Kristen McMenamy on her new-found Instagram fame
The supermodel, a late starter on the app, is doing fashion editorials in real time.
Kristen McMenamy was born to be a supermodel but it didn’t just happen overnight. She chased her teenage dream all the way from small-town Pennsylvania to the bright lights of Paris. She was rejected over and over again and told she would have to get plastic surgery to ever make it. But she resisted and eventually succeeded, becoming one of the O.G. Supers who twirled on the catwalk for every major designer in the late 80s and 90s, and was photographed by the giants of late 20th century fashion photography.
Heralded as one of the faces of haute grunge, she represented a different kind of beauty, not pretty in the conventional sense but striking, chameleonic, confrontational. Designers and image-makers were inspired by her, and she was equally in awe of them.
Decades later, living in London and a mother of three, Kristen is once again inspiring a generation of fashionphiles as a social media sensation. Previously off the grid, she joined Instagram in April and has not stopped posting since. She wears her own clothes, styles herself, does her own make-up (badly, she insists) and poses around the house and the streets of London, wearing a perfectly put-together mash-up of bright colours, streetwear and high fashion, framed by her signature silver Rapunzel locks and set against unusual backdrops (urinals, baroque wallpaper, bedsheets, Itsu!).
You won’t find a nostalgic throwback or a paid partnership on her grid. She’s doing it because she loves clothes, looks amazing in them, and has spent a lifetime acquiring the skills of creating a great fashion image. Why not put all those years’ practice to good use? It’s a fashion editorial in real-time, one that is entirely her own vision of herself, rather than a designer’s or a photographer’s. We caught up with the i-Con putting the fun back in fashion.
Kristen, don’t you think that today the most rock ‘n’ roll, punk thing is to be technologically off the grid?
Well, that was my thinking and that’s why I resisted joining Instagram. I resisted even having a phone for a long time. I just thought Instagram was all so lame, showing your life to everyone, and that it was so much cooler not to have it and to just be mysterious. And then I had this lightbulb moment over lockdown. I thought my whole life has been about showing clothes, wearing clothes, showing myself in that capacity – not showing off my holidays or saying how great I am – showing fashion. I’m good at it! It’s what I know how to do. Why not do it myself? Why do I have to wait until a magazine hires me and then I do it? Wait, one second, I have to take my shirt off. It’s so hot today.
What’s the shirt?
So I have this T-shirt, which I got in Harlem, about eight years ago from the Harlem Museum and it says, ‘Black is Beautiful’. I wear this T-shirt all the time and people say, oh, you’re a white girl, you shouldn’t wear that. I’m like, why not? Why can’t I? A Black woman sold it to me, she didn’t say you shouldn’t be wearing that. I wear this T-shirt because it’s a cool T-shirt and I believe in that. I do believe that these racist people are stupid, ignorant people. So, it’s hard to say this in fashion but that’s why I’m wearing the T-shirt, which I just took off because it’s too hot.
Sometimes an image can say a thousand words.
I think it’s better also to be positive instead of negative towards anything or anyone, to be on the positive fun side of life, but you do have to fight.
What’s interesting to me is that, for most of your life working as a very successful model before the age of social media, you worked with the biggest designers and photographers, but the images are their vision of you. I guess the big difference with this is that it’s your vision of yourself. This is how you want to express how the world should see you, rather than a fashion photographer or stylist or designer.
It’s stressful as hell! If I could have a live-in hairdresser and a live-in makeup artist and someone to help me with styling and a runner to go run up and down the stairs to my wardrobe, it would make my life all the easier. To be honest, I actually like sitting down when I get to a studio and having my hair and my makeup created for me, and being turned into somebody different and surprising. I love when a photographer lights me a certain way and I look up and think, ‘My God, that’s me!’ So I would like to have somebody to recreate myself in a new way every day but I don’t have that and I can’t do my make-up or my hair, so some days it works and some days it doesn’t. That’s why I wear sunglasses a lot, because I don’t know how to do my makeup. If I did, I wouldn’t be spending so much money on all these fucking sunglasses!
