A star of Instagram and the fashion world, British supermodel Cara Delevingne hopes that a string of upcoming film roles—including this summer’s ‘Paper Towns’—will jump-start a successful career in Hollywood
THE NAME CARA DELEVINGNE may not yet be a household one, but for the 11.8 million people who follow her on Instagram, her daily antics make for compelling viewing. On her feed, one finds the 22-year-old English model showing off a tattoo of the word bacon on the sole of her left foot (258,547 likes); chowing on pepperoni pizza while making silly faces at a Toronto Maple Leafs game (602,778); and singing with Pharrell after a Chanel runway show (671,696) for an audience that included Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Karl Lagerfeld, who later said he’d been sitting with Beyoncé during the concert and that “she was very impressed.”
This is what a successful model looks like today: not the tallest, not the thinnest, but the one with a following that translates into dollars and influence. Delevingne’s social-media presence ranks higher than Lady Gaga’s or Justin Timberlake’s (if a bit lower than that of her close friends Rihanna, Taylor Swift and the Kardashians). Apart from her Chanel ads, Delevingne has landed campaigns for Fendi, DKNY, Topshop, Mulberry (where she designed her own bags) and Tag Heuer (the watchmaker launched a special-edition timepiece bearing her signature). “It doesn’t surprise me that she has built such a huge following,” says Burberry CEO and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey, who gave Delevingne her first big modeling contract in 2011. “The platform suits Cara perfectly because it’s so immediate. They get to see the real her—occasionally crazy, always fun and absolutely authentic.” Even Delevingne says that her digital popularity has helped her professionally. “I wouldn’t have done as well if I hadn’t had that. Not at all,” she says. “In the ’90s, I wouldn’t have been a supermodel.”
But Delevingne doesn’t want to be only a model—not even one who, owing to her impish beauty and wild-child ways, has been anointed Kate Moss’s successor. She also wants to act and sing—an ambition first sparked at the age of 5, when she played Mary in her school Christmas pageant. Now that dream is becoming a reality, as she embarks on a series of movies, including a starring role in this summer’s Paper Towns, the latest film based on a book by John Green, an author whose young-adult novels have sold 30 million copies around the world. The lead in the last movie based on one of Green’s bestsellers— The Fault in Our Stars, a $12 million tearjerker that made over $300 million worldwide—was the star Shailene Woodley, making the choice to cast a relatively inexperienced actress a gamble.
Delevingne is the first to admit the pitfalls of attempting to parlay a successful fashion career into a spot in Hollywood’s pantheon; the path from catwalk to screen is strewn with misfires, from Cindy Crawford’s turn in 1995’s Fair Game to Gisele Bündchen’s in 2004’s Taxi. “I don’t want to be that cliché: model-slash-actress,” she says over dinner at Momofuku Daishō in Toronto, after a day of intense fight training for another film, the DC Comics–inspired Suicide Squad. (“I’m so hungry, I’m going to cry,” she says, before gleefully ordering, for the two of us, oysters, fried chicken buns, broccoli with sausage, a pork chop and a hanger steak.)
“I look at Cara as a pluralist—she is ambitious about many things,” says Pharrell, who, in addition to performing with her, starred alongside Delevingne in a Lagerfeld-directed short film for Chanel, Reincarnation. “She’s a natural—she jumps into whatever character she is supposed to be.”
Her willingness to dive in helped land her the role of Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns from a pool of nearly 200 actresses. The part called upon the blue-blooded Delevingne—her grandmother was a lady-in-waiting for Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, Princess Margaret, and she grew up in Belgravia with her real-estate developer father, Charles, and mother, Pandora, who are regulars on the London social circuit—to become the most popular girl at Winter Park High School in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida.
