THE VELVET VIXEN Foxy lady Karen El­son on mu­sic, moth­er­hood and mak­ing her own way in life

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS by RICHARD PHIBBS STYLED by MI­RANDA AL­MOND

Karen El­son has al­ways de­fied cus­tom­ary con­ven­tion, both as a model and a singer, with her free­dom of spirit and flam­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Her lat­est al­bum, Dou­ble Roses – the first she has re­leased since the end of her mar­riage to the mu­si­cian Jack White – ex­plores love, loss and lib­er­a­tion. As nat­u­ral a mother as she is a per­former, she talks to Ly­dia Slater about find­ing peace and her place in the world

It is un­sea­son­ably blus­tery on the day of our shoot at Goodne­stone Park, a de­light­ful Pal­la­dian man­sion in Kent. Today, the lawns on which Jane Austen once strolled are adorned with sev­eral ch­est­nut-coloured Bel­gian hares, a pair of gin­ger foxes and Karen El­son. The su­per­model turned singer tosses back her curls and smiles at the cam­era, ap­par­ently heed­less of the wind ruf­fling the gauzy folds of her Dior gown, and the damp strik­ing up from the grass be­neath her feet. Snug­gled in her arms, Os­car the fox lifts his muz­zle and very gen­tly nib­bles her chin, one peer­less red­head salut­ing an­other.

‘Oh, Os­car was so adorable,’ El­son en­thuses, when we meet a few days later, back in the ur­ban jun­gle; she is a keen an­i­mal-lover whose four cats are the stars of her In­sta­gram feed. Today, too, she is look­ing the epit­ome of the wild English rose, with her cop­per curls and milky skin en­hanced by a vin­tage Ossie Clark sprigged frock. ‘I re­ally en­joyed the day,’ she says; the shoot may have left her with a nasty sore throat, which she is at­tempt­ing to soothe with pots of mint tea laced with honey prior to per­form­ing on the ra­dio this af­ter­noon, but she ap­par­ently rel­ishes any op­por­tu­nity to spend time in the Bri­tish coun­try­side, what­ever the weather. ‘I might just buy a house or tiny cot­tage in Northum­ber­land,’ she muses. ‘It’s the rugged­ness. But a few years ago, I rented a house in the Cotswolds for a sum­mer with the kids, and that was equally gor­geous… You know, there is noth­ing like the English sum­mer,’ she con­tin­ues, lyri­cally. ‘I am so at­tached to those mem­o­ries of child­hood: play­ing out­side un­til 9.30 at night, with the sun still up, the long shad­ows – I want my kids to have that ex­pe­ri­ence.’

I am sur­prised to hear this. When El­son has pre­vi­ously dis­cussed her work­ing-class up­bring­ing in Lan­cashire’s in­dus­trial heart­land (de­spite years liv­ing in Amer­ica, her ac­cent is still recog­nis­ably North­ern), it has al­ways seemed to be a source of some un­hap­pi­ness. Her par­ents sep­a­rated when she was seven; her height, pal­lor and hair colour made her a tar­get for class­room bul­lies, and at 16, af­ter she was spot­ted by a model scout, she left Old­ham, never to re­turn. Her 2010 de­but al­bum, The Ghost Who Walks, was both a paean to her new home of Nashville and a re­jec­tion of her past, its ti­tle the cruel nick­name she was given at school, mock­ing her pale skin. But it seems that af­ter more than a decade in the US, El­son has fi­nally come to terms with her English­ness. Her new al­bum, Dou­ble Roses, breathes a real nos­tal­gia for the coun­try she left be­hind, tak­ing its ti­tle from Sam Shep­ard’s poem of the same name:

Dou­ble Roses

She says

Like in Eng­land

And she leans way back

In­side her­self

In­side of Eng­land

Her nose flares

And her eyes close

The rose sails her home.

‘It just had this myth­i­cal hold on me that I can’t quite ex­plain,’ she says. ‘I think it’s very pow­er­ful.’ So she sent Shep­ard a let­ter via his friend Patti Smith, the leg­endary mu­si­cian and poet who also hap­pens to be the mother of her band­mate Jack­son Smith, ask­ing for per­mis­sion to use the poem in the song.

