Karen Elson: A singer after a fashion

Karen Elson is the latest model to try her hand at making a pop album. Fiona Sturges looks at the successes and, more commonly, the failures of models-turned-would-be rock stars

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:02

She is famous for modelling designers from Gaultier to Chanel, for gracing the cover of Vogue, for being an outspoken critic of the fashion business, and for being married to everyone's musical hero, Jack White. Now the fashion model Karen Elson is hoping to expand her credentials and make it as a pop star.

Before we start rolling our eyes and muttering about "ideas" and "station", it's worth noting that the Oldham-born Elson has form. In 2003, she contributed backing vocals to a remix of Robert Plant's "Last Time I Saw Her" and the following year founded the cabaret act the Citizens Band. In 2006, she duetted with Cat Power on a version of "I Love You (Me Either)" in a recorded tribute to Serge Gainsbourg. More startling is that her first single, "The Ghost Who Walks", from her forthcoming album, isn't at all bad, like a folkier version of PJ Harvey.

But making the move from model to musician is risky; several have been there before, and have the scars to prove it. Naomi Campbell tried her luck in the mid-Nineties with her debut album, Babywoman. It failed to dent the charts in the UK; Q magazine later wrote it off as an example of "gobsmacking hubris". And how about the supermodel du jour, Agyness Deyn, who generously provided vocals for Five O'Clock Heroes on "Who", a song that reached the estimable position of 102 in the charts? Or the American lingerie model and gossip-mag darling Caprice, who scored a five-album deal with Virgin in the late Nineties and who, after two dismal singles, never troubled the pop world again. Further down the modelling food chain, there's Samantha Fox, the Eighties glamour model-turned-disco dolly. Salt-of-the-earth Sam made the best of her sizeable assets and several of her singles even scraped the top 10. But she is unlikely to be remembered as a serious recording artist, immortalised as she is as the busty pin-up, and the presenter who, along with Mick Fleetwood, botched the Brit Awards.

Then again, models and pop stars have a history of hanging out together, often in the horizontal sense, so it's no wonder that the two professions should overlap. Think Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg, Pete Doherty and Kate Moss, Adam Clayton and Naomi Campbell, Seal and Heidi Klum, David Bowie and Iman, Mick Jagger and Chrissie, Jerry, Carla and Luciana. It's not surprising that the pop star in the partnership might want to flatter/patronise their trophy girlfriend by suggesting she pick up a microphone.

Those who happened upon the YouTube recording of Kate Moss's Babyshambles duet with her then-boyfriend, Pete Doherty, on "La Belle et la Bête" will know how badly this can go wrong. Another Moss performance, this time with Primal Scream singing the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra classic "Some Velvet Morning", was an object lesson in how to obliterate your own mythology in three excruciating minutes. Rumour has it that Moss is to join her current beau, Jamie Hince, as a member of the Kills. Lordy.

It's questionable whether, in the Sixties, anyone should have handed Nico a microphone, given her limited capabilities, though that didn't stop her from becoming a revered singer and legendarily tragic icon. She was the first of the modern supermodels, her celebrated looks landing her a cameo in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. But she is best remembered for her role in Andy Warhol's fabled "superstar" circle and for her singing with the Velvet Underground, notably on "Femme Fatale", "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" – though her voice was certainly an acquired taste, a lugubrious drone that made you wonder if you were playing the record at the wrong speed.

Of course, record deals have been offered and signed over the years on the basis of a lot less than the ability to walk in a straight line wearing flashy clothes. If there's one place that can match the fashion business for shallowness and the veneration of youth and beauty, it's the record industry. When you think about it, the two professions aren't that dissimilar. Mainstream female pop artists must, like models, surrender their image and identity to stylists, designers and Svengali types. They are expected to parade on stage, act as clothes horses, spend hours in hair and make-up, and pose in endless photo shoots. Creativity isn't always required, but narcissism is a must.

You can see why a model is an attractive proposition to a record company desperately looking for something – anything! – that will separate their latest signing from the crowd. To a marketing team, being a catwalk queen is a great USP. Just as cynical record execs are happy to hand out contracts to tone-deaf Hollywood actors, grateful that the early promotional work has been done for them, the same rules clearly apply to models, who come with ready-made glamour, a sturdy work ethic and don't cost much to feed.

But Elson can take comfort in the knowledge that the transition from model to pop star doesn't always have to be disastrous. Grace Jones's grasp of what constitutes a memorable image has served her well in the world of pop, even if she is viewed as one of its more outré inhabitants. The Jamaican-born clergyman's daughter graced the catwalks of Paris and New York before signing a record deal with Island Records in 1977 and became a musical fixture in underground dance clubs. She continued to be a source of fascination for artists and photographers including Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe and in particular Andy Warhol, who employed her as arm candy for his excursions to Studio 54. Three decades into a career which has taken in both pop music and acting, Jones is still fixed in the public imagination as an Amazonian fashion icon, a woman whose head-turning outfits and barmy hats almost certainly begat the eccentric instincts of Lady Gaga.

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is another example of the music and fashion worlds colliding with relative dignity, though, of course, that achievement has now been eclipsed by her status as First Lady of France. The French-Italian supermodel-turned-folk singer had something else in mind when she began her career at 19, and not just a fling with Mick Jagger. Having conquered the houses of Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana and amassed a sizeable fortune over the course of 12 years, she returned to her first love, music, and revealed something of a talent. Her first album, Quelqu'un m'a dit, sold well over a million copies in France.

The notion that models should be seen and not heard is clearly an unfair one, and more than a little patronising. While their attempts to move into the music business are likely to be greeted with condescension, it's a different matter when pop stars decide to hit the catwalk or start their own clothing line.

So perhaps we should stop scoffing and wish Elson well in her new endeavour. She has got the backing of one of the coolest men in rock, after all. But beauty doesn't equal talent. Only time will tell whether she can pull it off.

'The Ghost Who Walks' is released on 24 May on Third Man Records

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