“We went into the audition with skepticism that she would be right, but her performance grabbed us,” says producer Wyck Godfrey, who also oversaw the casting of Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars and made the Twilight series. While it never hurts to have millions of Instagram followers when it’s time to publicize a film, she still had to prove she had the chops for such a substantial role. The film hinges on the delicate balance of Delevingne’s performance as Margo, a free-spirited senior with a seemingly perfect life who suddenly goes missing—a leader of the pack who’s hidden her alienation and angst. “Cara needed to hit these moments where we could see beneath the veneer,” says Paper Towns’ director, Jake Schreier. During the audition, she and her co-star, Nat Wolff (whose TV series The Naked Brothers Band made him a kind of Keith Richards to the Nickelodeon set), were asked to improvise based on a scene in which Margo says, “People have always looked at me and seen whatever they wanted to see.” Recalling the moment, she says they “both ended up crying, because we connected to it so well.”
“There was a realness—it didn’t feel like she was acting,” says Schreier. “On a global scale, Cara is a version of Margo. People project all these fantasies on her.”
MODELING WAS ALWAYS meant to be a detour, a way to make money so Delevingne could travel with friends after graduating from the Hampshire boarding school Bedales, where she realized she had no desire to attend university. While one of her two older sisters, Chloe, was studying biomedical sciences, the other, Poppy, was modeling; she provided an introduction to her agency. At her first shoots, “I was like an animal in a cage,” she says. “I didn’t know where the camera was, and I would just move around.” Her feral energy got her noticed in an industry that always seeks new blood; within the year, Burberry came knocking.
After landing a major contract, Delevingne felt compelled to put off her gap-year trip—and her celluloid dreams. “I basically gave up on acting, because trying to get an agent was impossible. Everyone said, ‘You’re just a model,’ ” she says. In any case, “once I had my mind set that I was going to do this modeling thing, I really wanted to beat it, if that makes sense,” she says. “Win it.”
Despite attaining several benchmarks—starring in campaigns for Burberry and Chanel, appearing on the covers of British and American Vogue and working with photographers Mario Testino, Bruce Weber and Tim Walker, all of which, she says, “was shocking to me”—Delevingne says she has never felt fully at ease. “I ended up feeling a bit empty,” she says. “Fashion is about what’s on the outside, and that’s it. There’s no searching, it’s just creating pretty things.”
Part of Delevingne’s appeal comes from her willingness to take the piss out of perfection by posing for photos while crossing her eyes, sticking out her tongue or hissing like a cat. “People see a pretty girl, and they expect to see a pretty face. I’m not going to do that,” says Delevingne, who, off-duty, also tends toward goofy fashion, including hamburger socks or hoodies that look like stuffed animals. (Tonight she’s wearing a beat-up black trench coat, a red top that looks as though it was picked up off the floor, shredded black jeans and Nike high-tops, with her pert, high-cheekboned face devoid of makeup and her sandy blond hair scraped back into an epically scruffy ponytail.) Her irreverence has fueled her snowballing fame, especially when her shenanigans include Taylor Swift, Dakota Johnson or fellow models Georgia May Jagger, Suki Waterhouse and Jourdan Dunn. There’s also Kim Kardashian’s little sister, Kendall Jenner. The two, who often appear on the runway together, have invented a celebrity moniker based on their first names (“CaKe”) as well as a dance, which she declines to perform (“It’s a secret”). Delevingne attracts constant tabloid attention, whether it’s items about late nights out with Rihanna or speculation about her relationships (after gossip sites alleged that she’d called it quits with indie rocker St. Vincent, she tweeted, “I am very much in love”). “It makes me never want to set foot outside ever again,” says Delevingne. “I used to read them and torture myself.”
She also chafes at the fashion industry’s hegemonic attitudes about slender beauty. “It’s horrible living in a world where I’ll get a call from someone saying, So-and-so says you were partying a lot and you were looking this way and you need to lose weight,” she says. “It makes me so angry. If you don’t want to hire me, don’t hire me.”
