Lily Cole: Beauty and brains

She's a catwalk star and graces the covers of the world's most exclusive magazines. But Lily Cole has still found time to earn a place at Cambridge. John Walsh wonders at the flame-haired 18-year-old who's so much more than just a pretty face
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She is 18 years old and 5ft 10ins tall, and worth somewhere in the region of £11m. Her perfectly heart-shaped face, with its determined little chin and cupid's-bow mouth, surmounts a long willowy body and pitifully attenuated legs, often clothed in tight black leggings to resemble two strings of liquorice. Her mane of curly red hair would have hurled Titian into swoony raptures, and filled Dante Gabriel Rossetti with dark thoughts better kept to himself. Her eyes, however, do not radiate innocence. They are blue, but not baby-blue. They are as knowing as Madonna's. They gaze out from the catwalk, and the pages of the nation's adoring fashion pages, and they say: I Am Not To Be Mucked About. Lily Cole is a model who is going her own sweet way. And that way, remarkably enough, is into higher education.

All the newspapers covered the story twice: once, earlier this month, when Ms Cole announced that she intended to go to university - grades permitting - and put her lucrative modelling career on hold; and again when it was revealed that she'd been awarded three straight As, and had secured a place at Cambridge University to study social and political sciences at King's College, the alma mater of E M Forster, John Maynard Keynes and Zadie Smith.

It is, of course, howlingly counter-intuitive that a young woman who has been signed up by the nation's top model agency and featured on the front of Vogue, could bear to leave behind the exciting jet-set life and the even more exciting supermodel salary, to bury herself in student life. Can you imagine Claudia Schiffer or Erin O'Connor going to lectures on dialectical materialism, living on Pot Noodles and halves of lager, conducting on-off romances with northern chemists called Stanley, dressing as babies for rag week or hookers for the May Ball, or staying up all night discussing the lyrics of Maximo Park? Would they turn down all that money?

Displaying a maturity that borders on the freakish, Lily Cole has spent the past two years combining modelling work with studying for A levels in English, politics and philosophy-and-ethics. She did homework assignments on planes ferrying her from catwalks in Paris to New York or Rome, and apparently read textbooks while she was having her hair done. When not studying at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, west London (fees £12,000 a year) she attended a South Kensington crammer in the Easter holiday.

"I'm always the first to hand in my work, because I know if I'm late the teachers will come down on me like a ton of bricks. Modelling is great, but studies come first," she said.

Thank goodness that Ms Cole does not always so closely resemble the Goody Two-Shoes in Oliver Goldsmith's moralising nursery tale. She has been snapped, by avid paparazzi, out on the tiles partying with Kate Moss (and has, inevitably been dubbed "the new ..." by the red-tops.) She's been seen brazenly necking Bacardi Breezers while dancing in the mud to the Kaiser Chiefs at the V festival in Chelmsford. Anyone tempted to give her advice about right and wrong in the dubious social hinterland of the modelling circuit should remember that Ms Cole now has a grade A in the subject of ethics.

And she has the balls to put morals over commerce. In July last year, at the age of only 17, she turned her back on an expensive contract with De Beers, the South African diamond mining firm. She was hired to be the "face" of the corporation as it launched a shop in Fifth Avenue, New York, but turned her back on De Beers over "human rights issues". It has been claimed by Survival International that, in Botswana, native bushmen had been thrown off their land to make room for De Beers's new mining sites. "I was unaware of these matters when I was booked for the shoot," said Lily in her regal way.

It's been a fast track to the top for the flamingo-legged, flame-haired ingénue. She was born in Brixham, Devon, and revealed a precocious intellect as a child. "We've always know that Lily has brains as well as beauty," her grandmother, Maud, proudly told the newspapers.

