"I grew up in the north of England in a town called Oldham, near Manchester. You can catch a train to London in three and a half hours, but when you’re growing up it seems like a world away. The first time I went to London was when I was 16 and started modeling. I got scouted when I was still in Manchester and was a bit of a goth. I remember because I was wearing this black lipstick I’d just bought—cheap, black, terrible. For me, modeling was the best thing that could have happened because it gave me the opportunity to leave. In a way, it kept me out of a lot of trouble. They pretty quickly found me an agency in Tokyo and I went there for three months. I was so young—I still hadn’t kissed a boy yet! I met Tabitha Simmons there when she was still modeling. Tabs took great care of me but we also caused a lot of trouble. [Laughs] It was during the days of Tom Ford and Gucci. I remember doing a shoot and wearing these velvet pants and thinking, ‘I’m wearing Gucci.’
It wasn’t until I came to New York and all my Tokyo money was gone that I met Steven Meisel. He was my knight in shining armor. The Steven Meisel School of Modeling is a very prestigious school of modeling—he teaches you how to use your body in a picture and how to connect with the camera. And he has such a sensitive way of talking to you. At that point, I had been dyeing my hair between red and black for years, so my agents, being typical agents told me to stop messing with it. It started to look really mousy and not interesting at all. So Steven asked me if I wanted to dye my hair and I said OK! I went over to [my hairdresser] Ward’s and we got Manic Panic and chopped pieces of my hair off and went nuts. And Pat McGrath had asked me a couple days before if she could shave my eyebrows off, and I said ‘Of course! Why not!’ I didn’t mind, I was young. It was the ideal time—if someone asked me to do that now I would tell them to jump. But when you’re a teenager, it’s all about experimentation. I was with the best people in the business. I was in such good hands with them.
What’s changed? I need a lot more sleep now. [Laughs] Sometimes, even now, I’m amazed at how much you can do in a day. Even more so now that I’ve got kids—it makes you more efficient. You use your time better. And I have my album, Double Roses, coming out April 7. I think in my heart of hearts, I always knew I’d sing. For a long time, I just wanted to be in a goth band!
Over the years, I’ve become a lot more savvy about what works [for my skin] because I’m so fair. It can be quite sensitive, so I’m really careful about products that are going to leave a residue, like sunscreen. Even after I take my makeup off, I can tell that my pores are just clogged. La Roche-Posay Anthelios is good, and Avène and Skinceuticals make good ones.
I’m very particular with my cleanser… Right now it’s this Darphin Rosewood, it’s heaven. I’m very particular with my cleanser and it changes for the season but during the winter time I prefer a balm, because my skin gets so dry. If I use anything that has even a sulfate or anything my skin feels like it’s going to peel off. Then, I’m going to contradict myself, because I’ve got the Mario Badescu Glycolic Toner—it’s amazing though. If I feel like I’m getting any sort of breakout, I’ll put that on. For me, that’s once a week.
Full disclosure, I took Accutane when I was a teenager because I had terrible acne. When I first started modeling before I did any big shoots, my French agent took me to a dermatologist who didn’t speak any English and they just handed me these pills and told me my skin was going to be beautiful. It was so dangerous and I took it for six months but it worked. Now, you have to sign a thing to take it. I didn’t even realize. It can really damage your liver and normally you’re supposed to get blood tests but I never did. Now, I go to see Dr. Colbert if I have time while I’m in New York. He’s a very conservative dermatologist. He doesn’t want you to look any different than you look. He’ll give me a triad facial and your skin looks like you’ve gotten the best night’s sleep. You look rosy and dewy and fresh. I really have an issue with people trying to look younger. I just want to look like me. I hate that people will say, ‘You look good for your age.’ I’m actually happy about being 38. Instead of saying it makes you look younger you can look better. The skincare part is massive.
I have a jet lag treatment that’s really soothing. First, I have to have Jo Malone Red Roses, it’s my favorite candle. It smells heavenly, and I’m an English rose! I like anything with a rose scent. In my bathtub in Nashville you walk into my bedroom and the whole thing smells like red roses. So if I get in late, I’ll immediately jump in the bath—the Rodin Bath Oil is so amazing and chic. Then I’ll put the La Mer Perfecting Treatment on my face. This shit is good! Afterwards, I have the Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Cream—it’s massively hydrating. A lot of the Skinceuticals line is too strong for me, but this just soothes jet-lagged skin so well. That’s the routine.
