"It was a lot of hard work," supermodel Karolina Kurkova recounts. "It wasn’t like, 'Oh yeah, I’m just going to jet around,' it wasn’t teenage fun. I had to be adult, I had to be professional."
There’s no doubt that Kurkova has worked hard, but her ascent to modelling stardom does read a little like a fashion-world fairy-tale. It goes like this: born and raised in Děčín, in what was then Czechoslovakia, Kurkova grew into a tall, willowy teen with a toothy grin and a love of sports. Despite feeling insecure about her looks – her height, she explains, made her feel out of place – she was one day persuaded to strike a few poses for a friend who wanted to practice her photography. That friend (as friends in these stories are wont to do) then secretly sent those shots to a modelling agency in Prague. That led to a contract, which led to Kurkova being sent to Milan Fashion Week, which led to her walking the runway for Prada at the tender age of 15.
More jobs followed that catwalk debut, so the still-teenage Kurkova uprooted her life and moved to New York. She was soon being photographed for American Vogue and, when she was just 17, appeared on the cover of the fashion bible, making her one of the youngest models ever to do so. “Karolina Kurkova is the next supermodel,” editor Anna Wintour declared at the time.
Now, more than 16 years after her first tentative steps down Prada’s runway, Wintour’s prediction has come true, and Kurkova is one of the most recognisable faces in fashion. She has starred in campaigns for brands ranging from luxury label Louis Vuitton to high-street giant H&M, appeared on more than 40 covers of Vogue, and walked for Chanel, Valentino, Dior, Givenchy and Versace, among many others. She also had a long career as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, sometimes seeming to be the lone European among a bevy of buxom Brazilians.
Off the runway, Kurkova has tried her hand at acting (in My Sexiest Year and G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), and was a mentor on reality-TV show The Face. After a public struggle with hypothyroidism, she has also become an advocate for wellness and healthy eating, which she promotes through her Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts.
When she’s not in front of a camera, Kurkova is a quiet philanthropist. One of the charities she supports is the Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR), which is known for hosting glamorous, star-studded fundraising events around the world. This month, Kurkova is hosting one of these galas in Hong Kong that, rumour has it, will also be attended by Adrien Brody and Michelle Rodriguez. But before Kurkova comes to town for the amfAR gala, she speaks to us from her home in Miami, where she lives with her husband and two sons.
Did you always want to be a model?
Getting into the fashion industry wasn’t something that was my dream. Well, it was in a way – I think every girl who’s a teenager, you look at fashion, you look at models, and you think the fashion industry is something beautiful and glamorous, so I think every girl would like to be involved in it. But I just never thought that I could do it, I was never the girl who was the most beautiful. I was very different, I was the tallest, I stood out – and never for the right reasons, at that age. Maybe now I stand out for my legs and my features in a good way, but back when I was growing up it wasn’t. Everyone was like, “You’re so weird and awkward and different and strange.”
When you arrived in New York, can you remember what your first modelling job was?
One of my first things was I shot for Marie Clare with Patrick Demarchelier. And then really early on was American Vogue with Steven Meisel, and an Arthur Elgort shoot with Grace Coddington. I did some shoots with Steven Klein. A lot of it was Vogue at the beginning, a lot of Vogue stories, different beauty stories, and then the most important story was the September issue ready-to-wear story, then out of that came the cover in February 2001.
You’ve worked with some legendary photographers. Is there anyone you particularly enjoy working with?
It’s really hard to say just one because I’m not a one-dimensional girl, so I wouldn’t feel like it would be satisfactory to my personality or my repertoire of things that I can do. But I’ve worked with a lot of the great ones – I’ve worked with [Irving] Penn, I’ve worked with [Richard] Avedon, and of course Patrick Demarchelier, Meisel, Klein, Peter Lindbergh, Annie Leibovtiz and all of the newer, upcoming ones as well.
I feel like a lot of old-school photographers really had to know a lot. They had a good eye for styling, they had a good eye for hair and make-up, they were very good technically and with lighting, so I feel like some of them were more complete. A lot of the new photographers are good, but not everybody has that eye and 360-degree understanding.
On top of appearing in campaigns and in magazines, you were also a Victoria’s Secret Angel for several years. What was your experience of the Victoria’s Secret world?
In the beginning it was something very strange for me, given the way I grew up, and feeling different and having long legs and being really tall, I just never really felt like I was a bombshell, or sexpot or sexy girl. So it was definitely something I had to learn and kind of find in myself and embody, find that feminine and sensual feeling that I never really had experienced. It just was not me – I was more of a sporty, nerdy girl – so it was definitely challenging at first. It’s not like I grew up on the beach like Brazilians do!
You’ve been very open about having hypothyroidism, which caused your weight to fluctuate in the past. What do you think of the pressure on models to stay so thin?
When I had hypothyroidism, it was a very specific time of my life when I was just working so much, I was travelling back and forth between the east coast and west coast, I was doing my fashion stuff and kind of getting into movies, and it was a lot of stress. My body just said, “OK, enough, it’s time to slow down; it’s time to stop being a workaholic and focus a little bit on yourself and your life.”
