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Karen Elson

By Sara Templeton

Karen Elson

Karen Elson (top) features in an energetic Dior print ad

Kids can be terribly cruel. I know; I was oft picked on during my tenure as a school student. "Saggy Sara" they called me. 

Little snot gobblers.

Someone who I'm sure can relate to this is top model Karen Elson, but that's about all we've got in common - oh, and a shared appreciation of the rock band The White Stripes.

"At school I got harassed so badly for being too tall, too thin, too pale - too everything that has gotten me where I am now, which is quite ironic," says Elson, who has the last laugh now.

Though I wasn't quite as fortunate as Karen to be blessed with the aerodynamic body of a top model, it's amazing how many of today's premier cat walkers suffered as children.

And people wonder why half of them are nuts and resort to self destructive behaviour...

Karen Elson was born in Britain, in the county of Bolton on January 14th, 1979. As she mentioned, she was a very skinny young lass at school, and together with her red hair was the target of much mockery. But as time went on and she reached puberty, she started to take on more womanly proportions, and by the age of 16 a modeling scout expressed interest in the Boltonian.

The chance to be revered by millions tickled Karen's sense of adventure, and she decided to move from Bolton to the big smoke, Londinium as it was called by the Romans in millennia past.

The naturally radiant young model found the going tough in London, with contracts few and far between, yet the fires of ambition were well and truly stoked and she refused to wilt, and so moved once again, this time to the French capital, Paris - oui, oui!

Her French experience wasn't the career-starter she had hoped for, nor even a stepping stone as it turned out. Depressed and lonely, she lived in a cruddy little flat near the red light district with only an army of cockroaches to keep her company.

Understandably, the yet-to-blossom teenaged model moved yet again, this time to a place as far removed from Europe as one can get, where everything from the food to the culture to the language was entirely foreign. But it worked!

Karen had heard that tall models with red hair were in demand in Nihon, otherwise known as Japan, and boarded an aeroplane for Tokyo. After getting her bearings in the Land of the Rising Sun the contracts started to flow.

Her Asian experience gave the 17-year-old British model a newfound positivity - anyone who has been unemployed for extended periods knows it can be a difficult psychological pit to crawl out of - and her next stop was Milan, followed by Zoo York.

Arriving in New York prior to her 18th birthday, Karen - who is also an aspiring vocalist - didn't explode onto the fashion scene in the bustling Big Apple right off the bat. She was finding work as a model, though perhaps not in the capacity she was hoping for.

But that all changed when a meeting with well-respected photographer Steven Meisel took place, which resulted in a reputation-swelling feature in Italian Vogue magazine. With more people saying 'You!' than 'Who?', Karen Elson decided to change her look, shaving her eyebrows and trimming her fiery hair short, which helped her secure the front cover of Italian Vogue. And as I love saying, the rest is history!

Living in New York, Karen worked with many prominent fashion houses, such as Valentino, Gucci, Chanel and Versace, and she also branched out into music as well, providing vocals for Robert Plant's song "Last Time I Saw Her". She's a big fan of rock music, so previous relationships with the likes of James Iha (from the Smashing Pumpkins band) before she got serious with Jack White of The White Stripes makes a lot of sense. Karen Elson is a very busy girl these days: in addition to her modeling work, she took on the role of creative director (and sometimes performer) with The Citizens Band, a cabaret troupe with a strong political message.

To cut a long story relatively short, Karen consummated her relationship with Jack White on June the 1st, 2005, when they were wed. The amazing wedding was hosted on a canoe cruising down the piranha-infested Amazon River in Brazil, and the betrothal was solemnised by a shaman priest and later blessed by a Catholic priest.

Talking about her life as a model, Karen is brutally honest. "Being a model ain't a hard life," she says. "Models get dissed. People are so critical of you. If I'm out at night and someone asks me what I do, sometimes I just don't answer."

It's clear that Karen Elson has encountered a lot of hostility in her rise to the top of the modeling world, which is indicative of the catty fashion industry where vanity rules: "If I say anything, I'm in such a public place that people will always want to bring me down. More than anything else, I want to prove to myself that I can do something well. I don't really give a damn what anyone else thinks."

It was quite a journey for the young model, and from being teased as a school student for not adhering to physical norms one has little control over, to becoming one of Britain's most promising and unique models, Karen Elson is a beacon of light for young women everywhere. Some people still call her a little strange, and maybe she is is some ways. 

But perhaps it's time to celebrate 'strange'...

Karen Elson

Photo: Unknown


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