Supermodel, photographer, designer, mother – the incredible Helena Christensen is the SBJCT of our latest issue. We celebrate her many accolades by going to the root of it all: her childhood in Denmark, the development of her creative mind, and the quirky and wonderful life she chose to live.
BY PHOEBE DE CROISSET
Phoebe de Croisset You lead such a bohemian, adventurous life. What was it about your parents and upbringing that got you here?
Helena Christensen I’ve always lived this kind of strange lifestyle that has both a very hectic part, and on the other hand, a very mellow part. I think because I’ve been working in this industry from such a young age, it’s just become the norm, and it’s how I like it to be. But I also think a lot of who I am comes from my parents. My mother is Peruvian, very passionate, a burst of fire and emotion, and my father is Danish, super mellow and at times, quite introspective. So it was either those two parts were going to fight inside of me, or live in peace. And they, most of the time, live in peace. I can go for hours, days sometimes without being social, like my dad. And I can also totally go into that whole South American kind of vibe. I hope I got the best from both of them.
PC How did your career get started?
HC I wanted to be a photographer before I ever wanted to be a model, so when the modeling opportunity came along, I took it as a way of learning about photography. As I improved at one, I improved at the other, and I’ve been fortunate to do both throughout my life. Of course, I could not have had better teachers. I could not have learned about the technical side from better professors. Hopefully that makes me a more sympathetic photographer, because I understand what it is to be a subject – that it doesn’t come naturally for everybody.
PC And from photography and modeling came design?
HC Since I was very young, I have been interested in creating: drawing, building, coloring, making little art pieces or weird little dresses… As an adult, I was able to start collaborating with friends on a variety of projects including fashion design and even publishing; I co-founded Nylon magazine and was its Creative Director. My latest partnership, Stærk and Christensen is allowing me to design an entire home! I love architecture and northern Scandinavian design, so we are using lots of warm, dark woods and steel. It’s inspired by the shape of a ship’s hull.
If my photograph can touch something in them, or change something in them, I have done my job.
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PC Many of the other girls from your gang, “The Magnificent Seven” as you were once dubbed, also went on to pursue other projects. Elle, Christy, Cindy…
HC Yes, they went into different things early on as well. My projects are a little more niche I think, and theirs are mostly commercial – which is always one of those things where I’m like, should I have gone in that direction and saved up a lot more money? Instead of spending all this time on all these little projects that take up so much time? But in the end, I believe you really don’t need more money than just what it costs to provide for yourself and your kid and your family. And I am so grateful for having invested what I earned over all the years into my little homes.
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PC Let’s talk about your son, Mingus. How did he change your life?
HC Motherhood is the most fucking awesome thing ever, and also the hardest thing. It’s wonderful and humbling and it is a gift that keeps giving. Not at first though. At first the responsibility and anxiety and fear are so overwhelming – I think that’s what grips mothers and it can take hold for a long time. It’s so hard to be with a tiny little baby that just takes and takes and then when you’re just about to give up, they give you one little smile, or wiggle a toe and it gives you hope for a few more hours. But they do grow up, and they start giving back and eventually you realize they are actually giving you so much more than you are giving them. So it all works out.
PC Mingus is 17 now, and just walked in his second NYFW show for Calvin Klein. What was the experience like for you, and for him?
HC For me, it was bizarre, but in a good way. He did it and then said “You know, I’m not sure it’s for me.” I laughed about it, because that’s kind of how I started out as well, thinking this wasn’t my thing. But I don’t think he has completely made up his mind. He just did another show yesterday. This business can give you a lot if you’re working at the right level – working with all this creative talent, traveling, learning different languages, not to mention making a significant amount of money, not just an hourly rate, but real money to start building and saving for the future. The world really is your oyster at that age. He will be off to Tisch School of the Arts next year, and I am secretly so happy it turned out that he’ll stay here in NYC.
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Even if you help just one person, you are part of the solution.
PC You’re off to Rwanda next month to continue the work you do with UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency). How did you begin working with them?
HC I worked with Oxfam for many years, and a lot of what I did with them was to travel around the world to countries that were affected by climate change. I was photographing and interviewing victims – mostly women, because in these countries, women are the ones left behind to care for children and the elderly – the men are off trying to find work. The woman I was working with at Oxfam, Claire Lewis, transferred to UNHCR about three years ago and I went with her. So far, we’ve been to Colombia and Ukraine, where I talked to and photographed refugees.
PC What moves you the most when you go on these trips?
HC I think there are two sides to these trips. On a very personal level, I feel very fortunate that I get to go and see firsthand the challenges that people are facing; I hear their stories from their mouths and see the emotions unravel. I travel with a team of highly educated people who teach me about the political history of a place and the story behind the conflicts. I am listening and learning, so when I sit face to face with the victims, I am able to speak with them through a translator and really understand. At the same time, there is the other side, which is the work itself – the photography. And I think about that a lot, about the power of photography to move people. I imagine that my photographs will be seen by someone from our world, sitting here in a NYC restaurant, and I make it my responsibility to communicate to those people. If my photograph can touch something in them, or change something in them, I have done my job. Hopefully a few of my photos will have that affect.
PC And what is the hardest part?
HC I must admit that I don’t always come away from those trips hopeful that we are going to be able to make a change. When we were in Kenya a few years ago, we were sleeping in the 600,00-person refugee camp, on a hard bed with just a sheet to cover us. And a bare bulb that was hissing all night. We heard gunshots and screaming and yelling. Or in Ukraine, where I walked into a basement of a house full of elderly amputees who’d lost limbs from frostbite, shrapnel or landmines hitting them. And you think, “How can we fix this?” But then you speak to the 80-year old couple who have just moved back into their home with the help of UNHCR, and realize that even if you help one person, you are part of the solution.
PC On to lighter subjects… We must ask about your wellness routine because you’re as beautiful, toned and radiant as ever. What is your go-to workout?
HC Boxing. Authentic boxing with real fighters in a dirty old gym – no silky leggings or mirrors – which is good because I look like a crazy woman when I work out. I always wear oversized mismatched clothes and big baggy sweatpants that hang all the way down. And yoga, which I do to get a good stretch afterwards and to balance our the hardcore boxing training.
I would be absolutely fine being a highlander, giving up husbands and lovers all the time.
PC Where are you happiest?
HC Anywhere near water. I love swimming and I plunge into any water – there could be ice in there and it doesn’t matter. The only reason I didn’t swim over New Year’s is because the lake was frozen over and I couldn’t find a hole to dive into.
PC Fictional character you most identify with?
HC Pippy Longstocking. I am a “thing-finder.” I live in a quirky house with strange objects gathered over a lifetime of travel to exotic places. Plus, I always wear braids and I have freckles.
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PC What is your mantra?
HC “Shit happens.” I like this one, because then you’re covered.
Also, any “gruk” by Piet Hein. Every single one he wrote you can relate to as a human being, plus they rhyme – in English and in Danish! And I love rhyming.
PC Simple pleasure?
HC Food. It’s my one giant pleasure. It comes so close to the love I have for my family that it could almost surpass it. And it’s ok because we all feel the same way about food in my family, so we’re at peace with it. If it came to choosing just one, we might go for food.
PC What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
HC I hope I don’t die ever. I would be absolutely fine being a highlander, giving up husbands and lovers all the time. Putting them in their grave and moving on. And continuing to eat for an eternity. That would be perfect.
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