And that’s what I had to do, and I really much more submerged myself into the whole health and wellness world and really started to learn about the body – how does it work; how do things affect us; how does food affect us?
So I really learned a lot about people’s experiences because I’d never had a weight issue – I was always more of a skinny girl, very thin and athletic – and then I was dealing with it in public, where people are looking at you. Maybe they thought I was just sitting in front of the TV and eating tubs of ice cream and not doing anything, which wasn’t the case for me – it was really a medical thing that had to be taken care of.
It was tough, and it almost knocked me down, and I’m quite a tough person. It was a huge lesson for me about the world we live in and about business and the world that I have in front of the camera. Then I overcame that and came back stronger than ever, and everything’s been fine ever since, and then I got pregnant, which was really a huge success and a sign that the body was OK and working, and I had my first son.
You’re coming to Hong Kong in March for amfAR. When did you first get involved with the organisation?
The first time I was part of amfAR was when I was 16 years old, so many years ago, when amfAR was doing a big event with Harvey [Weinstein] during the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. It was also the first time Victoria’s Secret had hosted an event outside of the US. I’d never been to anything like an amfAR event before – being 16 years old, coming from the Czech Republic. When you see the auction lots and how much they’re selling for, and how much money is being raised, it was really incredible to experience.
Ever since then I’ve been involved and helped as much as I can. So I’ll be in Hong Kong in March and I’ll be one of the hosts of amfAR, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m super excited to be back in Hong Kong!
You live part of the year in Miami and have been photographed at Art Basel in Miami. Do you collect art?
I love art. I appreciate art. Being in the world that I’m in I’m very visual and love beautiful things, but I think collecting art is something that I might do a little bit later on when I’m a bit older, when I don’t have two kids who have to go to school. At the moment there are other things I need to focus on. That doesn’t mean I don’t buy certain things, but there are so many more things that I would love to own. You have to have time for it, and you have to have all the space for it. And having two boys – maybe when they’re a bit older, but I know things are going to get broken because everything [to them] is a toy, they think everything is exciting and cool and something to play with. When the kids are a little bit older, maybe I’ll get into it much more.
Do you have any particular artists you have your eye on?
I do like Christopher Wool a lot, and I love a lot of photography. But really with art, I have to somehow be connected with it, I have to look at it and love it, I have to be moved, I have to be touched – it doesn’t necessarily have to be about the artist. It’s like in fashion, I might like one collection this season from a designer, but I might not always love one designer, it’s about the season and what they’ve created. For me, when I’m buying art it’s not necessarily just about investment, it’s really about what I want to be surrounded with and what I find beautiful or interesting or what inspires me.
You were a judge on TV show The Face, alongside Naomi Campbell and Coco Rocha. Are you looking to get back into TV?
Yes, absolutely. I did have a great experience doing TV. TV is definitely a lot of work, but I really enjoyed being a mentor and helping these young girls to fulfil their dreams, or just teach them things that they will be able to use in life even if they decided not to be a model at the end of the show. I am looking for different projects and things to be involved with, so I don’t think that was the last TV thing that I’ll do.
You’re also very active on social media, while many celebrities are still shying away from it. Why do you use it?
I first got it because everyone had it, but I think I’ve found my way and found what I want to use social media for. I definitely think it’s important to have a life and not constantly be on your phone, which I think we can all do sometimes because it’s exciting, it’s fun, we want to see how many likes it’s going to have, how many comments it’s going to have. But put the phone down and be in the moment – not everything has to be on social media, not everything has to be shared with the world.
When I started it’s not what made you famous, it’s not how I got recognised. Back then it was about your work, about your professionalism, your talent and what you have to offer. Now we have social media, and people are coming out of nowhere and becoming stars overnight. How long can that last? And is it really fair for the people who’ve dedicated their time and energy to building their career, when people are coming from left and right and going, “I’m a stylist now,” and have had no training? What does it mean for someone who has assisted for three years maybe Grace Coddington or Carine Roitfeld, these amazing stylists? These people may not have been paid, they’ve had to travel, and then the person who is just a star overnight and hasn’t put much time and effort into it is taking a job from that person. Is it really fair? That’s my question.
I think it’ll be interesting to see where it goes next. Even being a parent for my children, I hope that’s not going to be what it’s all about, how many likes you have and how many followers. But at the same time it does unite the world, it connects us all together, and we can all learn from each other, so it has some pluses and minuses. For me, I really try to educate, care and inspire with my social media. I try to be a good role model, and put things out there that represent who I am and what I stand for.
PHOTOGRAPHY MIKE RUIZ
STYLING CANNON AT JUDY CASEY
HAIR AND MAKE-UP STEFANIE WILLMANN AT ART DEPARTMENT USING MARC JACOBS
MARKET EDITOR ERIN MCSHERRY
STYLIST ASSISTANT ALEXANDRA LYNN AT THE CANNON MEDIA GROUP