Born on Christmas Day 1968, Helena Christensen had an early start in modelling, landing her first job at the age of 9. The camera’s fascination with her classic Danish features started there and then, but few would guess that Helena would make a name for herself as the model who gave it all up for a life behind the lens.
Helena Christensen’s route into fashion wasn’t particularly straightforward. In 1986, she took part in, and won, the Miss Denmark beauty contest. Helena’s win wasn’t enough to secure her attention from the people who could ignite her career. She made the critical decision to leave Copenhagen and head for Paris.
In the mid-Eighties, Paris was the undisputed champion of the fashion world. Milan was in the process of falling in love with a young designer called Gianni Versace, and London was experiencing a lull in the post-punk era, where power-dressing didn’t really sit that well with its reputation for ground-breaking, button-pressing fashion. If you were serious about having a career in fashion, on any level, it was quite simple: you moved to Paris.
The city stood on its heritage (the Chanel two-piece suit was being revived at this time by affluent Americans keen for a piece of European chic), and the thrill of the new, supplied by Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent. Paris was unrivalled for its energy, creativity and excitement.
Helena arrived in Paris, but it took another three years before she would be discovered. Photographer Friedemann Hauss has that claim, calling her a ‘natural’ in terms of modelling ability. A year later, she appeared on the cover of British Vogue.
1991 was especially noteworthy for Helena’s career. Never someone who believed in being conventional, Helena began her career by taking part in a beauty pageant, and in 1991, her next big move was to co-star in a music video.
Music videos had been around since the late Seventies, but it was in the Eighties that the true power of the video to crystallise an artist’s image was fully realised (think of Michael Jackson’s video for ‘Thriller’). Budgets during the late Eighties and early Nineties increased significantly, with record companies hiring stylists to dress their artists and make everything that little more polished. But Chris Isaak’s record company had more in mind for their artist’s video than some hair gel and a wind machine.
The video was directed by legendary photographer Herb Ritts. Shot entirely in black and white, ‘Wicked Game’ was a smouldering epic and was a hit around the world. Sensual and dreamily hypnotic, Isaak and Christensen took the music video to a whole new level. The end result was beautiful, sophisticated and shot with the care and attention to detail of a high-fashion editorial. As with Kate Moss’ iconic shoot for Calvin Klein, the ‘Wicked Game’ video propelled Helena to international stardom. She made the transition, virtually overnight, from fashion girl to pop culture icon.
Her new-found fame won Helena entry into the upper echelons of the Paris fashion world. Following the video, Helena was booked by Karl Lagerfeld and photographer Peter Lindbergh. Her name now established, Helena’s modelling career really took off. Working for everyone from Bill Blass to Versace, Helena Christensen’s runway career leaned towards the European and classic-American labels. Using her timeless features and languid sensuality, Helena became one of the most recognisable faces in the business.
Returning to film, Helena also made a cameo appearance in Robert Altman’s 1994 film ‘Pret a Porter’. A satire on the eccentricities of the fashion industry, Helena became the face (and body) of the film, appearing on film posters, draped in nothing else but a feather boa.
Helena’s effortless ability to smoulder in front of the camera was put to the ultimate test in 1996 when she was asked to be one of the first Victoria’s Secret ‘signature angels’, along with Tyra Banks, Rebecca Romijn, Stephanie Seymour and Karen Mulder. Featuring in the world-famous lingerie catalogue and television commercials broadcast across the US, Helena Christensen’s career trajectory could not have aimed any higher. Earning her fashion stripes on the runway, and bolstering that income with high-profile campaigns, Helena’s career made her, along with Kate Moss, one of the faces of the Nineties. This success made Helena’s next move all the more baffling. In 1999, she co-founded Nylon magazine with Michael Neumann and announced that she would be officially retiring from the catwalk.
Only the year before, Helena had walked in runway shows for Dior, Chloe, Helmut Lang and Dries Van Noten. This was not a model losing her touch; Helena was at the very peak of her career.
The fashion world was left stunned by the decision, but to Helena, it made perfect sense. Her motivation in pursuing a modelling career was never about money or fame. Helena was focused not on achievement for its own sake, but what felt important and valuable. Many may have thought differently, but as far as Helena was concerned, there never was a ‘Christensen brand’.
Her decision to call time on a career that many would have stuck with while the going was so good, took tremendous courage. Making the choice to move on and try something new, signposted that Helena was not afraid to go down the path less travelled. As the fashion world moved into a phase of using younger models who possessed an ethereal, Pre-Raphaelite quality (such as Lily Donaldson, Gemma Ward and Lily Cole), Helena’s decision to bow out suddenly seemed quite smart.
In the next few years, Helena Christensen delved into her budding interest in photography, which ended up taking her back to where she started. Continuing to work on Nylon, Helena also learnt the trade of taking a good photograph. Developing a keen eye for composition, Helena immersed herself in the world behind the lens.
In 2007, Helena announced that she would exhibit a collection of her photographs, ‘A Quiet Life’ in Amsterdam. Helena’s series of quiet but searching portraits and landscapes struck a chord with the art community. This wasn’t a model at play – this was someone deadly serious about creating images that matter.
The fashion world hadn’t forgotten about her either. That same year she was asked to make a brief return to the catwalk for the 60th anniversary Dior Couture show. In March 2008, her two loves of fashion and photography collided when she was asked to shoot an editorial with model Valentina Zelyaeva for Spanish Vogue. Since then, her photographs have also appeared in Marie Claire and Elle.
Helena’s work follows the theatre principle that actors make the best directors. Her insight into how a photograph is composed, and knowledge of what it takes to get that image, has placed her uniquely within the world of fashion photography. Her astutely observed images settle the argument, once and for all, that a model (especially if she is successful) cannot purse an intellectual cause.
By walking away from her career at its height, Helena Christensen earned the respect of the fashion establishment. Although it is governed by pounds and pence, the fashion industry loves nothing more than a good romance, and there is nothing more beguiling than the idea of a top-of-her-game model that leaves it all for a life behind the camera.
Though officially retired from the catwalk, Christensen has returned to modelling on and off, including editorials for Harper’s Bazaar, French and Italian Vogue.
Fashion has remained in love with Helena Christensen not because she left for the right reasons, but because she wasn’t tempted to stay for the wrong ones. By following the path that most interests her; Helena Christensen has forged a unique place in modelling history. Now in her forties, she still features on the covers of publications such as Instyle, Elle and GQ, indicating how little her appeal has abated over the years.
Helena’s greatest achievements have come about when no-one else was looking. No-one expected the Danish model with the smouldering gaze to become such a success beyond the immediate perimeters of modelling. Nylon continues to flourish with Helena as its editor, and with another photography exhibition scheduled for 2010 at Tokyo’s NEXUS Gallery, Helena shows no signs of slowing down. Never ruled by the bottom line, the unexpected quality to her career is the thing that motivates her: that roaming sensibility is what keeps Helena moving on, and moving forward.