"It Was Always Kristen"

Photographers and designers clamor for Kristen McMenamy as much now as they
did 30 years ago. That's because the supermodel is still risking life and limb for the
elusive perfect picture

Published April 04, 2013
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“It takes time to be me!" declares Kristen McMenamy rather dramatically. She is having her picture taken by Nick Knight today. She has been working with the photographer for many years, but this is not a regular editorial shoot: Knight is taking her portrait.

McMenamy is one of the great models. She will do anything in the pursuit of a great picture—and has. Today, McMenamy is the story, and she is unsure about the clothes she will wear to be herself—the best version of herself, for a feature about herself, in which she has nobody to please but herself. Still, she wants a good picture for the photographer.

This is what distinguishes her from many other models, and it's why so many photographers want to work with her at age 48—even when models literally half her age are considered "old" in the industry. McMenamy breaks all of the rules; she defies all conventions in her pursuit to be the best at what she does. There are almost no lengths to which she will not go.

McMenamy generally likes to work with photographers she has known well over many years. She likes to work with the best. Besides Knight, she has long-standing working relationships with Juergen Teller, Steven Meisel, and Tim Walker, among others. And before Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton died, she had particularly fruitful working relationships with them. They have all aided McMenamy in her pursuit of the perfect picture. This is not a self-centered pursuit; a perfect picture is not one that will necessarily make her look beautiful, or pretty, or nice even. It is simply a great photograph. This is why she has been part of some of the greatest fashion images of all time. She is acknowledged as one of the greatest actresses in still images.

Of course, this pursuit could drive you slightly mad—and you don't even get an Oscar at the end. When I first met McMenamy in the flesh, on a shoot three years ago, she was slowly being strangled by a boa constrictor. At the time, she declared, "I'm fine! I like it." The stylist, Nicola Formichetti, was trying to get the attention of the animal handler by shouting, "Mr. Snake, Mr. Snake!" (Formichetti had, of course, forgotten the man's name.) "The snake is killing her, Mr. Snake!" This, incidentally, was another Nick Knight shoot.

"That was nothing," McMenamy recalls today, during her latest, gentler shoot with Knight. (The photographer is known for pushing his subjects hard, in the nicest possible and most polite of ways. Helmut Newton, on the other hand? "Well, he was a meanie," according to McMenamy.)

Photographers have put her through the wringer—or rather she has put herself through the wringer. For a Mert & Marcus shoot she was thrown into a deep tank of water after a bondage expert tied her arms and legs together. She has appeared somewhat battered and bruised for Juergen Teller. "He was more upset about those pictures than me!" she says. It was during a shoot with another photographer that she actually obtained those injuries, later finding out she had a broken collarbone. For McMenamy, the only question that remains: Is the picture good? If so, then fine.

In real life, away from the photographic reproduction and the catwalk version of herself, McMenamy is not that different. She brings a disarming honesty and truthfulness to everything she does and says. "I have really gotta be myself," she explains. "I can give someone a bit of what they want, but only a bit."

"I need constant feeding of my self-esteem. I am so insecure, which also makes me a great model. I know it is for that reason. I am constantly trying to prove something. If you give up, if you think, 'I'm great,' then you're dead."

She is tall, slim, and strikingly beautiful—and not so much the unconventional beauty that she has often been made out to be. Her spirit, her sense of freedom, her slight dorkiness, and her honesty are her most unconventional qualities. They are also the things that have stood her in good stead and make her instantly likeable. And despite her being in the second wave of true supermodels, with a fearsome reputation preceding her, McMenamy is somebody that you feel quite protective toward. While it might be a slightly bigger and more extreme version of herself that appears on paper or under the klieg lights, it is also one that appears vastly more confident. That is why, it seems, it takes time to be her.

"I need constant feeding of my self-esteem," she says matter-of-factly, in her disarmingly honest way. "I am so insecure, which also makes me a great model. I know it is for that reason. I am constantly trying to prove something. If you give up, if you think, 'I'm great,' then you're dead. You're dead! If you think, 'I'm great and I have nothing else to prove,' then you have nothing else to prove. You just go away."

