She’s the supermodel who loves chopping wood and wild swimming. But behind Helena Christensen’s laidback attitude is a steely Dane who takes no prisoners – especially when it comes to age-shaming, as Laura Craik discovers.
Of all the no-surname-required supermodels who shot to fame in the 1990s – Cindy, Claudia, Christy, Naomi, Linda – Helena Christensen was arguably the one that most women wanted to be. Despite her beauty, she was relatable. She wasn’t icy like Linda, feisty like Naomi or no-nonsense like Claudia, possessed instead of an earthy, girl-next-door charm that almost made you believe that if you eliminated wheat, used the right skincare and wore the same floral-sprigged tea dresses then, in a dim light, you too could look like Helena, the face that launched a thousand frocks.
In 1994, the designer Gianni Versace described Helena as having ‘the most beautiful body in the world’. Which is partly why it was so surprising when, in April this year, former British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman – a long-standing champion of positive body image in older women – criticised Helena for wearing, aged 50, a bustier to the 24th birthday party of model Gigi Hadid. In her weekly Mail on Sunday column, Shulman argued that ‘when women’s bodies no longer serve any child-bearing purpose, we find flaunting them disturbing and slightly tragic’.
Helena doesn’t want to talk about a spat that happened more than five months ago. Instead, I ask her why she thinks there is such a fascination with her age. ‘First of all,’ she says, ‘I don’t want to talk about age in any interview, because that’s what always happens to women, and even with the slightest mention of it we put ourselves in a situation where it actually is about that. So I’d prefer it if we just forgot about that question, because I’m trying to make it [not talking about age] a conscious thing for every interview and every article about any woman, in the same way that nobody gives a s*** about a man’s [age]. If we talk about it and if you write about it, then we’re setting ourselves back.’
I suggest we change the subject. ‘No, because it’s always women who ask about it,’ she continues. ‘Men never do, because men don’t really care, but a female editor, journalist or writer will mention it. So in a strange way we are not helping ourselves. Men don’t really give a s***.’
In 20 years of working for newspapers, it’s my experience that men are just as interested in women’s ages as women are, and will be kind to them for as long as they continue to look hot. A woman’s interest is piqued for reasons less libidinous. Her train of thought is more likely to be: ‘She looks amazing. How can I look as good as her? God, she is so lucky. I admire her. But I also envy her. Why don’t I have the confidence to wear a bustier aged 50?’ And so on.
So while I categorically agree with Helena that her age is the least interesting thing about her, to imagine how hot she looks in a black lace bustier at 50 is not worthy of people’s interest is, at the very least, naive when you have spent the past 30 years working in a profession whose chief currency is beauty.
The main, and joyous, take-out from #bustiergate was that women will not tolerate age-shaming. Hundreds of friends and strangers leapt to Helena’s defence, with the models Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Karen Elson among those posting supportive comments on her Instagram feed.
While Helena won’t talk about her body’s age, she will talk about how she maintains it: through a combination of boxing, yoga and dance. ‘I think it’s important to shake it up and do as many different forms of workout as possible, but also to incorporate nature into them. Swim in the ocean, swim in rivers, swim in lakes. Hiking, trekking, chopping wood – it’s the best way of working out, because it doesn’t really feel like a workout. It feels like you’re alive. This summer, several times a day, I would go down to the beach and sprint barefoot with my dog, jump in the ocean and just move around like crazy in the water. It’s where I feel the calmest, happiest, most stable. It’s just the Viking mentality. I have this yearning to be near water. It’s almost an obsession. If I woke up one morning and had a mermaid tail, it wouldn’t surprise me.’
While her mother, Elsa, is Peruvian, in both her obsession with water and her laidback sense of style, Helena is as Danish as a pastry. Born in Copenhagen on Christmas Day 1968, she lived there with her parents, sister Anita and, for a period, her Peruvian grandmother, until her modelling career took her to Paris in 1991. While she now lives in New York, her heart remains in Denmark, and she returns as often as possible. She talks tenderly about the road trip she took this summer with her sister and niece (not forgetting her beloved dog Kuma) traversing the Danish island of Bornholm. ‘Denmark is such a unique country to grow up in; so full of traditions, and families are very close. It’s very hard to leave.’
It’s clear that her family is the most important thing in her life. ‘We’re a tight-knit family, and that made me grounded. No matter what happens to a child, if there is that tightness, and love from both parents, or even one parent, then they can handle so much.’ Her son, Mingus, is now 19, and while Helena separated from his father, the actor Norman Reedus, in 2003, they are on good terms.
