SHE’S ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST IN-DEMAND MODELS WITH MILLIONS OF FOLLOWERS AROUND THE GLOBE. BUT AT A TIME WHEN THE WORD ‘INFLUENCER’ IS THROWN AROUND SO OFTEN, SHE HAS USED HER PLATFORM TO SPEAK OUT AND ACTUALLY CREATE REAL CHANGE.
A conversation with model, actress, activist – and GQ’S International Woman of the Year – Emily Ratajkowski.
There is a presumption that we already know everything about Emily Ratajkowski. Those cameo film roles, that lusted-after pout and figure, those bikini shots, that music video. And, sure, it’s all true. But if there is one thing we can thank the current US president for, it’s the lesson that it’s best not to believe everything you read – to instead seek out the full story. For Ratajkowski, the story took a turn on October 4, last year, when the 27-year-old was arrested in Washington DC. She was charged not with being too beautiful – illegally attractive, as some news outlets might have had you believe – but for making a stand. Alongside Amy Schumer and thousands more, Ratajkowski was protesting the impending appointment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a man accused of sexually assaulting a number of women, including Christine Blasey Ford while the two were in high school. At a time when it felt the tide was turning against men who had abused their status, power and fame to victimise others, Kavanaugh’s rise to the highest court in the United States of America, felt like a rare setback. And yet, so much of the subsequent coverage of the group’s protest centred not on questions of guilt or innocence or even on Kavanaugh at all, but on whether or not Ratajkowski had been wearing a bra at the time. Clearly, it seems, there is still progress to be made. Today, the sun is setting on a spring day in Sydney. The time has just passed seven in the evening and we’re in a precarious position beneath a blossoming jacaranda tree. “It’s my first time in Australia and we’re fully off-roading,” smiles Ratajkowski as the car reverses up a 45o angle, our driver’s mild panic reflected in her aviators. “I feel like I have a connection here,” she says, reeling off a few close ties she has to the country, unphased by our predicament. Some of said ties will be present the following night to see her announced as GQ’S International Woman of the Year. That is, if we make it there.
GQ: Your mother is a professor of English and your father’s a painter. Have you always been creative?
Emily Ratajkowski: Yeah it’s in my DNA for sure. I know there are people who aren’t that way, but I can’t even imagine what that would be like. To me, I feel like everyone’s trying to be creative all the time. Whether it’s in their business or their job.
GQ: How did you channel your creativity?
ER: When I started out it was a struggle because I was going to school for visual art at UCLA and then I left. It was 2009, the market had crashed and all my friends were moving home. I was just like, why would I be going to school for art right now? So, I left and was just really focused on making money. I always loved acting but modelling was the thing that was paying the bills. Things expanded really quickly and I was lucky. In fashion, you have moments where you work with people who are extremely creative and it feels like a collaboration – like you’re being a dancer in a lot of ways.
GQ: And can you still be yourself?
ER: You have to factor in the image you’re emoting but there was definitely a point where I was like, OK I’m not completely fulfilled by this. That’s when Instagram came into my life. I loved collage when I was at school and it felt like I was building a little book. That was like an online visual journal. I’ve obviously grown up a lot since and also realised how much being creative is important to me as well as being in control.
GQ: What about acting?
ER: Acting’s amazing but you are a small piece in a much larger vision and you’re not controlling it. So, I’ve started to really work on developing my own projects and being the director. And definitely, having my own swimwear company has been an incredible way to do that. You’re designing but you’re also building a brand, which is supercreative. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found more avenues to be creative.
GQ: Is it possible to be embody sexual power through creativity?
ER: The selfie and making images of yourself is a really interesting thing for a woman to do because there haven’t been that many opportunities to do that in our history. That’s why there were incredible female artists from the ’60s changing the way they looked and taking portraits. That was a part of the sexual revolution. Now it’s so easy to point taking self portraits towards narcissism. But as women, it’s amazing to be able to control and dictate your own image. It’s actually kind of liberating.
“like every revolution, there has to be someone who makes it look cool.”
GQ: How does social media play into being a role model?
ER: Good question. There’s a weird thing where, if I started thinking about what anyone could interpret from anything I post, what I share would stop being interesting. So instead, I just try to stay true to who I am and lead by example. It’s about trusting my own filter.
