Kaia Gerber: "I almost had to disprove people before I could prove myself"
Teenage modelling sensation Kaia Gerber sits down with award-winning playwright Jeremy O. Harris to discuss growing up in the spotlight, theatre trips with mum Cindy Crawford, and winning at dinner parties.
Kaia wears all clothing Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Earrings model's own. Shoes stylist's studio.
It’s Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles and Kaia Gerber and Jeremy O. Harris are sitting down for coffee. Both based in New York now, the pair recently became friends after meeting at a dinner party. Jeremy is currently in town following the Sundance Film Festival, Kaia is back at home, visiting her parents. As the daughter of supermodel Cindy Crawford, Kaia is the heir to a fabled and formidable fashion lineage. Maybe for this reason, she has navigated the fashion industry with quietness and consideration? Until now, she has rarely done interviews. Still she can generate headlines just by walking down the street. For Jeremy, Yale-graduate and award-winning playwright – for whom interviewing the superfamous with a total ease is just one of his many side gigs – this conversation offers an opportunity to probe a little deeper into why this might be, to explore the reality of modern celebrity. Anyway, what does burgeoning super-fame even mean to an 18-year-old who’s seen her own mother grapple with stardom first hand?
Jeremy: I think it’s really fun you asked me to do this interview.
Kaia: I really didn’t think you’d agree to it. I mean, you interviewed Rihanna recently.
I didn’t think you’d ask, because you don’t do a lot of interviews, right? Why? Because you want to protect yourself?
I didn’t want my modelling to be overshadowed by being a celebrity, or being some personality. And also, what can you ask a 16-year-old girl? I didn’t have anything to say two years ago. I had no experience. There’s only so many times I can talk about my beauty routine, or the advice I got from my mum about modelling. It’s boring. I want to do what models do, and that’s modelling.
So what is your beauty routine? I’m only joking, of course, but you know, you are becoming a celebrity, and partly that’s because you’re at the height of your modelling career. And I did this deep dive into you before I did the interview...
I like fashion but I don’t really follow it, and I didn’t realise, when we first met, how huge you are in the fashion world.
Fashion is a bubble! Maybe it’s like theatre? It’s easy to assume that everyone knows everything about you.
But now people do know everything about you.
I think one reason I was drawn to modelling was because images of me were getting out anyway, and I wanted to take control of that.
You have such self-awareness, it’s really amazing to have that so young. Where did that come from? I mean you’re still barely out of school.
You know I was one of those people who hated the social part of school but loved homework, I loved learning. And although I don’t go to school anymore, I don’t think I’ve stopped educating myself. Growing up, my parents never separated themselves from us. Like, if my parents were having their friends over for dinner, we weren’t put on the kids table. They’d sit you there and you’d be part of the conversation. If you want to know what I learned from my mom, it was how to be a good dinner party guest.
Some great advice I once got was that the key to a long career is being a great dinner party guest.
I pride myself on being the best.
Who’s been the most exciting person you’ve sat next to recently? Not even famous.
You! Honestly! It was amazing – you seemed to have such a different take on the world. You were really inspiring.
I’m really flattered! Because I was amazed by how down to earth you were, how kind and generous you were. What protected you from the perils of being born in the spotlight?
It was my parents. Definitely. I give them full credit. They led by example. They taught me to think of a person as a person first, not their status.
Did you have an awareness that your mom was a supermodel?
I knew she did it, but I didn’t really realise it was a job? Like if your parents are doctors or lawyers, that’s a different thing. It wasn’t like “Cindy Crawford” was my mom, she was just mom and she happened to be a model. It was only when I started working in the fashion industry that I began to really grasp her impact and influence.
Can you remember when you realised you wanted to be a model?
I never did. As a child I never thought I looked like my mom, I never really imagined it was something I could do. My mom never pushed it on me. Then, as I started to get older, people began approaching me to start modelling and I was very sceptical. It’s hard enough growing up, as a woman, with all those changes you go through as a teenager… to do that in the public eye is really scary. You need to be really confident.
What did you want to do before you started modelling?
I never wanted to be famous. The idea of fame always freaked me out.
