Helena Christensen: A model opportunity

Catwalk queen Helena Christensen tells Kaleem Aftab why she can no longer resist the lure of the big screen
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The Independent Culture

The most feared acronym in entertainment is MTA - model-turned-actress. There are countless examples of directors shooting themselves in the foot when opting for a leggy mannequin rather than a trained artiste. But that hasn't deterred supermodel Helena Christensen from trying her hand at acting.

The Dane makes her feature film debut in fellow countryman Christoffer Boe's Allegro. She plays Andrea, a beautiful woman whose decision to split from her boyfriend precipitates his dementia. With her primary task to look good on screen, it's not exactly the most taxing of roles to start off her career. Director Boe freely admits that in looking for someone to play the alluring, unobtainable woman who is a constant plague on the protagonist's mind, he typecast the supermodel. But it's a perception of her that Christensen believes has some basis in truth. "Christoffer, because he didn't know me before the movie, all he could judge me on are the images that he sees and so he thought that I looked mysterious, melancholic, whatever. There is definitely some truth to that image. I don't walk around cracking up all the time, and in the photographs taken of me modelling, there is a tendency for me to look more sombre than jolly and maybe that is the feeling that you have before you get to know me."

Now 37, Christensen has lost none of the looks that have made her one of the most sought after faces on the catwalk. Aptly, as it turned out, she was named after Helen of Troy. But the good looks that precipitated her fame are not always a benefit, complains Christensen, most notably because men are fearful of flirting with her, and within minutes of chatting to her it's easy to see why men are struck dumb. It's unnerving enough to be in the presence of such a famous and beautiful woman, but when she speaks, Christensen seems to stare at you without ever blinking.

What makes her the most interesting model to have tried her hand at acting since Isabella Rossellini is that she's already managed to carve out a successful career away from the catwalk. She's worked for a number of years as a photographer, was a creative director overseeing the launch of the American style magazine Nylon and last year opened a fashion store in New York called Butik. The common link between all these jobs is the importance of image. She has carefully cultivated her own image as the thinking man's supermodel and dismisses the risk in adding the MTA label to the notches on her belt.

She says: "It never really seemed so strange to me that some models moved into acting. Recently, there has been even more of a crossover between movies, music and fashion; it's all become one big blend. When you are in the fashion business, you're inspired by the things around you. For so many years, you're being directed by a photographer, and it's almost like being in a silent movie, constantly acting out emotions with your face, body, expressions - the only thing that separates this from acting is that you don't speak."

Christensen claims that she never had ambitions to act. Previously she turned down overtures from Francis Ford Coppola to appear on the silver screen. That, though, was when she was in constant demand as a supermodel. Now modelling is something she does when there is a campaign that seems like it will be fun to do, such as the Dom Perignon adverts with Karl Lagerfeld involving three days in the sun drinking free champagne, or there is a photographer that she has not had the chance to work with. She says: "Modelling is now more fun to do than when it was a job."

Boe's offer of a part in Allegro came at the right time, with Christensen wanting to do things that are different and fun: "I think of all the career challenges that I've made, acting has been the biggest surprise. I never thought that I was going to do it. At first I did it to prove to myself that I had the courage to do it. That was the most important thing about making the movie, actually taking the step and saying yes to test for it. That, normally, would have given me many sleepless nights thinking about the process. It's a big difference from when I was a teenager and completely insecure about everything."

Her insecurities arose despite starting a modelling career at the age of nine and being crowned Miss Denmark in 1986. She signed to a modelling agency in Paris and a 1989 spread in French Elle led to a cover shoot for British Vogue. Her vaulting into the elite club of supermodels arose after her appearance in the music video for Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" in 1991. Depicted as Isaak's lover, she is topless for most of the video. MTV later named the music clip as the "sexiest video of all time". The late designer Gianni Versace proclaimed that she has the most beautiful body in fashion. John Galliano said "she fills clothes with life and fire".

The enormous public exposure at a young age has always left Christensen feeling that her life is out of her own hands. She says: "My life has always been a little odd. I can't really stop and think about why the things that are happening in my life are happening. I feel that destiny is shaping my life in a very interesting and somehow odd, decadent way. I don't know, I sort of just come to accept that it is not a completely normal life that I'm living, and I only see that as a great gift. I'm very thrilled by anything that happens and it's also bad things too, it's not just good shit, the thing is that there has to be a good balance."

The bad things usually arise in her private life. She parted ways with her first high-profile partner, INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence, after pictures of him in the arms of Paula Yates surfaced. There were rumours linking her with Leonardo DiCaprio and Billy Corgan before she began a relationship with the model Norman Reedus. In 1999 they had a son together, but by 2003 this relationship had run its course.

When talking about her private life, Christensen says: "With relationships, the thing is, I definitely feel sometimes, that I maybe close myself in. Either I'm really into something fully or I'm not and there are definitely certain things that I need to work on. The older you get, the more you learn to love and accept your own weaknesses and I think these aspects are part of your personality and sometimes I take pleasure in being a complete idiot and being stubborn. I'm sure that you have a little good angel and a little bad angel and it's as important to listen to the bad angel as much as the good one."

She is definitely headstrong. When the publicity officer arrives to tell us our scheduled time had run its course, she simply carries on talking and ignores him. She passes on her e-mail to me, despite his desire to act as a go-between. There are things she hasn't had the chance to speak about, such as her store Butik: "I opened a shop in New York. I'm just doing things that I feel that I can really pour 100 per cent of attention, love and commitment into, it's not like I just do it to do it. I thought for around five years about opening a shop with a friend of mine [floral designer Leif Sigersen] and we worked really hard on it and now we're doing it."

Her son goes to school in New York, which is where Christensen is usually based. Second and third homes in Monaco and the south of France attest to the success that she's had as a model. With so many demands on her time, there are no plans as yet to make another movie, and in fact she says further involvement in the business of the moving image is as likely to be from behind the camera as in front.

'Allegro' opens on 15 September