GQ: On social media, we follow who we want to follow, to the point there’s a danger we find ourselves in a bit of a bubble.
ER: Totally. I mean, yeah, all the people I follow are left or moderately left people. So, my political circle is small. But there’s that saying of the people you spend time with, you end up imitating. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to curate what your intake is. That being said, I’d hate to throw my parents under the bus but my mum will share an article on Facebook and I have to call her and be like, that article’s not true. And she’s like, really? It’s one of those things where I know it’s not but how do I even prove that anymore? Because there’s 20 other offshoot articles about that article that reference it and there’s no checking.
GQ: Hence how fake news spreads.
ER: True, but honestly, as much as fake news is a scary thing, we used to have to rely on very, very specific sources. The internet is so democratic in that way and I love that – what an amazing tool for us. I’m really grateful to live in an era where that kind of voting system is going on. When I think about how my parents are getting information or how I’m getting information, or how my kids will get information, I’m blown away. Power of the people basically, is how I feel.
GQ: On that note, will 2018 go down as a seminal year for the fight towards gender equality?
ER: I mean, after Trump got elected, there were a lot of US people who just gave up. And that was totally fair. I felt that way too. Now, there’s anger and in response to that, there’s organisation. And that is exciting, we’re at the tip of what needs to happen. I’m happy to see my friends are not feeling as disenfranchised as they did when Trump got elected. Or even, honestly, when Hilary was the nominee – no one was really engaged or excited. So, it’s really changed.
GQ: Following the mid-term election, is there a renewed belief in US politics?
ER: Yes, I think so. Beyond voting day, there’s so much work that can be done. There’s this thing about calling your senator and I really hate that. Why should I call a white man in an office who’s not going to listen to me. Even going down to DC, I’ve been a couple times relatively recently and there’s a lot of things that are happening behind closed doors. It’s good for the American people to be aware of that – that’s not part of the American dream, but it’s the reality of our government. So, anger’s good and not trusting the system is good. I’d like to see more of that.
GQ: On that note, the march you were a part of and your arrest – was that anger?
ER: Yeah, I mean it was a weird one. I’m figuring it all out. I don’t know what’s radical and what’s anger. I got so much heat for posting about it. But what the fuck would have been the point of me being there if I wasn’t going to share it with people? A lot of people that maybe didn’t know about Brett Kavanaugh or would never think of showing up at a protest – maybe they’ll consider it now. And that’s cool because like the ’60s revolution, they were rock stars. There were activists who were sexy. That’s the least important thing about them, but like every revolution, there has to be someone who makes it look cool. When I started going to these things way back when, it was like some punk kids and a lot of old people. There needs to be an invigoration, this stuff affects everyone so it’s cool to be engaged.
GQ: Why is the younger generation so much more engaged these days?
ER: It’s when the internet came into their lives. I always think back to when I got Myspace aged 14. I didn’t have it in elementary school but I had it in adolescence. That was a specific experience and I feel like these kids, they’ve mastered those tools.
GQ: It’s been a decade since Obama came into power.
ER: Yeah, that’s crazy. God, that makes me feel old. It was my first election I voted in.
GQ: How has the past 10 years shaped you?
ER: I could go in so many directions with this question because there’s so many things I’ve seen change. But, thinking about it, I go back to my grandfather because his life felt insane. He was born before World War I in 1912. He lived through World War II and then the Cold War and saw insane change in his children’s culture from what he was experiencing with his parents. Everyone acts like things are so crazy right now and I’m like, I don’t know man, he lived to be 103. Things have been pretty crazy for a long time. Yes they’re accelerating, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.
GQ: Do you know much about your family heritage?
ER: Yeah, it’s kind of an amazing story. My mum’s finishing a book about it all. My grandfather was never going to return to Poland but then she decided to do her thesis there and learn the language. She taught there for three years. And he actually came back to see her. So it’s sort of like this weird memoir but memoir isn’t the right word. It’s all these pieces of his life and her time there, which was really specific, right before the Wall fell. Teaching English literature and teaching the US’S dark history there, kids reacted when there were parallels drawn to Judaism and the plight of Jews in Poland. It’s definitely a part of who I am. My dad on the other hand, couldn’t care less about his roots. I don’t really get that but it’s funny to have those two sides.
GQ: How’s married life been the past year?
