Nat­u­ral beauty

It has been an im­mense year for He­lena Chris­tensen. She has been to Ukraine as a photo-jour­nal­ist, guided her son through his fi­nal year of school and re­vis­ited the Mi­lan cat­walk to a stand­ing ova­tion. Yet, as she tells Sa­man­tha Trenoweth, no mat­ter how f

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - NEWS -

He­lena Chris­tensen’s grand­mother, Ketty, turned 100 this year and, to cel­e­brate, He­lena shot a series of strik­ing por­traits of her, dressed in haute cou­ture and look­ing sprightly and el­e­gant, if slightly amused at be­ing pro­pelled into fash­ion mod­el­ling so late in life. The project com­bined two of He­lena’s great loves: pho­tog­ra­phy and fam­ily. “Grandma Ketty is the coolest, sweet­est, fun­ni­est woman,” says the some­time su­per­model, pho­tog­ra­pher and na­ture spirit. “She is also very head­strong, so I guess I get a bit of that from her.”

He­lena’s fam­ily is a tight-knit unit. “My grand­par­ents were with me a lot grow­ing up. When my par­ents were work­ing, they took care of me,” she ex­plains. “The same goes for my son, Min­gus. When I’ve been work­ing, my par­ents have taken care of him. So, in that way, I think we’re very South Amer­i­can.” He­lena is half Peru­vian, half Dan­ish. “We have that South Amer­i­can thing where you sup­port each other and gen­er­a­tions of fam­ily pass on knowl­edge and love. Learn­ing from the older gen­er­a­tion is a big tra­di­tion with us. It’s some­thing that I in­tend to keep pass­ing on and, hope­fully, my son will also pass it on. My grand­mother has turned 100 and she is still teach­ing me.”

Ketty teaches He­lena how to “live and en­joy and ex­pe­ri­ence more of life. I don’t want to grow old and look back and re­gret things that I might have held my­self back from.” He­lena’s phi­los­o­phy is to throw her­self into all she loves with gusto, whether that’s her cre­ative pur­suits – pho­tog­ra­phy, singing, dance – moth­er­hood, mod­el­ling or her com­mit­ment to hu­man rights.

Ear­lier this year, she trav­elled with the United Na­tions refugee agency (UNHCR) to Ukraine, where she met el­derly peo­ple who had been left be­hind when the younger mem­bers of their fam­i­lies fled the con­flict there. “It’s the kind of work I like best,” says He­lena. “I do doc­u­men­tary re­portage pho­tog­ra­phy and talk to lo­cal peo­ple and hear their sto­ries. That’s what gets me the most ex­cited.”

He­lena was so moved by one group of peo­ple she met in Ukraine that when she re­turned home, she es­tab­lished a GoFundMe cam­paign to buy a house for them in Kiev. “No one,” she in­sists, “should end their life like this – alone and in pain, in a dark, smelly base­ment.” A month later, the “el­derly babushkas and de­dushkas” had moved into their new digs and they are now “busy turn­ing it into a home they can feel safe and happy in”.

Pho­tog­ra­phy has be­come sec­ond na­ture to He­lena. “I see the world in frames now,” she says, laugh­ing. Aside from her re­portage work, she likes to shoot for “un­der­ground art mag­a­zines”, such as Vi­o­let, where the shots of Grandma Ketty ap­peared.

At 48, He­lena still reg­u­larly finds her­self on the other side of the cam­era, too. She is one of the faces of Bri­tish depart­ment store Deben­hams and, in Septem­ber, she hit the cat­walk at Mi­lan Fash­ion Week along­side fel­low 1990s su­per­mod­els Naomi Camp­bell, Cindy Craw­ford, Clau­dia Schif­fer and Carla

Bruni, in a trib­ute to de­signer Gianni Versace. She is also a spokesper­son for beauty/health sup­ple­ment Lu­mity, a role she only agreed to af­ter the com­pany sug­gested she first take the sup­ple­ment for al­most a year. She emerged a true be­liever and it’s now part of her ev­ery­day health reg­i­men, which also in­cludes box­ing, pole danc­ing and a “mostly healthy diet”. “I think I’ve been pretty good at tak­ing care of my­self,” she says, “and mak­ing my­self strong – that’s some­thing I’ve al­ways wanted to do. I want to be the strong­est and health­i­est ver­sion of my­self I can be, with all the good food and wine that I like as well. I am a food lover. I want to be able to keep feed­ing my­self all the great food that I love. I don’t want to de­prive my­self of any­thing.”