Does she have any advice on how to parent a teenager? ‘[Social media] is the biggest concern that any parent has,’ she says. ‘When Mingus was born it was the beginning of the onslaught of the internet. There are so many ways in which a child can be affected. Adults are affected by it: think about how it’s shaping a child’s mind and brain, and making them feel. One of the biggest responsibilities of parents these days is how to teach their children balance when growing up in a world with social media versus real life, real nature, real experience and being present in the moment. More importantly, [teaching them] how not to be affected by comparisons and bullying. I’m grateful that I started my [modelling] career when social media was not part of it.’
She is a prolific Instagram user, and says that she tries to use the platform responsibly. ‘I’m just trying to be as honest and real as possible. The whole social media world is such a peculiar thing for me to comprehend, because it’s so far from what humans really are about. I didn’t want to be part of it, but was convinced by friends to be on it. For me it’s a visual diary that I’ll hopefully flick back through when I’m nearing 100 and go, ‘Oh, here’s a little diary of my life.’ Who knows what will be around if I even reach that kind of age, but I like the thought of it. So much in my life is about images. Sometimes I think that I only look at the world in frames.’
A keen photographer, these days Helena is more likely to be found behind the lens than in front of it. In June, she was made a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), a global organisation dedicated to saving the lives and protecting the rights of stateless people and forcibly displaced communities.
‘I’ve worked with them for many years, visiting refugee camps and doing portraits of the women there and bringing back their stories. That already made me feel very proud and honoured, but when I was announced as a goodwill ambassador, it was such a special feeling. My son said, “Well done, Mum, this is amazing.” We were high-fiving each other.’
In her four years of working with UNHCR, Helena has travelled to Colombia, Ukraine and Rwanda, and seen some shocking sights. ‘Of course it affects you,’ she says, ‘but you try to push away how emotional it makes you feel so that you can bring these stories back in a truthful and honest way. I speak mostly to women; they’re always together in their communities, they help each other. Even though it’s tough witnessing the lives of people who are escaping violence, and being told very harrowing stories, there is also a feeling of hope.’
Unsurprisingly for someone so committed to her family and her charity work, Helena rarely appears on the catwalk these days. Her most recent foray was in July, when she modelled in Dolce & Gabbana’s haute couture show in Sicily, staged in the Valley of the Temples. ‘They’re the best-preserved ruins in the world. I could feel the wings of history flapping around me. I brought my sister along on the trip, which made the experience even more profound.’
Although arguably her most memorable catwalk appearance of recent years was in 2017, when she was reunited with Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Carla Bruni at the end of Versace’s spring/summer 2018 show, which was Donatella Versace’s tribute to her brother Gianni on the 20th anniversary of his death. To say that the internet lost its mind is an understatement.
‘Not in my wildest dreams did I think it [the show] would have that effect,’ she laughs. ‘It was very special. We girls had grown up together doing this strange and unique job, and for us to feel that reaction, years later, really touched me. It was the togetherness that made it special to me. I was next to my girls! We really have a lot of love for each other.’
Helena refuses to discuss whether she is currently in a relationship (she split with Paul Banks, frontman of American rock band Interpol, last year after ten years together), although her most famous one, with INXS singer Michael Hutchence, whom she dated between 1992 and 1995, is under the spotlight, courtesy of a new documentary about his life.
It’s due to be released in the UK next month, and Helena agreed to take part because she trusted the director, Richard Lowenstein, knowing that he had been one of Hutchence’s closest friends. ‘I have yet to see it,’ she says. ‘I know it’ll be very special. Friends of mine say it really shows him in a profound and beautiful way. Michael had a very open mind, a curiosity about life. He was so excited about the things around him. He was a very kind, mellow and loving man.’
I ask Helena what she would like to be doing in five years’ time. ‘More or less what I’m doing now,’ she says, without hesitation. ‘The things that are important in my life are really very basic things, so in that regard I don’t have any ambitions to have more or do more, because I’m already kind of there with the little things that make me happy.
‘I don’t think humans ever really reach a point when they’re like, “OK, everything’s perfect now, and I’m perfect.” We’re going to continue making the same mistakes, we’re going to continue being sad and depressed about certain things and we’re going to continue being excited about other things. I don’t think we really evolve in grand ways throughout our lives. I guess I have a very mellow approach to it all.’
Spoken like a true Dane.
Helena is represented by unsignedgrp.com