Instagram is more about reality, no?
Well, it’s a step between fantasy and reality. I’m just trying to have fun. It’s not really me living my life. It’s me pretending to be a little girl playing dress up and having my picture taken by my dad.
Fun is probably the first word I would use to describe your Instagram. I think it’s so clear for anyone to see that you are having so much fun with fashion, but also not taking yourself too seriously, which is an antidote to so much of the glossy fashion imagery that we see in magazines and on social media.
Oh yeah, I’m handmade. If I was a blanket, I’d be crocheted. I don’t have the machine or the mechanism to create flashy stuff. So, I do it with my photographer. I have four. I’ve got my daughter, who used to do it but now she refuses and runs away from me when she sees me. I have my 15-year-old son, who reluctantly does it but I have to pay him. Then, my 18-year-old flat out refuses to do it. And then I’ve got my husband’s secretary sometimes, but that makes my husband furious because he needs her, and I’m like, ‘Can you do a picture?’
What are the shoots like?
It’s higgledy-piggledy, you know. There’s nothing behind it except for high stress. I look at the picture and I’m like, Oh my god I have to change the shoe. I run upstairs, run downstairs with five pairs of shoes, and throw them down. Okay, which one? Okay, try this one. And then, Oh my god, you know, my make-up is all wrong. Oh, god, look at my lips. Oh, no, my hair. It’s so stressful. Sometimes it’s like, whoa, that is good. I surprise myself every time. Sometimes they’re not good surprises. You don’t see those.
It’s always different behind-the-scenes.
I want to look good, I want to look great! I know there are some women who are like, Look at my wrinkles and look at my aged body and blah, blah, blah! I’m like, no! I’m not gonna do that. Fashion is not reality. Fashion is a fantasy. It should be like, wow, ‘look at that glamour! I would love that in my life.’ There’s something fun and dreamy about it. I don’t want to be like, God getting old is a drag. It’s great! It’s just the way you look at it.
Well, it’s interesting because in the 90s, perhaps wrongly, you were kind of associated with grunge and a certain kind of anti-fashion aesthetic.
It was still fashion but it was dressed up as grunge. It was based on people that had little money and just threw stuff together. It was still creative. It was looking at fashion in a way we hadn’t really looked at fashion before and it was stylised grunge because there was hair behind there and there’s make-up behind there and there’s styling and there was Steven Meisel taking incredibly beautiful images even though we were dressed in flannels. I love that as much as the Richard Avedon for Versace glamour. It’s cool to essentially become somebody else in that world. I have loved every moment of fashion, including this moment.
Who is inspiring you in fashion right now?
Well, you gotta love Donatella. I lived through the 90s with her and she’s carrying on, especially after the horrible death of her brother, she carries the Versace name with such style. I admire people like Kate and Naomi. I mean, they’ve really been so strong and stuck it out and they’re still living for it and still standing out as icons. Reluctantly, I love Madonna. I mean, I have to say, Madonna, she’s doing her thing and everyone’s saying she looks terrible but I think she looks fucking sensational! People criticise her because she got plastic surgery but if she got old naturally she’d be damned too. What is she going to do? I think what she’s doing is what she wants to do and shoving that in your face. I like gutsy people.
As a woman in your 50s with long silver hair, do you notice that the world looks at you differently? A lot of women who get older say that they become invisible, but I feel like you’re the opposite of that.
I always felt invisible. I never felt like a sexual being, you know. I never had men whistling at me on the street. I would say I’m like a blank canvas. I was never really a sexy model, I was more androgynous and I liked that.
The clothes you wear on Instagram, they’re all your own, right?
Yeah. They’re all in the attic and I crawl around and I get my things in a hot stuffy little room and I pick it up and I put it on.
You must love to shop.
Yeah. I mean, Palace gave me some things. Christopher Kane gave me a pair of sunglasses, which I wore, but not the dresses, I bought those. Chanel gave me some earrings, which I love. I’m trying to think of all the people that have given me stuff but I won’t take clothes just to take a picture and then give them back. I will never do that because that’s no fun. I will be glad to put it on Instagram, but only if I can keep it!