He­lena grew up on an is­land in the Dan­ish cap­i­tal of Copen­hagen, with a fam­ily that en­cour­aged a healthy life­style – “I was brought up with home cook­ing, lots of vegetable juices and smooth­ies” – and a love of na­ture.

“I am a to­tal sucker for the out­doors,” she says. “It’s su­per im­por­tant for me to be sur­rounded by na­ture and near wa­ter. It can be an ocean, a river, a lake. If there’s wa­ter, I need to be in it and it doesn’t mat­ter how cold it is. I could never get into a cold pool, but I will get straight into a freez­ing river and splash around in it. That’s when I feel the most alive. That’s when I feel I have my fin­ger on the pulse of life.

“It’s pretty crazy how we’re born and then we live and then we die. It’s such a short mo­ment in time and time goes so fast. Peo­ple are al­ways say­ing, ‘Oh, that sum­mer went by so fast.’

But when I’m in na­ture, I feel like time is ac­tu­ally stop­ping. Be­ing in na­ture, for me, is prob­a­bly the most spir­i­tual I’ll feel. You’re out there, feel­ing very calm and still, and you can hear life breathe. I think that’s when you feel most con­nected to your­self and that’s what’s spir­i­tual about it. At the end of the day, I think spir­i­tu­al­ity is mostly

“An ocean, a river, a lake... If there’s wa­ter, I need to be in it and it doesn’t mat­ter how cold it is. That’s when I feel the most alive.”

about be­ing very hon­est with and close to your­self.”

Min­gus, who is 17 and in his fi­nal year of high school, has in­her­ited his mother’s affin­ity with the great out­doors. He and He­lena live in New York City with her part­ner, Paul Banks, the gui­tarist/vo­cal­ist with the band In­ter­pol, but they have a weekender in the Catskills and Min­gus is keen to go up there as of­ten as he can.

“He ac­tu­ally craves it,” He­lena says. “He will ask me, ‘Can we go up­state? I re­ally need to be in the coun­try­side, in na­ture.’ He has been this way since he was very lit­tle. I love city kids and I love the way city kids can be so cool and in­de­pen­dent, and have this edge to them be­cause they’re out there in the gritty city, but ab­so­lutely, there has to be a bal­ance and time with na­ture. We’ve al­ways taken Min­gus out to the coun­try­side.

“He spent a lot of time by the ocean when he was lit­tle and he has a huge love for an­i­mals. He was catch­ing lizards and frogs and snakes since he could crawl, and he ba­si­cally still is. So he is very much a child of the time and he is con­nected with technology and the dig­i­tal world, but I don’t feel wor­ried about that be­cause I think he also has a need to dis­tance him­self in a very well-bal­anced way.”

Next year, Min­gus will go to col­lege (he wants to study film) and He­lena, who gave up full-time mod­el­ling when her son was born to fo­cus more of her en­ergy on moth­er­hood, hopes to do some trav­el­ling.

“I’ve moved so fast through so many dif­fer­ent coun­tries and I don’t feel that I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced ev­ery­thing those places have to of­fer,” she says. “So I would like to go back now and stay for two or three months, and re­ally in­te­grate my­self with the peo­ple, the cul­ture, the daily life, the rou­tines.”

The first stop on the itin­er­ary is Den­mark for the fes­tive sea­son. “We al­ways go home for Christ­mas,” she says with a smile, “and this year, we’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to spend Christ­mas in the coun­try­side. Hope­fully, we will be in the snow, but you never know with the cli­mate th­ese days. It could be a bright, sunny day.”

He­lena with her 100-yearold Grandma K etty.

ABOVE: He­lena and son Min­gus with their minia­ture Australian Shep­herd, Kuma.

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