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
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.