Helena Christensen: Role model

Helena Christensen was never the party girl of the supermodel set. In fact, she says, she got into the whole thing by accident. So what now? Photography, acting, the antiques business, charity work - oh, and a little modelling on the side

James Mottram
Saturday 10 June 2006 00:00 BST

Unwinding a green scarf from her neck, Christensen's perfectly minted cheekbones are flush from the brisk wind blowing outside in the snowy heights of Park City in Utah. Not unsurprisingly, the 37-year-old is still captivating to look at. She does not possess the harsher attributes of her peers: the sour pout of Kate Moss, the intimidating sneer of Naomi Campbell, or the pneumatic charms of Eva Herzigova. Blowing into the room like a free-spirit, with not a hanger-on in sight, she has a Bohemian air - in fact, for five years in her twenties she wore nothing but vintage gowns and drove a Morris Minor.

Yet the beauty of Christensen has never been about the face that won her Miss Denmark, or the body that John Galliano claimed filled clothes "with life and fire". Her radiance is more the inner kind: a down-to-earth, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to modelling and an articulate world-view. While she may have dated the late INXS bad-boy singer Michael Hutchence, her impeccable reputation is such that she could single-handedly give supermodels a good name. Whether it's doing conservation work in Peru, humanitarian deeds in Africa for Médecins Sans Frontières or raising awareness for the breast cancer charity Target, Christensen does not spend her spare time snorting coke or assaulting personal assistants. "I was never a full-on party girl," she shrugs. "I like staying in."

While she hasn't been on the supermodel merry-go-round since the birth of her son Mingus six years ago, Christensen is still in demand. "When I was pregnant, it seemed natural to wind down the modelling," she says. "I thought, 'Maybe I wouldn't even model any more' but it wasn't a decision that I made consciously. But then, I don't know... a lot of stuff came my way." She was recently announced as the new face - or rather body - for the British lingerie firm Ultimo. Succeeding Rachel Hunter, she was said to have beaten the stars of Desperate Housewives Eva Longoria and Nicollette Sheridan to the prestigious contract. This aside, Christensen is currently undergoing a process of reinvention - with acting, photography and the retail trade dominating her life. Last April, she opened an antiques shop in Lower Manhattan called Butik with her business partner and friend Ley Sigerson. "A real little haven for obscure objects," as Christensen calls it, it sells everything from shoes and flowers, to music and clothes - everything for the hippie-chick in your life.

Today, she is in town to talk about the Danish director Christoffer Boe's art-house film Allegro, a Tarkovsky-inspired existential drama in which she plays Andrea, the object of affection for a troubled pianist. While Christensen was made infamous when she writhed in the sand in the video for Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" in 1990, she has never dared take on a feature-length speaking part until now. "I never anticipated that I would even get the role," she says. "When I actually was told I'd got it, I felt like, 'Oh! Now I have to go and deliver.' But I just figured 'What the hell?' I'm very proud on a personal level to do something that, to me, was really scary."

Given how many supermodel casualties litter the annals of cinema history - most famously Cindy Crawford's wooden turn in Fair Game - her initial fears were not unfounded. As I put this to her, she cuts me off mid-sentence: "But then there were all the other models who crossed over and did incredibly well - Andie MacDowell, Cameron Diaz, Charlize Theron ... they all modelled before they became actresses. It's almost like people do not want you to try out other things." While Variety dismissed her role as "mostly decorative", Christensen is determined to defy the critics. "I would be upset with myself if I let other people who have nothing to do with me dictate my life because of their opinions. To be honest, it's such a silly cliché that, just because you did this, some people still believe you can't be good at something else. And maybe you're not - but the thing is, you'll never know unless you try."

In many ways, Christensen would rather be behind the camera than in front of it. The day after we meet, she is off to Paris to attend the closing-night party for an exhibition of her work at the Galerie Colette. "It's really surreal to see your own shots hanging on a wall," she says. In the past, she has seen her pictures of Orlando Bloom, Bono, Robbie Williams, Michael Stipe and others displayed at London's Proud Gallery, and she speaks reverently of photographers such as Bruce Weber and Irving Penn: this is no hobby for her. "For me, the important thing about photography is that I see the world differently," she notes. "Once you see it through a lens, everything becomes different. You focus on the small things in life that, on an everyday basis, might disappear in the bigger picture."

She began taking photos when she was 17, before she became a model, and admits that she began striding down the catwalk in the hope that it might lead her into more photographic work. "They [her subjects] say that I'm easy to work with as a photographer, but maybe that's because I'm quite impatient... I don't really want to waste time. I like to catch the moment. At the same time, sometimes it can be a little frustrating, because you know what you want - and how I would have given that to another photographer. So if you work with a new and inexperienced model, you really have to direct her. But that's also the challenge of it."

