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In addition to her photography and modeling career, Christensen is known for her extensive humanitarian work. Photo: Christy Bush
In addition to her photography and modeling career, Christensen is known for her extensive humanitarian work. Photo: Christy Bush

Helena Christensen: Global Citizen

Part of global modelling royalty, Helena Christensen somehow manages to keep out of the spotlight in the streets of New York and reveals that despite her hectic career, there’s nothing she loves more than being on the go.

There are few cities in the world where a woman with a face as recognizable as Helena Christensen’s can stroll up the sidewalk and slip into a busy café in the middle of the afternoon without attracting any attention.

New York, however, adopts a studied indifference to fame, which probably explains why so many well-known people make their home here – for the chance to walk the streets like an ordinary person for a while, no matter how exceptional the rest of their life may be.

And, perhaps precisely because she has been in the public eye for so long — Christensen has regularly graced the covers of magazines and fronted campaigns for three decades — her real-life persona is disarmingly warm, unassuming and earthy.

Wearing a chunky wool cardigan over a simple sundress, she greets me with a hug, jokingly orders an acquaintance sitting next to us to make room for her “big ass” and happily grabs a stool by the window to sip her green tea and watch the world pass by.

When I refer to her cohort of supermodels — memorably dubbed The Magnificent Seven by the New York Times in 1996 — as “iconic,” she all but rolls her eyes and says dryly, “Well, we got lucky — I think that’s more the word.”

A keen traveler since childhood, Christensen still loves to see other parts of the world. Photo: Christy Bush

The model, photographer and co-founder of NYLON magazine has held many different roles during her career, but throughout her life, travel has been a constant.

She starts by telling me that her mother worked in the financial department of SAS for 30 years, so the family often traveled, spending most summers in Peru, her mother’s home country, but also backpacking through Thailand for extended periods, places that introduced her to cultures and ways of life far removed from her “structured and mellow” middle-class Copenhagen childhood.

‘My first travel memories are mostly about waiting on standby’

“We got discounted employee tickets, so my first travel memories are mostly about waiting on standby to see if they had enough seats,” she laughs. “And we would always be dressed up nicely, in case we had to be seated in business class. Sometimes they’d only have space for two, so we would go separately. So here we were, this little perfectly dressed family, all standing waiting until the last second, with our hearts beating anxiously!”

There is something endearing about this image of the Christensen family in an airport departure lounge, dressed to the nines but ready to backpack the globe.

Photo: Christy BushThese trips shaped Christensen’s early view of the world and awareness of her own privilege, where she stepped out of everyday life in Denmark, “where everyone was home for dinner at 6pm,” and entered another, where she played with gypsy children and street dogs by the river in Lima.

“It opened up my understanding,” she says. “Seeing mothers begging with their kids on the streets of Lima left a heaviness in my heart, because that was something we would never see in Denmark. So from an early age I felt that sense of injustice, but also a sense of the beauty in the world.”

And then, at an age when her girlfriends were going on to their first jobs or higher education, Christensen, who originally wanted to study archaeology, was catapulted into a very different world – international modeling.

Initially, it was tough, with back-to-back long-haul flights and cheap hotels where, in the pre-internet, pre-smartphone 1990s, she needed calling cards to talk to her parents in Denmark, because the hotel phone was so expensive. It was a dramatic awakening for the 18-year-old, who stayed in touch with her friends by writing epic letters, illustrated with hand drawings of the places she’d been.

As her career took off, the hotel rooms got nicer and travel became more comfortable, but she never got more than a glimpse of each location.

“We always moved so fast,” she says. “It was in one day, out the next. You would get in the car, go to the shoot and get back on the plane. I’d be in a hotel room that was so beautiful, looking at the fruit bowl and the flowers, and thinking, this still feels lonely, just lonely in a different way!”

In the midst of it, however, she also managed to backpack around the world, which would generate some of her favorite memories during stints in the Pacific.

“I’ve always felt connected to Australia, and New Zealand is ridiculously beautiful. I hardly knew where to point the camera, because it would almost hurt your eyes, the beauty of nature. It’s stunning, but still kind of raw and wild.”

Christensen moved first to Los Angeles and then New York during her five-year relationship with the American actor Norman Reedus. She gave birth to their son, Mingus, in 2000.

She has lived in the city ever since, but travels regularly to Denmark for modeling work, visiting family and for the humanitarian projects she carries out as a photographer for Oxfam and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to raise awareness for issues including climate change in Peru and the crises facing people displaced by the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine.

‘I love living in New York, but Copenhagen is one of the coolest cities in the world’

“We are very much there, in the moment with people,” she says. “We take trains, stay in basic hotels and I carry my own equipment. That’s how I like doing it, because it reminds me of when I was first starting out. It’s almost like when you listen to someone’s first record, and there’s a whole different sort of energy — that’s what it’s like to travel with the UN. There are no amenities, no luxuries.”

Even after nearly two decades as a resident of New York, Christensen’s bond to Denmark remains strong. “I love living in New York, but Copenhagen is one of the coolest cities in the world. I’m proud of coming from there — it’s like when you hear someone else talk lovingly of your child, it almost makes me tear up when other people love it there too.”

Growing up in a small country with such a beautiful natural landscape and coastline has indelibly shaped her, she says, along with the fairytale history of Scandinavia. “It felt like a magical place when I was growing up, and it has kind of become that place for a lot of other people who visit it now and find out how special it is. My family are still all there, so for me, New York is where my soul is, but Denmark is where my heart will always be.”

Helena's top 3 places around the world

La Colombe d’Or Hotel (Provence)

In Saint Paul-de-Vence, this is a gorgeous old farmhouse that was turned into a boutique hotel a long time ago and has an art collection that is out of this world.

La Colombe d’Or Hotel (Provence)

1 Place du Général de Gaulle,06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence

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Upstate New York

The Hudson Valley and the Catskills Mountains are beautiful areas just a few hours’ drive from New York City, where the mountains, valleys and rivers make you feel like you are one with nature.

Upstate New York

Harbor Island (the Bahamas)

This is a little gem of an island with the most beautiful pink beach that stretches for some 5km, with colonial houses in pastel colors and lovely little restaurants.

Harbor Island (the Bahamas)

Text: Sam Eichblatt

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