Lis­ten­ing to the al­bum be­fore we meet, I am moved, not just by the sen­su­ous pu­rity of El­son’s voice and the vivid im­agery of her songs, but by their un­flinch­ing hon­esty. ‘Dis­tant Shore’ de­scribes her emo­tions – part re­gret, part de­fi­ance – on split­ting up with a lover. ‘I just had a break-up with some­body who I dated very briefly, a flash in the pan. I was very stead­fast: this isn’t work­ing, this isn’t for me, I have to go. And the song was about that. “I watched you slip through my fin­gers, I saw the ship change course,”’ she quotes. ‘But that’s what I wanted. I am the pro­tag­o­nist steer­ing the ship. It’s a very vul­ner­a­ble record but I also feel quite fear­less within it.’

She calls Dou­ble Roses her ‘post-di­vorce al­bum’, for it is the first she has re­leased since end­ing her six-year mar­riage to the rock star Jack White, the co-founder of the White Stripes. They met in 2005 when she filmed the video for their hit ‘Blue Or­chid’, and it was ev­i­dently a coup de foudre, since they got mar­ried in a ca­noe in Brazil mere weeks later, with White’s first wife (and band­mate) Meg as ma­tron of hon­our.

It was White who en­cour­aged El­son to sing, and pro­duced The Ghost Who Walks; what does he think of this al­bum? ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him,’ she says briskly. ‘He’s very sup­port­ive of my mu­sic, and I’m sup­port­ive of his, and nei­ther of us is get­ting on the phone and yelling about songs we’ve writ­ten be­cause it’s not nec­es­sary.’

If she seems un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally terse, it is not sur­pris­ing, for though ini­tially it seemed as though they might man­age a Gwyneth Pal­trow-style ‘con­scious un­cou­pling’, send­ing out joint in­vi­ta­tions to their friends to at­tend a party mark­ing the

‘There is noth­ing like the English sum­mer. I’m so at­tached to those

mem­o­ries of child­hood: play­ing out­side un­tıl night’

mar­riage’s end, sub­se­quently, when lawyers be­came in­volved, the di­vorce pro­ceed­ings were less am­i­ca­ble.

‘Jack is my very good friend,’ she says now. ‘A lot of things in my di­vorce were pub­lic… but it was just the busi­ness of a mar­riage dis­solv­ing.’

She de­scribes White as ‘an amaz­ing fa­ther. I view him as a 50/50 part­ner and I would never want to have his role di­min­ished. We adore our kids and we’re close – we have to be for our chil­dren.

‘In the days when my par­ents split up, it was “never speak to your fa­ther again” kind of thing, and I don’t have that at­ti­tude at all… I’ve seen when peo­ple have ter­ri­ble break-ups, when a per­son is bit­ter, it’s not good for your kids, it’s not good for your fam­ily. I’ve seen a lot of that, and I don’t ever want it.’

El­son has a new part­ner now, about whom she says she is ‘go­ing to keep nice and sh­tum, be­cause I’ve learnt that there’s no point speak­ing about that stuff ’. So could she see her­self mar­ry­ing again? ‘I don’t know, hon­estly. I was mar­ried, it was a beau­ti­ful thing and get­ting a di­vorce was hard. I have no crys­tal ball in front of me, I don’t want to say I won’t do some­thing, be­cause what if I do? All I know is where I am right now. And where I am right now is a very pos­i­tive place and that’s what I want to choose to dwell on.’

She lives on the out­skirts of Nashville with Scar­lett, who is 11, nine-year-old Henry and the cats, in an ivy-hung house with a river at the bot­tom of the gar­den. ‘I do love it, it’s very safe, it’s peace­ful,’ she says. ‘I’ve got won­der­ful neigh­bours, great friends, fam­ily. I didn’t re­alise un­til I was a mother how much I loved peace and quiet, and wak­ing up to the sound of birds, and star­ing into the sky and see­ing na­ture… My son’s school is next-door to a horserid­ing place, so I’ve been tak­ing lessons.

‘In a way, liv­ing in Nashville has al­lowed me to grow up,’ she con­tin­ues, ‘be­cause when you’re in a city you can get some­body to do ev­ery­thing for you. You can or­der de­liv­ery ev­ery night, so you don’t have to learn how to cook, you don’t have to do prac­ti­cal things, like use a power drill. It might take me five hours to put up a shelf, but I will bloody do it. And I’m go­ing to make a lit­tle herb and veg­etable gar­den with my daugh­ter. When I get home we’re go­ing to plant stuff to­gether.’

