Tuesday, 6 October 2009

On Beauty

I’ve never had lunch with a supermodel before, but if I’d ever given it a moment’s thought (ok, I admit I did, back in school), Helena Christensen would be top of my list. To my teenage self, she seemed the most intelligent, interesting and likeable one. I tried to copy her sexy-hippy look. I remember her tiny Copenhagen apartment photographed for British Vogue – an elegant hall table scattered with Polaroids from ‘her latest shoot’; a small, faded painting of an old Chinese lady; pots and pans suspended over a kitchen hob. One day, I told myself, I’m going have that life. I’m still working on it.

I met her yesterday at Shoreditch House: she is starring in a new campaign to make Habitat come across as warmer, friendlier and cosier. Why approach a supermodel, you might ask. But Christensen, with Danish ‘hygge’ oozing from every pore, seems a good fit (see Oliver Burkeman’s article on hygge).

She is, of course, beautiful – in a natural, non-freakish way. She is slim, not skinny. She had messy shoulder-length hair, grey painted nails, smudgy black eyeliner, and wore a short, slouchy black jersey dress and black patterned tights. She had a mid-Atlantic/Euro accent. She ate a hearty lunch, knocking back wine and dessert.

She is obsessed with vintage Danish design, and rips pages from interiors magazines: “I board planes with piles of them, ripping away. When I look through them again, months later, I often can’t remember why I tore a page out,” she says. “So I study it until I find the one small thing that made me keep it.” She is chatty, polite, funny, curious, open, intelligent, and cracked constant jokes with the half-dozen people there – the fact we weren't interviewing her no doubt made her more relaxed. She would be a great dinner party guest.

I realise none of this is extraordinary or, to many, interesting. Yet different rules seem to apply to the famous and the beautiful: don't we feel a thrill when we discover that someone like Christensen is, in fact, normal and nice – as if that alone is an achievement? For the rest of us, this is surely the minimum requirement, after which we usually have to do something.

But she does has an interesting, enviable life. She has just returned from Peru – she is half-Peruvian and speaks Spanish – where she was photographing evidence of climate change for an exhibition heading, via the UN Headquarters in New York, for Copenhagen in December. She was off to Paris after lunch, on Eurostar. She lives in New York, summers at her Danish beach house, raises her son.

Beauty, along with material wealth, is proven not to make us happy. My favourite positive psychologist (I know how that makes me sound), Sonia Lyubomirsky, says: “We simply don’t focus on our appearance when thinking about how happy we are. Good-looking people aren’t any happier. Becoming objectively more beautiful will not make most of you happier. Coming to believe you are beautiful is another story, and research suggests that this may be one of many happiness boosters.”

That is another story. But beauty has given Christensen the means to live a fabulous, glamorous and – apparently – happy life, so perhaps Lyubomirsky is wrong.

Christensen still has her tiny apartment in Copenhagen – in cobbled Christianshavn, round the corner from my brother-in-law. It says H Christensen on the front – in Denmark, by law, you must put your name on your door.

She hugged – or should that be hygged – me tight when I left: a proper squeeze, not an air-kiss. My teenage pronouncement turned out to be right, after all.