Cara is featured on the July issue of US Vogue with a beautiful cover and new interview
Cara Delevingne Opens Up About Her Childhood, Love Life, and Why Modeling Just Isn’t Enough
“Trust me,” Cara Delevingne says, once we’ve settled into a Toronto bar so dark, so thronged, that even this instantly recognizable young person dissolves into the shifting masses. “I can find fun anywhere.”
I do trust her. Grinning and conspiratorial, all kinetic limbs and generous laughter, possessed of a demeanor that suggests that she has both seen it all and seen nothing at all, she slips so readily into familiarity that it’s hard to imagine we’ve never met before. She’d like to know everything about me, which is hardly the point; but it’s the point with Cara. “I love figuring out a stranger, sitting down and learning about their loves and struggles and everything,” she says. “People are my jam.”
She’s here shooting DC’s secrecy-shrouded Suicide Squad, due next summer, and Rihanna and her other famous besties are nowhere to be found. But that’s OK, because the leash is tight. “I’m not allowed to drink. I’m not allowed good food,” she says. “After turning 20 and eating McDonald’s all the time and drinking too much, it started to show on my stomach and on my face. But I’m playing a homicidal witch, so I need to look ripped.” I ask her if her body has become her temple, and she laughs. “I always chuckle at that saying. I say my body is a roller coaster. Enjoy the ride.”
“But can you believe that?” she goes on. “That I have to exercise restraint after I’ve succeeded in a business where for years I had no restraint, where the whole point was excess?” Cara wants to make one thing very clear tonight: Modeling was an amuse-bouche, an hors d’oeuvre, never the main dish. Acting is and always was the thing: “The thrill of acting is making a character real. Modeling is the opposite of real. It’s being fake in front of the camera.”
This month she appears in her first leading role, as the brooding and beautiful enigma at the center of Paper Towns, adapted from John Green’s novel of the same name. If teenage audiences respond to it as they did the film version of Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Cara will, she tells me in her characteristic marriage of plummy and potty-mouthed, “freak the fuck out.”
The food sent down from David Chang’s restaurant upstairs is so spicy that for intervals we can do little more than smile at each other and pant happily. Cara is wearing the skinniest suit imaginable, from the Kooples, and a pair of Chanel trainers. She tugs a cube of meat off a skewer with her teeth, offering the wink-and-grin-and-head-tilt that her thirteen million Instagram followers (that’s almost twice as many as Lady Gaga has) would recognize instantly—a selfie counterpoint to the iterative steely glamour of her fashion billboards. As Paper Towns’s director, Jake Schreier, tells me later, “What picture can the paparazzi get that Cara hasn’t already gotten? That’s what I call taking control of your image.”
We are, Cara says, about as far as she ever gets from the bubble—a word that becomes our shared shorthand for that inexorable whirl of dinners and défilés, fittings and sittings that constitute a career in modeling. True, she has a few active-duty leaves from the Suicide Squad set in the coming weeks—New York for a Chanel fashion show, Los Angeles for a big Burberry bash—but to hear Cara talk about the bubble, you’d think she’d already left it behind. “I’m not sure I understand what fashion is anymore,” she says. “I admit I was terrified to leave. I mean, the bubble gives you a kind of dysfunctional family. When you’re in it, you get it. And the second you’re out of it, you’re like, What the hell just happened?”
Acting has traditionally proved hostile terrain for models, and few cover girls have made successful crossings. But Cara, according to her colleagues in both fashion and film, appears to possess gifts that her thwarted predecessors lacked. For starters, she has become the preeminent model of her era through the brazen display of personality, that thing most models are now richly paid to hide. Far from a rare orchid that wilts in the breath of more noxious air, Cara, simmering with life on the runway, boils over with life off it. She has been called the next Kate Moss, but the similarities begin and end at their shortish stature (for their profession, that is: both are five-eight), English background, and penchant for late nights. Whereas Kate has retained an essential unknowability, Cara seems always to be declaring, “This is the real me!”
The designer Erdem Moralioglu calls this her “characterful-ness,” a sort of elfin energy that animates her beauty. “In 20 years,” he says, “we may look back at this era and think of Cara the same way we look back at the sixties and think of Jean Shrimpton.” Karl Lagerfeld, the designer with whom she has become most closely identified, acknowledged her leavening effect on his industry when he called her “the Charlie Chaplin of the fashion world.” (It was that most precious of Lagerfeld confections: a compliment.)
Though DC wants her fit as a fiddle, Cara decides that a glass of red wine can’t hurt. Perhaps it will ease the passage of all that veritas she seems intent on spilling. “I feel this desire to throw away the story I’ve been telling for years,” she says, raising her glass. “Cheers—to a new story!”
The tale begins in the Belgravia neighborhood of London, in whose rows of white stucco houses aristocratic families live in the comforting proximity of families they have known for generations. Cara’s father, Charles Delevingne, is a property developer, and though he did not grow up rich, his looks and charm got him invited everywhere. Her mother, Pandora, a London society beauty in her day, is the daughter of the late Sir Jocelyn Stevens, a publishing magnate, and Jane Sheffield, lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret and a charter member of the princess’s Mustique set in the 1960s.
“I grew up in the upper class, for sure,” says Cara, whose older sister Poppy, 29, is also a model, while Chloe, 30, a scientist by training, has moved to the country to raise her children. “My family was kind of about that whole parties–and–horse racing thing. I can understand it’s fun for some. I never enjoyed it.” But it was Pandora’s relapsing heroin addiction that may have been the defining fact of Cara’s childhood. “It shapes the childhood of every kid whose parent has an addiction,” she believes. “You grow up too quickly because you’re parenting your parents. My mother’s an amazingly strong person with a huge heart, and I adore her. But it’s not something you get better from, I don’t think. I know there are people who have stopped and are fine now, but not in my circumstance. She’s still struggling.” (Pandora is currently working on a memoir—about her battle with addiction and the eighties London scene that formed its backdrop—which Cara says she has mixed feelings about.)