As is of­ten the case for those with enor­mous me­dia fol­low­ings, both she and White seem to be Lud­dites when it comes to their own chil­dren. ‘We both agree that the kids are not go­ing to have cell phones,’ she says. ‘And they might play on an iPad but they’re not al­lowed to be on so­cial me­dia. I think we’re go­ing to mon­i­tor them pretty strictly.’

She is equally un­en­thu­si­as­tic about the prospect of her daugh­ter fol­low­ing her into mod­el­ling. ‘I’m not go­ing to stop my child do­ing what she dreams, but I’d give her very solid ad­vice, and say, “You go to a re­ally nice school, I hope you con­sider get­ting a good ed­u­ca­tion be­fore these other things,” be­cause I didn’t have that op­por­tu­nity. I didn’t go to col­lege, I didn’t get my A lev­els, I only got GCSEs. But I don’t think she’d want to. She’s a very as­sertive, smart, em­pow­ered young lady,’ she adds, with a grin of ma­ter­nal pride.

Al­though El­son is grate­ful to the pro­fes­sion that swept her from Old­ham to New York, fame and for­tune, she cer­tainly has her is­sues with it. At 23, she wrote an ar­ti­cle about her strug­gles with a chronic eat­ing dis­or­der; and as re­cently as last year re­vealed in­dig­nantly that she was dropped from a New York Fash­ion Week show for be­ing deemed too ‘big’. ‘My in­tel­lect tells me, “I don’t want to do your show any­way,” but of course there’s the emo­tional side where you go, “Oh gosh, I wasn’t good enough, be­cause ap­par­ently I’m too fat!”’ she ad­mits. ‘It makes me quite an­gry, be­cause I don’t think it’s re­al­is­tic for a woman to fit a cer­tain mould. How about you change the mould, so it’s not just one size? At 38 years old, I’m not go­ing to tor­ture my­self with hours of gru­elling work-outs and eat­ing kale salad for months at a time in or­der to wear a dress. If I did, I’d be af­fect­ing my health and putting my body at risk. And you can’t be a [good] mother if you’re not tak­ing care of your­self. I’m choos­ing to be health­ier and get less work be­cause men­tally that’s the right thing to do.’

In fact, there seems to be no short­age of work for the wil­lowy El­son. Her heavylid­ded, Pre-Raphaelite beauty has seen her pose for the world’s top fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phers, and front cam­paigns for la­bels in­clud­ing Yves Saint Lau­rent, Burberry, Chanel, Dior and Ver­sace. She has just been re­cruited as the new face of Jo Malone fra­grances, and is rev­el­ling in the part­ner­ship. ‘As a model, you’re asked to hold the per­fume bot­tle and they snap away, and that’s the end of that. But they ask for my opin­ion on the prod­ucts, I get to choose the menus for their par­ties, I have the fi­nal say on the guest list and I’m singing at a din­ner for them next week. I’m much more in­ter­ested in do­ing stuff like that, where I can be more of a col­lab­o­ra­tor than be­ing the face of some­thing. Be­cause, what is beauty at the end of the day? It’s so sub­jec­tive.’

Con­se­quently, her ap­proach­ing forties fill her with en­thu­si­asm rather than dread. ‘I ac­tu­ally en­joy get­ting older,’ she says. ‘Things be­come a lot eas­ier be­cause you’ve got the wis­dom of life ex­pe­ri­ence that colours how you live. I feel like I’m fi­nally in my skin; I’m com­fort­able with who I am and I’m not try­ing to change any­thing.

‘It’s an ac­cep­tance that comes with free­dom to do more, be­cause you’re not hold­ing your­self back. If I fall on my face, I’ll get up and do it again,’ she laughs. ‘And if my jeans don’t seem to fit any more, I’ll buy an­other size.’ You can take the girl out of Eng­land…

‘Dou­ble Roses’ is out now.

‘At 38, I’m not go­ing to tor­ture my­self with hours of gru­elling work-outs and eat­ing kale for months at a time’

Velvet dress, £4,040, Gucci. Pink gold, di­a­mond and mother of pearl ring (just seen), from a se­lec­tion,

Van Cleef & Ar­pels

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