I learned everything I know about makeup from artists like Pat McGrath. She changed my approach to lipstick entirely. I now use my fingers to apply lipstick. She never uses the brush—ever. Even applying eye shadow sometimes—she’s literally hands on. But I don’t normally wear any more makeup than what I have on today. Before I start, I like to use the Darphin Lumiere Essential. It’s really good because it has a little shimmer in it. But not too much! I hate when you’ve got too much highlight because it can start looking like the airbrush stuff.
People misinterpret how much makeup you should put on when you’re pale. Everything that I try and do with makeup is subtle. A dab of red lipstick is already screaming red lipstick. I love Tough Tomato and Red Heddy from Rodin—a little orange red for day and true red for night. And I love the packaging, I’m a sucker for good packaging. You can have any old red lipstick, but when you have it in this kind of packaging, it’s so much better. My Armani Velvet in 201 is their matte lipstick. It’s so rich. It’s heaven. When you really want a rich lipstick, this is the thing.
For skin, I love By Terry Cover Expert in Fair Beige. I love it because it’s the right shade for my skin. Even though I do love the YSL Touche Éclat, even that doesn’t always match. Tom Ford makes a great highlighter that’s a cream. My eyes are really sensitive, so I prefer cream to powder. With blush, I have to be very stringent with it or else I’ll look like I’ve tangoed. By Terry Hyaluronic Blush is great because I love hyaluronic acid. For a beachy look, Charlotte Tilbury Colour of Youth is perfect. I like it because it's not too pink. When it’s too pink, I start looking like a doll.
My mascara is something that changes all the time. Right now I have YSL in Brown because Bette Davis said that redheads shouldn’t wear black mascara—we look cheap. That always stays in my head, but I also have a black mascara from Hourglass. And I do like a little Charlotte Tilbury black mascara. For liner, I have a Bobbi Brown Ink Liner in Brown that I use on the top and bottom lines. I also have a Chanel bronze-y brown one. Often I use more brown shades, because of my red hair. But I don’t like red brows, you start becoming too pumpkin-y. It becomes too much. So I use an Anastasia really thin pencil that I tightly draw in. I can't stop figuring out what my eyebrow shape is because it’s so blond that I need a pencil. I’ve done a tint a few times and then it feels like too much.
Hair is a constant source of stress. I’m a natural ginger but it’s just not as bright. During the winter and fall I try and deepen my hair because I hate when my hair gets that shade of red auburn. Even this is faded for me—I wish it was a bit richer. I’ve often had disasters where my hair ends up looking brighter and not richer.
My hair is so fine that you could put a couple of drops of something and it would completely destroy it, but I do like the Oribe Foundation Mist. That stuff really helps. I won’t blow dry my hair but I might curl it a bit to make it less unruly. My curl is actually insane, so I use Terax, it’s amazing. I saw it at Ricky’s when I was in my 20s. A hairdresser recommended it and I’ve been using it ever since. I’ve used different products consistently but I always come back to it. It has a way of making it feel healthy again. Something might work for a few months and then I need to try something else. I put coconut oil in occasionally and I’ll wash it out in the morning.
After I had my son, I had to see a dermatologist because my hair started falling out massively. Now I have a steroid thing I need to put on my scalp. With all the products that have been put on my head as a model, my scalp is so sensitive. And when your hormones change and when you hit 35, your texture changes. My curl came back and my hair is so much thinner. I took vitamins and I’ve seen doctors about it. I was iron and vitamin D deficient. PRP made my hair so much thicker, it’s amazing—like the Vampire Facial, but on your scalp. It hurt so much but I had all this hair regrowth. I did it a year and a half ago but it was wonderful. I haven’t done it on my face, though. It’s hard being a lady.”
—as told to ITG
Karen Elson photographed by Tom Newton in New York on March 14, 2017. Karen is wearing Diane von Furstenberg.