The daughter of a Danish typographer father and a Peruvian mother, Christensen was born on Christmas Day 1968, in Copenhagen. She studied maths, physics and sociology before being crowned Miss Denmark in 1986, an achievement she claims was "an accident" because she "didn't know what the audition was for". She went hitch-hiking around the world for six months after winning her crown. Only then did she decide to try her hand at full-time modelling. She headed to Paris and decided to give it a week. "I just thought, 'If it works, I'll do it,' but it's not a business you want to struggle for. You could become really low, because it's you. You're the product." Fortunately for her, her future in modelling was assured after running into Karl Lagerfeld. Very soon, a cover shoot by Peter Lindbergh for Vogue meant that she was suddenly one of the hottest properties in modelling.

Made famous by her work for the underwear giant Victoria's Secret, Christensen says she never viewed herself alongside Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford. "I know I was highly situated on the modelling ladder, but I never saw myself being completely over-exploited," she says, as if appearing on myriad magazine covers is to be taken advantage of. When I refer to the recent British obsession with the antics of both Moss and Campbell, Christensen replies, "I'm not as exposed as they are. In Denmark" - where she herself is a regular staple of the gossip pages - "I take the knocks because there are not that many people there."

I'm left with the impression that Christensen sees modelling as a tough, ego-bruising job - one she's almost too nice for. She now divides her time between homes in New York and Copenhagen. It's no surprise to learn that her apartments are reputedly as modest as she is. As she told one interviewer, "If you walked into the places where I live, you'd think: 'Couldn't she afford something a little better?'" She can't quite leave behind the transient lifestyle that modelling requires. "I'm still a bit of a gypsy," she says. "I thought that when I was doing less modelling, and going into different areas, that I would find myself settled somewhere - but that hasn't happened. And I'm happy with that. What I really enjoy in life is that I'm always travelling and gathering new experiences. Even if you interview me when I'm 70, I think I will still be on the move."

Remarkably, she manages this lifestyle with young Mingus in tow. "It's a huge accomplishment - for someone who moves so much!" she laughs. "At one point, I was like, 'How the hell am I going to give birth?' But there are hospitals everywhere. It has to come out some way or another - and it will!" Christensen is no longer with Mingus' father, Norman Reedus, a model-turned-actor who has appeared in small roles in such films as 8mm, Blade II and the forthcoming The Notorious Bettie Page. Given his name, it doesn't take a huge amount of guesswork to deduce that Mingus's parents are jazz fans. "His father especially is into Charlie Mingus," says Christensen. "I was more into Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday - but we thought 'Mingus' sounded cooler than 'Monk' for a first name."

Christensen is not one to flaunt her relationships in the press though she has been linked with a variety of actors and musicians, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan, and recently started stepping out with Grand Avenue's singer Rasmus Walter Hansen. While she maintains a coterie of famous friends, including Bono and Michael Stipe, she claims she can lead a relatively anonymous life when she's in New York. "People that I'm with - my friends - will say that if they're walking just behind me, others will turn round and stare, but I never notice that. The people that come up are really sweet - they say, 'We love you in 'Wicked Game'. And I'm like, 'That was 15 years ago. Have you seen anything since with me?'"

Given her penchant for photography, I wonder if she has any plans to direct a film, now that she has acted. "I don't know," she says, shaking her head slowly. "I never say 'no' but that takes a lot of over-viewing. Basically, you're the boss of a huge company when you're the director. But I can understand why actors who have worked for many, many years go on to direct. It's a completely natural progression - you feel something inside yourself that you would have done differently. From just doing one movie, I already could feel, 'This I might have shot differently'. If I feel like that after one movie, what the hell do they all feel after doing all those movies?"

For the moment, between handpicking her antiques for Butik, looking after Mingus, and working on further photography projects, she is busy enough. In September, she will participate in a photographic exhibition to raise money for the Dalai Lama's foundation Hope. Then there are the scripts she is now being sent, post-Allegro, that she must sift through. She says she's not anti-Hollywood. "I mean, I'm into the art movies, I'm into the blockbusters ... I'm not going to restrict myself in that way." Yet Christensen is a grown-up now, with no need to prove herself in any field unless she wants to do it for herself. As she slides off the chair, she leaves me with her mission statement ringing in my ears.

"Whatever comes my way, if I feel like I haven't done it, I'll do it." Wrapping herself up in her scarf, she gives me a wink and heads out into the cold.

'Allegro' is released later this year

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