ER: It’s great. I mean, I’m in love, but I don’t think life really changes until you have kids. Sebastian’s parents were never married. My parents got married when my mom was pregnant with me. She wore a brown dress, in the backyard of a chapel. Marriage, for us, was maybe not how the general population thinks of marriage. But, it’s fun, it’s a really amazing way to commit yourself to someone.
GQ: Your husband is a film producer.
ER: Yes, his mum is also a filmmaker and writer and his dad is a painter. And he’s an only child. So, clearly we’re a type.
GQ: Do you discuss the pros and cons of being an only child?
ER: Yes, I mean the pros are forming amazing relationships with your parents. We started being friends from very young. Cons, as you get older it’s all on you to be responsible for your parents, which is also why it’s helpful to be together in it.
GQ: Western cultures are quite bad at prioritising parents as they get old.
ER: They really are. Trust me, this conversation stresses me out because I really don’t know the answer. Part of me is like, of course all they’d want is for me to do the most. And then the other part of me is like, what else is life for if I’m not going to spend time with them, all the time. It’s difficult, that balance.
GQ: You starred in Amy Schumer’s film I Feel Pretty. It was about female confidence and insecurities. Why aren’t there films about men’s insecurities?
ER: I always say for all the things that women have that confine them culturally and with gender roles, men have just as many. Historically, women have had a much harder time. That being said, it’s important to remember that this stuff is constricting for everyone. And I would love to see more stuff that talks about straight men being very unable to share feelings. Toxic masculinity is a real thing. Out of every guy I’ve ever been close to, he has had issues with communication and emotion. That seems pretty bad. So maybe we should stop with this gender bullshit?
GQ: Who’s doing a good job at pushing such agendas?
ER: I like people who defy stereotypes. Frank Ocean’s obviously amazing, because he’s so in his feelings and he’s openly queer. That’s really important because he’s also a sexy rapper, which is cool. As far as women go, I wish there was even more of it. But there are a good amount of actresses like Amy [Schumer] who are working to really show that they’re multifaceted and show that they can also be a little punk.
GQ: Aside from your own label, are you interested in fashion?
ER: I did Milan and Paris fashion week [last September] for Paco Rabanne, which was amazing. On the flight home, I watched the Alexander Mcqueen documentary and I was so emotional – it made me think about performance and clothes, and clothes for women, and a designer’s relationship’s to women. One thing that I love about Paco Rabanne is they make clothes for women that are cool and they always have. They’re smart because they’re still doing their signature stuff. They’re not afraid of that, but they’ve updated it. There’s a Neil Young quote about when you write a song, it’s like you’re a radio station picking up a signal. I felt like Mcqueen did that. He was emulating something. There’s not enough of that in fashion.
GQ: What about in men’s fashion?
ER: I love a guy in a suit but now I feel like it’s so street wear. I remember six years ago when Rick Owens was everything for everyone. And you’d wear avant-garde interesting suiting like Issey Miyake. That kind of stuff was cool and it was dope to dress that way. But now in New York there’s Kitsuné and Supreme and I see those guys outside and I’m like, whoa man. This is a look. You guys have it rough.
GQ: Can you see you and Sebastian working together on a project?
ER: We’re already collaborating because every single thing that we’re going through, we’re talking about and working it out. Being able to trust each other’s opinions and bounce off each other is so valuable.
GQ: Sense of humour – how can we live without one?
ER: Oh my god. I mean, my sense of humour’s very dark. I love a good laugh and it’s usually not a funny one. The joke is that my husband loved [Instagram sensation] The Fat Jew so much that he found the supermodel version of him and that we’re the same exact person, in different bodies. We are all really close friends now and keep joking that we’re going to start a company together, so watch out.
GQ: What’s on the horizon for 2019?
ER: 2018 was an amazing year and I hope 2019 will be just as amazing. You can be a multifaceted entertainer, businessperson, creator and I’ve really started to capitalise on that in both my emotional and business senses. I have more entrepreneurial things coming up, but also making my own projects, as far as acting goes. You know, it’s so cool when I do a shoot now, they want me to be me. That’s true of models that no one knows as well. I love that and I hope that continues.
Jillian Davison. Styling Hair Koh. Make-up Kellie Stratton. Nails Joselyn Petroni. Fragrance ‘Pure XS For Her’ EDP, by Paco Rabanne. Dress, POA, by Valentino.