In the pantheon of 90s supermodels Helena Christensen, the Great Dane, she of frolicking in the waves with Chris Isaak in the Wicked Game music video (voted MTV’s sexiest of all time) fame, has always stood apart.
Christensen seemed somehow more accessible, coveted for her off-duty model style and the eclectic vintage wardrobe she adopted aeons ahead of anyone else. She certainly never showed an interest in propagating the pouty stereotype of someone who wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day, instead preferring to harness her celebrity and work as a photographer to champion animal rights, climate change or her role as an UNHCR Goodwill ambassador.
And yet, those good causes are not what many people want to talk about. Mostly, we prefer obsessing over how Christensen looks quite the fox at the grand old age of 51 - I’ve found it to be a subject of fascination among men and women alike, but it’s something she deplores discussing. She is on record as saying that she doesn’t want to talk about age in any interview, because that’s what always happens to women. Why, she wonders, does it never happen to men?
When Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue remarked on Christensen’s outfit, a black lace bustier and jeans, for Gigi Hadid’s birthday party last year - “surely you should call time on Ann Summers style,” she opined - the episode was widely referred to as ‘bustier-gate’. Christensen’s elegant riposte was: “Let’s continue to elevate and support each other, all you beautiful, smart, fun, sexy, hard-working, talented, nurturing women out there”, quickly quelling the flames that could have continued to smoulder on social media.
So, if we shouldn’t be having the anti-ageing conversation, then what should we be talking about? She laughs on the phone call from her home in upstate New York, 15 minutes away from Woodstock, where she has been quarantining: “Any other one, pick one, there are so many we could be having.” You can almost feel the eye roll.
Proselytising the spiritual and physical effects of Mother Earth is much more her comfort zone. “I was lucky to spend months on end there with close friends and my son, Mingus (whose father is Christensen’s former partner, the actor Norman Reedus).
“I think nature saved me physically and mentally. Being in nature I realise is as important to me as breathing.” Each morning and at the end of every day, Christensen would jump into the river for a swim, no matter the weather. “Ha, perhaps that is my Viking background and coming from a country which is relatively cold but I also realise I have this deep need to be immersed in water… to let it wash over me, to let it wash away dark thoughts. It’s a spiritual and a very necessary ritual for me.”
She is proud to add there were no life-shattering epiphanies during lockdown - she thinks that she has always tried to live a balanced and mindful life. Exercise helped too, although she admits it was harder to stick to. “I bought balance balls and those resistance bands where you use your own body weight, but getting past that first 10 minutes... nope, that doesn’t come so easily to me. But I settled into this routine of lunges, jumps and squats.” She waxes lyrical about pole dancing as the most “incredible and beautiful way of using your body”, but a broken finger has put paid to that currently.
Spending time with Mingus during lockdown was, for Christensen, a gift. “We had time to share meals, go trekking, watch films together. It was very special.” As a mother of a 20-year-old today, “social media is up there” with her greatest worries. “But I think it’s really important to try and understand what it is and be informed. It is the world they live in, they see things in a different way. And as a parent, you have to try and open your mind to see it from their perspective. You can’t just say social media sucks. You need to understand it and then work out guidelines to navigate it.”
Does she think that models have it easier now? “I mean honestly, I don’t think the landscape has changed that much. Again, the things which have changed are social media. It’s like running a parallel business alongside the modelling. The pressure of that is very unnecessary. But the nature of the business itself, the life of a model, that I don’t think has changed.”
Christensen herself only came to Instagram four years ago. She relented eventually because, as friends commented, it seemed pointless not to when she was a photographer anyway. “And I suppose I do see the world around me through a square lens.” She laughs, “I can’t even begin to tell you how I feel about water droplets. I get obsessed.”
Given her avid crusading for climate change, she must be heartened that we seem to finally be waking up to the damage we are wreaking on the planet. “Wasn’t lockdown something?” she asks me. “To finally take note of the effect humans are having on the planet. I mean, the quality of our air and the appearance of animals which have been spotted for so long.”
Although the future of fashion weeks around the world remains uncertain, in Helena’s native Denmark, Copenhagen went ahead with its event this week, albeit with scaled-back shows. To mark fashion’s new normal, the original Scandi style leader (there are now dozens of them on Instagram) has partnered with Mercedes-Benz to show that masks can be incorporated into an effortlessly cool look. “I think we have a responsibility as individuals, and to others, to wear a mask to minimise risks,” Christensen says.
If her dual heritage has influenced her ad hoc style (her father is Danish and her mother Peruvian), it is only through some cultural osmosis. “My father has a graphic design back ground but I didn’t grow up with interiors and art. It came in my late teens and then my mother got inspired by it too.”
More influential were the years she spent in the Basque country as a house guest of the Danish artist, Kurt Trampedach, who she would visit with friends in her late teens. She arrived with a bad perm and a predilection for pink and left inspired by his idiosyncratic mix of antiques and hand-craft pieces, a different person.
She thinks extensive travelling and exposure to new cultures has helped her with her career and the portfolio of projects she now works on, from modelling to campaigning for refugees. So too has being true to herself, although not always so easy she concedes; “It takes a lot of courage sometimes, but if I’m not honest or truthful, it just doesn’t feel right in my tummy and that feeling is so strong and powerful.”
What advice would she give her 17 year-old-self? There’s a pause. “I do feel like I did okay, being curious and open-minded, empathetic and hopefully kind too. I think my advice would be quite boring.” I sit on tenterhooks for the wisdom that someone who is obviously so content and zen is about to mete out. “I think,” says Christensen, “I would tell myself to drink more water.”