Determined to transition to acting and prove her abilities to reluctant talent agents, she scored an audition for a nonspeaking role in Joe Wright’s 2012 film, Anna Karenina. “Cara was put through her paces,” says casting director Jina Jay. “She worked very hard—she was prepped, focused, smart and brave.” She won the part, and Wright tapped her again to play a mermaid in his upcoming film, Pan, while Jay recommended her to director Michael Winterbottom, who cast her in this month’s The Face of an Angel. “I was so lucky, because if I hadn’t done Anna Karenina, I wouldn’t have gotten anything,” says Delevingne, who signed with William Morris Endeavor in 2014. She has found the film world a welcome refuge. “With acting, the last thing you do is try to look pretty,” she says. “Modeling actually makes acting harder—it makes you so self-aware.”
There have been setbacks, including a potential part in a Beach Boys film that never got made. “I was heartbroken,” she says. “With modeling, if someone else gets a job, I’m like, Yeah, of course, there are so many better models. But with acting, you grow such an attachment to each role.” Distraught after the film was scrapped, she called Rihanna, who told her, “Everything happens for a reason. You are going to call me back up in a week or two, and you are going to say to me, ‘You are right.’ ” Soon after, Delevingne landed Paper Towns, partly on the recommendation of a producer involved with the Beach Boys project.
Until recently, Delevingne was also able to turn to her grandmother Angela Delevingne (or “Gaga,” as Delevingne’s Instagram fans know her), who died late last year at 102. “We could just talk about anything, which is funny because she was 80 years older than me. I felt like we were friends,” she says. “I have all these recordings of her talking about her memories.” Those visits were a rare moment of calm in Delevingne’s schedule, which is now so hectic that she doesn’t bother to tell her parents where in the world she is. “Home is where my feet are,” she says. (She bought a house in London’s Chiswick in late 2014, but to date has slept there only a night or two, as her new home has no furniture, only “a disgusting amount of clothes. I’m a bit of a hoarder.”)
To make her hotel rooms cozier, she travels with a PlayStation 4 (her favorite games are Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed), books (right now she’s reading Hermann Hesse’s love poems), photographs of her friends and her guitar. She is constantly composing music to accompany her poetry, which is anything but saccharine. “I usually write when I am feeling sad or angry, or lost or confused,” she says. “It’s not like when I’m feeling good.”
Those moments have leveled out somewhat as she’s entered her 20s. For the past two years, Delevingne has been practicing yoga under the tutelage of a London-based wellness guru, Colin Victor Dunsmuir. “I used to be in a constant state of panic and anxiety and have far too many voices in my head,” she says. “I suddenly realized I’m peaceful inside, and I’ve never had that. Even when I was growing up.” (“I was a terrifying child,” she recalls. “I looked like Chucky with bleach-blond hair. I had night terrors, and I would go around the house turning on all the lights and screaming like people were being murdered.”)
Her introspection has prompted her to look ahead. “When I was modeling, all I was thinking about was that moment, that day, the next hour,” she says. “When I started chilling out and learning to say no, I realized that there was a future and I could do more stuff.” Recently, she cut back on drinking and focused on getting in shape. “I’ve never been so good,” says Delevingne. “When I started looking after myself, that’s when I started getting acting roles.”
After Paper Towns, she is due to appear in a spate of films, including London Fields with Johnny Depp, based on Martin Amis’s mystery; Tulip Fever, written by Tom Stoppard after the novel by Deborah Moggach; and as a “goddess witch” in Suicide Squad, alongside co-stars Will Smith, Jared Leto and Margot Robbie. For Delevingne, who always disliked school, acting has been the ultimate education: “Every movie has felt like a breakthrough,” she says. “And every director or actor has made me grow.” Eventually, she also hopes to record an album of her own music, but she’s in no rush. “People are going to judge it so harshly that I think it has to be amazing,” she says.
Wherever her career takes her, Delevingne doesn’t want to limit herself. “I want to prove that you can be anything you want to be,” she says. “I love working, and I love what I do. If I f— it up now, it’s all my fault.”