So if that anxiety about fame is there, and we’re going to walk out of here after this interview, and someone is most likely going to take your picture…
It does affect me, it can be really tough. But to just get used to that? I think that’s really sad. You shouldn’t have to get used to it – it’s not a normal way to live your life.
I grew up in the exact opposite situation to you, and all I wanted was to be someone famous, someone on television.
I think it’s natural for people to want that though.
But then when I started writing I never thought that what I was writing was going to put me into that kind of space. When I actually got it, it became quite discombobulating.
You’re a testament to the time we live in. Because maybe a playwright like yourself wouldn’t have been celebrated in the past? You’re a total amazing anomaly.
I always thought it was really silly, when you read about famous people getting upset about people on the internet going after them. And then the internet went after me, and I got upset.
You try not to let it hurt you, but then sometimes that goes to shit, and people do manage to really hurt you, and it does really affect you.
How about personal relationships? How do you navigate that?
You have to silence the outside world. The only people who know anything about anything are the people in the relationship. The public is very loud, so you have to make your own feelings even louder.
I read you were pregnant!
You have to try and have a sense of humour about some of the things you read about yourself.
You know you look like Audrey Hepburn right now drinking this coffee.
I so wanted to be Audrey Hepburn when I was younger. I was really obsessed. I cut some bangs into my hair once. It was such a bad idea.
You look so much like your mom, but you have this other thing going on too. Have you ever thought about acting?
I admire it so much. I think that’s why I’m hesitant to even try acting.
When was the last time you cried?
Probably a week ago, in my car. I use my alone time to cry, but I’m not someone who’s going to call a friend crying and asking for advice. That’s so not me.
What about your life or your upbringing has made that a part of your mask?
Like never being the person that calls a friend crying? I saw how hard my parents worked, and admired them so much, and maybe I tried to separate the sadder parts of myself from them? But in the past year, I’ve gotten so close with my mom. We’ve become the best friends that we’ve ever been. I’ve really allowed that barrier to be taken down, and it’s actually nice breaking down with her. I feel like it doesn’t always have to be like “mom” – she can just be a friend.
So you’re telling me that you and your mom are besties now, but you took a little break?
We’re back. We’re best friends. We just did a yoga retreat together!
A full Goop experience.
The entire Goop experience from Miss Cindy! You know, at first, I feel like I was rejecting the idea of being anything like my mom, because that was what everybody told me I was like. And now, the more I find I have in common with her, the prouder I am, because I admire her so much.
I was so honoured that you came to see my play together.
I told her, “It’s by Jeremy and it’s going to be controversial and there’s probably going to be nudity on stage, and like whatever.” But she was honestly the first person that I wanted to bring, and the only person really, because I knew she’d appreciate it. She loved it so much! We sat down for dinner after and we talked about it for hours. It affected us so much.
What other cultural things do you do together?
We just finished watching Euphoria together!
You did? Shut up.
We did. Our different experiences with it were so amazing. She thought it was kind of horrifying, because, to a parent, it is. But she was so into it too. She’s like, “Is the online porn industry really like this?” and “Do you actually have access to this?” It really opened up so much conversation between us.
I love this idea that you guys are having these huge generational exchanges.
She is so open to learning, she asks so many questions, and she’s very non-judgemental. She’s also very relatable, and I think that I realised… well it took me a while to open up to her, but when I did, I realised that we had gone through a lot of similar experiences.
What do you see for yourself in like a decade? Are you still doing this?
I just want to feel like I contributed something to the world. To feel like I did some good with the platform I’ve been given. It can be as simple as, for example, I did a collaboration with Jimmy Choo recently, and we’re giving the proceeds to children with cancer, to St. Jude’s Children Hospital. And I spent this Christmas visiting kids at NYU Langone Children’s Hospital. I believe in fulfillment through acts of kindness. For me to even help in a small way through what I do is incredible.
Oh I forgot you’re a New Yorker now!
I am? I don’t know if I can call myself a New Yorker. How long do you have to live in New York?
I’ve lived here for six months and I call myself a New Yorker.
Being in LA feels like being on vacation now, even though I grew up here. So I guess maybe I am?
Do you feel like part of being a New Yorker for you right now, is another good way of identifying away from your family in a way?
Not just my family. In LA, you stick to people who are similar to you. You get stuck in your bubble. I’ve learned so much and met so many people in New York. People who do different things, who come from different backgrounds. I’ve made friends here who I never would’ve even met in LA.