One of my favourite pictures you did actually didn’t involve any clothes at all. It was a new version of an i-D picture that Juergen Teller took more than 20 years ago.
Oh, yeah. The ‘Cancel Me’ one?
Yeah. What was the story behind that? Why did you want to do it and why the change of words?
I can say it was political, but it actually wasn’t. He’s gonna kill me but I don’t care. He laughs at it now. We both laugh at it now. It involves that T-shirt that was going to be produced by Juergen Teller for Palace for their collaboration, and my agent in New York called me three or four months ago, asking if I would give my permission to use that image on a Palace T-shirt. I didn’t know anything, so I said yes. He told me there’s no money in it, and I said okay fine because it sounded cool to work with this nice little skateboard brand. Then three months down the line, Juergen calls me up and he says, would you come over to my studio? We’re friends, so he asked me to do a promo picture for it and I’m like, yeah, sure.
Then in between all this, I got a new agent and I was just filling him in on what was going on and what was coming up and I said I’m doing this thing for Palace because they used my image on a T-shirt, and he said, ‘What? How much are you getting for that?’ I said nothing. He goes, you’re getting nothing?
I guess he had been through this before because they did something with Naomi and she got money for it. Not a lot, but some. So I said, Okay, well, if I can get some money, of course I can use it. He said to just hold on and he would speak to them before I went to the studio.
Anyway, I called Juergen and I said to him that my new agent said that I can get some money for doing this T-shirt, which is great. I mean, it’s not coming from your pocket, is it? Then, my new agent gets a call and says Juergen has cancelled the T-shirt, which means I wouldn’t get any money. He got so pissed off with me because I just didn’t come over to the studio. I’m like, you fucking asshole! So I went upstairs, I drew a heart on my chest. I wrote ‘Cancel Me’ in it. I pulled my 15-year-old son into a room and I said, take my picture and he said, ‘No, mom, no, no, please!’ I took his cigarette, put it in my mouth and did it. He only took three shots because he didn’t want to do it. I posted one and that was like a fuck you to Juergen.
So, it was a fuck you to Juergen.
It didn’t mean any thing bigger than that. But then the T-shirt came out and we laughed it off.
I guess that’s perfect because wasn’t the original version of that made after you got cancelled from a Versace campaign?
Yeah! It was for an i-D cover. I was so upset that I didn’t get put into that Versace shoot. I was so angry. I could have been doing Versace being shot by Richard Avedon in New York City! And here I was doing i-D with Juergen instead!
People on social media tend to be quite nostalgic. They post a lot of old photos. Are you nostalgic?
No, not at all. Zero. I don’t want to look back. I tell stories from the past once in a while, when I’m asked, but I did it to let other people post it on Instagram if they want to. I don’t want to look back. I just want to keep looking forward because people ask if I’m going to do a book or things like that. No, I don’t want to do a book! That’s saying, here was my life. No, my life is now and I’m not one of those people who put pictures up all around the house of me. I like to keep moving forward and that’s just my mindset. So I won’t ever, ever post a picture from what I did in the 90s.
On that note, how do you feel about being called an icon?
I love it. Are you crazy? That’s nice. An icon is nice. A legend is a dead thing. My son just said to me “Mom, you love it!” because somebody had come up to me and said they love my Instagram. And I do love it. It humbles me, but at the same time, it makes me feel like wow, yeah. I love that.
I think it’s good to own it.
You clearly enjoy it, and you’re great at it. A true supermodel!
Well, I own it. I’m quite proud of myself. I never made really strong decisions about anything, I kind of floated with the wind and went around and did things. Sometimes I got drunk and I did a little bit of this or a bit too much of that, but
I never worried about what I was going to do next or what my next move would be. It just kind of happens, you know? And I think that’s life just taking me where I’m meant to be. It’s not like everything has been great, but you go with it.
All images courtesy Kristen McMenamy @kristen_mcmenamy