In 2002, at 14, in time-honoured style, she was seized in the street by a talent scout, just as Naomi Campbell was impulsively nabbed outside Top Shop in Oxford Street. In Lily Cole's case, she was walking through Covent Garden, consuming a most un-model-ish burger and chips, when she was spotted by a scout called Benjamin Hart, who tried to talk her into going on a photo shoot.

Alarmed by his "dodgy" enthusiasm, she declined, but later changed her mind. Soon she was signed up by Storm, the London-based agency who first put Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford and Sophie Dahl on the catwalk. Her face, so suggestive of a porcelain doll having a fit of the sulks, began turning up in campaigns for Prada and Chanel. Her Pippi Longstocking legs strode up and down catwalks, showing new designs by Alexander McQueen and John Galliano to the world.

A year later she was photographed by Stephen Meisel - Madonna's favourite snapper and the designer of her book Sex - and by David Bailey; the following year (we're now in 2004) she was on the cover of Vogue and named model of the year at the British Fashion Awards.

"My mum asked me earlier that day if I'd thought of what I'd say if I won," she told the press. "But until then it hadn't really occurred to me that I would actually have to get on stage and say something." By all accounts her extemporised speech was a triumph. "She has the confidence and personality of someone extraordinary, and I think it really shows in her pictures," said her mentor Sarah Doukas, founder of the Storm agency and reputed to have one of the best eyes for a new face in the modelling business.

By this time, Ms Cole was 16 and the model work was getting in the way of her education. The school she was at actually banned girls from modelling assignments, so Lily left and moved to Latymer. "My new school is really great about it," she said. "I just send the headmaster a note whenever I'm going to miss days." The school is presumably enjoying its reputation - not just for its famed new alumna and its relaxed way with exeats - but also for having sufficient persuasion to steer a supermodel into the groves of academe.

"At first, I definitely didn't want to go [to university], I just wanted to get out and travel," she said last year (and indeed, she is deferring her place at Cambridge until 2007). "Then my history teacher sent me a letter with all the reasons why I should go to university, so I started looking into courses. I realised that there are actually loads of different things I'm interested in ..."

Her ambition is "to live spontaneously - I don't want to be just a model". If she doesn't go back to the million-quid contracts, it will be interesting to see where this lanky teenager with the flawless ivory complexion and the challenging gaze goes when she graduates from university, clutching her degree in social and political science. With her meteoric rise, her level-headed choices, the range of her interests and her go-getting style, it would be a foolish political psephologist indeed who would bet against the likelihood of her joining the Cabinet in about a dozen years' time.

In a class of their own

* BROOKE SHIELDS

Brought up in a well-connected New York family, Shields started modelling and acting as an infant, and was the youngest-ever model - at 14 - to appear on the cover of American Vogue. Despite such early success, Shields enrolled at Princeton University at 18, graduating four years later with a degree in French literature.

* CHRISTY TURLINGTON

In the 1990s, Turlington was one of the most famous models in the world. A yoga enthusiast, she decided to take a bachelor of arts degree through New York University's Gallatin School of Individualised Study, where she concentrated on comparative religion and eastern philosophy. She graduated cum laude.

* CARLA BRUNI

Heiress to an Italian car-tyre fortune, Bruni was studying art and architecture at the University of Paris when a friend suggested she should try modelling. In 1987, City Models in Paris snapped her up, and a year later she was among the world's best-paid models. A friend of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, she has now become a singer.

* MAGGIE RIZER

It was Rizer's mother, Maureen Breen, who was keen for her to be a model. Rizer wasn't interested - she wanted to go to university. But, in 1997, having studied at Rochester Institute of Technology and Genesco University, New York, she modelled three shoots for Steven Meisel, including the cover of Italian Vogue, and shot to fame.

* LAURA BAILEY

The daughter of a professor of law, and one of the few models actually to write the articles that appear under her byline picture, Laura Bailey excelled at university. She read English at Southampton, where her third-year dissertation focused on "Images of Women in Victorian Art and Poetry". She graduated with a first-class degree.

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