfect," she reasons. "Whatever anyone wants to do, go ahead, I don't care. Just make sure you don't end up looking like a monster caricature of yourself."
Her exercise regime is similarly relaxed - she boxes twice a week, and walks as much as she can in the city. "I don't love exercise," she says, rolling her eyes. "But it does mean I can eat twice as much."
Christensen grew up on a small island that forms part of Copenhagen, where her Danish father was a lithographer and her Peruvian mother worked for the Scandinavian airline SAS. As a family, they travelled frequently, thanks to her mother's job. "We would always be on standby," she recalls. "Which was so nerve-racking - having to wait to see if we got accepted on flights."
Extensive travel, and that last-minute nature, probably prepared her well for the whirlwind of her modelling career. "Yes, and I think that's what I grew to like in life generally," she says. "I like an organised base, but not to have everything too planned out. Not chaos exactly, but room for a little impulsiveness."
She fell into modelling after being spotted at 19 by a tiny Copenhagen agency, who invited her to go to Paris for a week of castings. Soon she was appearing on magazine covers, and her own fledging photography career took a back seat while she sat for the likes of Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchelier and the late Herb Ritts. "He had a huge influence on my career," she says of Ritts. "And he taught me so much in terms of the way he used light. You never actually looked naked or half-naked in his pictures, because the light was your costume in a way."
In her 30s, she picked up her own camera again, shooting for a number of magazines, including Marie Claire, Elle and Nylon, where she was the founding creative director. Her own visual style, she says, is "dark, moody and gloomy".
"I love that last light of the day, the dusk, where everything appears almost black and white, but there are still a few colours pulling through. Skin looks different, eyes look different - that's my favourite atmosphere for photography."
She is currently the face of L'Oreal Revitalift, and recently appeared on the covers of magazines, including Madame Figaro and El Pais. And while she enjoys the job now more than she ever did in her 20s and 30s, there have been, Christensen says, some tangible changes in modelling over her 25-plus years. "When I started, almost every job was an overseas trip, whereas nowadays you go to a studio a lot," she notes.
And there were, of course, no mobile phones with which to keep in touch with home back then. "You bought an international phone card and called from a phone box with those 700 digits. You were cut off constantly, but I was very adamant about keeping in touch with my family," she remembers. "I also used to send faxes," she laughs. "I'm still completely flaggergasted by faxes - that a piece of paper goes in one spot, and comes out the other."
With a giggle, she replays a scene from Absolutely Fabulous, in which Bubble (Jane Horrocks) is baffled by the fax machine. "She's like: 'It just comes and comes and comes, all this paper'." Having Ab Fab quoted by a supermodel is deliciously meta; and a little later, she also quotes Hamlet (there's "something rotten . . ." she laughs, when discussing Denmark's social structure) and Socrates. It's tricky to imagine too many other models with such a range of references.
After having her son at 30, Christensen cut back on modelling and travelling in order to raise him, especially after she and his father, The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus, broke up four years later. "Now, I do maybe one week a month of intense work where I'm in other countries, but I group it all together," she explains. And often, at weekends, she, Mingus and Banks escape to her country house in the Catskills.
"I'm not strict," she says of her parenting style. "I would say it's a mix of old-fashioned values - discipline, love, respect, loyalty and honesty - but they're definitely mixed in with a very progressive form of upbringing."
From when he was small, she spoke to her son only in Danish, his father spoke English, and Christensen's mother, Spanish. Consequently, Mingus is fluent in all three (Christensen speaks two more - French and German). He is also, she says, at the "cocky stage". "He's definitely taught me how deeply uncool I am," she laughs. "He's like: 'I'm going to ask you something, Mum, but please promise me you won't turn it into one of your lessons about life - I'm doing quite well without them'."
I ask if she plans on spending more time back in Europe as Mingus gets older. "Right now, I'm happy here, but he has another three years of high school, then he'll go off to college, and I'd like to start exploring the world in a different way, going to places like Cuba for a month or two," she says. "I want to get there before the first Starbucks shoots up."
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