"I will always try to be better," McMenamy says. "At 48, I think I can be better. I'll think I can be better than at 28. I will be better! And I will always feel like that. Modeling has been my life. I love acting as well, but this has been my life."

Kristen McMenamy's life as a model began 30 years ago, when she dropped out of college at age 18. Her parents still have not quite come to terms with her career choice, despite her legendary status within the field. "I was the bright one in my family," she says. "Out of seven kids, I was the A+ student. So they expected me to go on and be a 'businessperson' of some kind. To this day they don't like what I do. They still expect me to get a job as a secretary at L'Oréal or something!"

Fortunately for McMenamy, the fashion industry was a more forgiving place than her family home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It took time for her to become accepted—she would even spend time modeling for wedding photographers if it meant more practice in "perfecting her craft"—but after the fashion world did accept her, it never let her go. "The fashion industry has been consistent in my life since I was 18," she says. "I can say that fashion is my family. That might sound stupid to a lot of people, but it is a big part of who I am. It's my family."

If fashion is her family, then Donatella Versace is her big sister. And McMenamy will always openly and sincerely declare, "I love her." It was during the Versace Spring campaign of 1993, shot by Avedon, that McMenamy was truly elevated into fashion's pantheon and heralded as part of the next wave of supermodels. It was Donatella who was instrumental in making this happen.

The next wave was initially positioned as the antidote to the original "supers"—Cindy, Christy, Linda, et al. But, in large part because of Versace, the new set of models was elevated to that same position. "Kate, Amber, and Kristen. It was a fantastic moment, really a fantastic moment, with their arrival," Donatella explained to me a few years ago. "Kristen was a big problem with my brother at first; she was crazy! Gianni just did not understand right away. The stories, ha! Between her and Linda, oh it was like watching a movie that never ends.…Backstage was heaven. It was heaven!"

"When a new girl came along, oh my God, it was like a war," Donatella continued. "The first time they got together, it was the big girls versus the new girl. I remember one time backstage, when Linda needed to go on the runway, she was about to put in her fake boobs and found one of them had been taken. 'Where is my boob? Where's my boob?' she was screaming over and over. I think it was Kristen. It was always Kristen." She laughed.

"There was always lots of drama going on, continuous drama," Donatella added. "You could not even imagine inventing it; nobody would believe it. I would be stuck in the middle. And all those girls turned out to be icons—Kate, Amber, Kristen, all icons." When McMenamy opened and closed the last Versace haute couture show, it was distinctly a homecoming.

By her own admission, McMenamy is still dramatic. She'll often laugh and joke about it after such an outburst. It was one such dramatic yet jokey reaction (to not having been cast for a Versace couture show in 1996) that led to perhaps her most famous picture with Juergen Teller—of Kristen fully nude with a Versace heart drawn in lipstick on her chest. "At that point Versace was everything," McMenamy explains. "And both myself and Juergen had been turned down by them in some way," she adds. "We felt like complete losers, or I certainly did. We were joking around about it and being a bit 'we'll show them; we don't need 'em!'"

What appears as a comparatively tame picture now was seen as an infinitely controversial one then. Nevertheless, it further cemented the bond between the model and the photographer. As Teller simply puts it today: "Kristen is the best model I have ever worked with."

He pauses and says, "That almost needs no justification," clearly knowing what a big statement that is to make. But he continues, "There is something strangely similar between her and me. It has kept us working together for 25 years. She has totally the same understanding about things; we don't even need to talk about it. I have never met a model who is as professional about her job, who knows her body so well, and has such immense control over it. On top of that, she just looks fantastic."

And this is why Kristen McMenamy will continue to pursue the perfect picture: She's simply the perfect model to do so.

PLUS: A look back at the highlights from Kristen McMenamy's 30-year career >
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