In this last year, I’ve met so many amazing models, and magazines make them look like these untouchable titans, but I never realised before that they’re also like 18 years old. I didn’t realise how young they are!
Because you’ve got 20-year-olds who look 40, and you have 40-year-olds who look 20, and that’s kind of the amazing thing about the art that we create. But that’s what I love about i-D though, you do feel like you’re playing a character. With this shoot, I really got into it. I was channelling Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted. I love it so much. But I feel like with models you don’t really get the truth of their personality through the camera.
Does that do something to your psyche?
I’ve learned how to appreciate the process of helping other people create art, and that’s what I’ve always placed it as. We are lucky to be part of these creative processes. Even if it is not always your voice that’s okay, because you also find other ways to have a voice.
Do you ever wonder if you’re losing any part of your youth because you’re already being an adult?
I’d always felt like a grownup, then when I actually grew up, I realised that I wasn’t. I never really learned the hard way, then one day I had a big reality check. I didn’t come out the other side, like, “I’m a grown up” now, it was more like “I have so much to learn”. But I’m ready to learn.
Is that tinged with some anxiety?
Ignorance is definitely bliss.
What keeps you sane?
I read a lot. Reading is the one thing I force myself to sit down for. No music, no phone, no distractions. I just read, and it keeps me so sane. Like backstage, there could be a million people around me, doing my hair or my make-up, and I have a book, and I can focus on that. Everything else goes away.
What were the last books you read?
I just read Norwegian Wood by Murakami and that was, oh my gosh, so amazing. Oh and Normal People by Sally Rooney!
My boyfriend’s doing the TV show of Normal People!
I’m so excited for that! That book truly – it was so real, I loved, loved, loved, that book.
Do you feel like the industry you’re growing up in is less harrowing than the one your mom grew up in? When we read about modelling in the 80s and 90s, people really weaponised these young women against each other.
I’ve never felt that competitive spirit, and there’s so much more room for all kinds of different beauty now. Social media has humanised us, too. You see us walking to the grocery store in sweatpants. You didn’t get that view of the 90s supermodels, and I think it can be toxic to only see someone on the cover of Vogue. Young girls being like, “Why don’t I look like that?” Well we don’t look like that! There are a million professionals to help us look like that.
Did you feel like when you first started there were other models who were put out by you being Cindy Crawford’s daughter?
I’m very aware of the special circumstances I entered the industry under. I have so much respect for young women who come into fashion from less privileged positions: you know maybe they don’t speak English, maybe they’re sending money back home to support their families? They have this pressure that I could never speak on. There are girls who I started with, who I’ve seen grow and get stronger, and I admire all of them so much.
I went to a drama school with Meryl Streep’s daughter, and I felt bad, like Meryl Streep’s daughter couldn’t come to school and not have everybody know who she was.
I almost had to disprove people before I could prove myself. You have to erase what people think of you and make yourself human, because people have such deep, preconceived notions of who you are.
Do you think you overcompensated?
I would always, always be on time. I would learn everyone’s names. I went out of my way to help people. I didn’t want special treatment, and if I was offered it, I wouldn’t take it.
Everyone wants to imagine that you’re a monster with a big ego.
You have to go out of your way to prove you’re not that kind of person, even on your worst days. If you’re not “on” all the time, people don’t understand. Everyone feels like they know you, but they don’t.
I think that’s a good place to end.
Yeah? That was beautiful! Thank you so much.
Photography Willy Vanderperre
Styling Alastair McKimm
Hair Anthony Turner at Streeters.
Make-up Lynsey Alexander at Streeters.
Nail technician Chisato Yamamoto at David Artists using NARS.
Set design Emma Roach at Streeters.
Digital technician Henri Coutant.
Photography assistance Romain Dubus, Harry Hawkes and Louis Headlam.
Styling assistance Madison Matusich and Giulia Bandioli.
Hair assistance Claire Grech.
Make-up assistance Phoebe Brown and Zahra Hassani.
Set design assistance Nia Samuel-Johnson, Louis Simonon, Joseph Burke and Lizzy Gilbert.
Production Ragi Dholakia Productions.
Casting Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.