In February this year a stylish crowd packed into a small gallery in New York’s West Village to see an exhibition of photographs of Peru. The images were striking: an elderly woman in traditional dress stood against a starkly arid landscape; children in a rural village stared shyly at the camera. The crowd admiring the photos included familiar actors and models, but one of the most familiar was the photographer herself: Helena Christensen.
One of the famed “supermodel” set from the 90s, the half-Danish, half-Peruvian model has carved out a new career for herself as a professional photographer and a Global Ambassador for Oxfam.
It seems a long way from her fashion roots – Helena Christensen was 18 when she won Miss Denmark and moved to Paris to model. A spread in French Elle in 1989 and a UK Vogue cover in 1990 kicked off a stellar career. With fellow “supers” like Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista, Christensen strode the catwalk for the likes of Versace and Gucci; she was one of the original Victoria’s Secret angels; appeared in countless magazines and in lavish campaigns for brands like Chanel, Prada and Valentino.
Off the catwalk she romped with singer Chris Isaak in his 1991 ‘Wicked Game’ music video; made headlines over her relationship with INXS singer Michael Hutchence; and earned the devotion of designer Gianni Versace, who described her as having “the most beautiful body in the world”.
Reflecting on those days, Helena Christensen says she finds it incredible to have been part of fashion history, regarding her career as “one big highlight”.
The end of the 90s marked a change: in 1999 she gave birth to her son Mingus and that same year she co-founded Nylon magazine as its creative director, which provided a platform for her emerging photography career.
As Christensen has acknowledged, she learnt from some of the best. “I felt like I was in the best photography school in the world – I had Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn teach me.”
While some saw it as her retirement from modelling, 45-year-old Christensen has stayed incredibly active over the last 15 years, fronting campaigns for a variety of brands from Reebok to Specsavers, appearing on the cover of Elle in 2013 and designing her own line of vintage-inspired lingerie with UK brand Triumph.
She’s also the face of Danish fine jewellery brand Ole Lyndggaarden Copenhagen. CEO Soren Lyndggaarden told MiNDFOOD the model was a natural choice for their collections.
“She appeals to women of all ages with her unique look, individual style and longevity, forging a successful career as a model and photographer,” he says. “Helena Christensen matches our ideas and design philosophy. She is a mature woman with power and style.”
It’s that combination of power and style that make her such a force outside fashion too. Her charity work has included Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, AIDS LIFE, and Food Bank for New York City, but her biggest role is with Oxfam, which made her one of its Global Ambassadors in 2010.
Her work began in 2009 when she travelled to Peru, her mother’s homeland, to photograph the effects of climate change on local farming communities. The images were later exhibited at the United Nations in New York. Christensen also travelled to Nepal and Kenya and is part of Oxfam’s GROW campaign.
“For me, food and family go together,” she says. “One in seven people are going hungry today and the effects of climate change are making it even harder to feed the world. GROW is calling on governments to create a new future in which everyone’s family can sit around the table to eat and talk.”
The works from this year’s exhibition in New York were later auctioned online, with proceeds donated to Oxfam.
Her other photography work includes magazine shoots and her portfolio features actresses Kate Bosworth and Liv Tyler and model Sophie Dahl; the fashion images displaying a distinctively ethereal, almost vintage edge.
Her love of vintage style is well known. “If I have an hour in a city, I go to vintage stores first because it’s so much cooler to find a piece that is unique. I love the thought of some girl having worn it before and living her life in it,” she told The Telegraph in 2011.
For someone whose career was built on looks, Helena Christensen has a refreshing perspective on getting older. In 2007, as she approached 40, she told the Herald Scotland: “We all change and it’s a bloody shame, but this age, the way I feel now mentally and physically, is perfect for me,” she said. “…I’ve been boxing for two years, so physically I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been.
“Of course I would love not to get any older. I’m not thinking about losing my youthful appearance or anything, I just don’t want to die. I just want to live and live and live.”