Now 22, Cara was a brooding little girl whose sisters excelled in school. She recalls spending an inordinate amount of time in the offices of mental health professionals whom, she admits, she tended to “screw with,” saying the same things again and again, trying to get them so frustrated they’d fire her as a patient. At nine, she was told she had the reading ability of a sixteen-year-old. (Later, at sixteen, she was told she had the reading ability of a nine-year-old.) She suffered from dyspraxia, a problem with coordinating her thoughts and movements. Writing was always hard, exams a nightmare. After her sixth-form year, the Delevingnes sent her to Bedales, a posh but arty boarding school. “Totally hippie-dippy,” she says. “If you had a Chanel bag there, you’d be bullied.”
She immersed herself in drama and music. (Her parents had started her on drum lessons at age ten to help dissipate some of her inexhaustible energy.) But at fifteen, she fell into an emotional morass. “This is something I haven’t been open about, but it’s a huge part of who I am,” she says. “All of a sudden I was hit with a massive wave of depression and anxiety and self-hatred, where the feelings were so painful that I would slam my head against a tree to try to knock myself out. I never cut, but I’d scratch myself to the point of bleeding. I just wanted to dematerialize and have someone sweep me away.”
She was placed on a cocktail of psychotropics—“stronger stuff than Prozac” is all she recalls. “I smoked a lot of pot as a teenager, but I was completely mental with or without drugs.” She saw an armada of therapists, none especially helpful. “I thought that if I wanted to act, I’d need to finish school, but I got so I couldn’t wake up in the morning. The worst thing was that I knew I was a lucky girl, and the fact that you would rather be dead . . . you just feel so guilty for those feelings, and it’s this vicious circle. Like, how dare I feel that way? So you just attack yourself some more.”
She dropped out, promising her parents she would find a job. Her sister Poppy was already modeling, and Cara had been noticed by an agency executive whose daughter was a schoolmate. But modeling was a rough ride at first. She worked for a year before booking a paying job and paraded through two seasons of castings before landing her first runway show. “The first time I walked into Burberry,” she recalls, “the woman just said, ‘Turn around, go away.’ And all the test shoots with the pervy men. Never trust a straight photographer at a test shoot.” Then, finally, she met Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, who cast her in the company’s spring 2011 campaign. At eighteen, she was a late bloomer relative to her model friends Karlie Kloss and Jourdan Dunn, who made their runway debuts in their mid-teens.
“I remember feeling so jealous when she and Jourdan first met,” Kloss remembers. “Cara can create that kind of jealousy because she can make anyone fall in love with her. But it’s misunderstanding her to think she’s just the life of the party. Yes, she’s the life of the party. But she’s extremely serious about her work. And here’s the thing: She is truly herself while being in the public eye—not easy to do.”
Her career hurtled out of the station. The lush, expressive caterpillars above her eyes shook the bushy brow awake from a three-decade hibernation, and on the runway, her half-upturned mouth, which seemed to suggest a mind dancing with naughty ideas, looked delicious within a sea of glazed, blank-looking beauties.
“The thing about Cara is that she’s more than just a model—she stands for something in her generation’s eyes,” says Stella McCartney, who first met her at the Paris shows a few years ago. “She has a fearlessness about projecting what she stands for, which is so rare. In a certain sense she’s brought back some of that energy you saw in the supermodel era, with Linda and Naomi. In our industry, people can be rather forced, not genuinely themselves. Cara would never pretend to be someone she’s not, and she’s not living her life for other people’s approval.”
Cara cataloged her every move on social media, but outside Instagram, the reins were in other hands. “My agents told me what to do, and I did it,” Cara says of those early days. “When I got in trouble, they told me off. It was a machine that I wasn’t controlling.” She was passing out on shoots, and she developed severe psoriasis. “It was like the disgusting way I felt inside was transposing itself on my skin. Somebody should have said stop.” In fact it was Kate Moss and Vogue’s Tonne Goodman who suggested that she yank the emergency brake. She spent a week in the Los Angeles sun writing poetry and music, and the psoriasis disappeared.
But back in New York, she continued to distract herself by partying. “I had to be doing things with people at all times,” she explains. “The life of the party is an easy part for me to play. It rots your insides, though.”
Cara doesn’t list every powder that passed under her nose during those days, but I doubt that drugs were ever much more than the occupational hazard of a girl with access, big appetites, and an escapist streak. “Honestly, I don’t think I did anything different from other people my age,” she says. “But I definitely have that addict gene. For me it comes out in an addiction to work. I’d probably have done more drugs back then if I hadn’t been working like mad.”
Depression, Cara says, runs in and out of her life, as does a tendency toward the self-destructive. “It’s like, if anything is good for too long, I prefer to ruin it.” At a low point, alone in a New York apartment, she came close to attempting suicide. She was due to leave on vacation the next day, in the grip of an unshakable insomnia. “Full-on bubble. I was packing my bags, and suddenly I just wanted to end it. I had a way, and it was right there in front of me. And I was like, I need to decide whether I love myself as much as I love the idea of death.” And then a song started playing on her laptop, Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” which had been played at the funeral of a friend who had recently died of a heroin overdose. “It felt like a warning from him. And it made me so furious with myself.”
The story goes a long way toward explaining Cara’s mixed feelings about fashion, a world that has exalted her but chewed her up a bit in the process. She thinks acting and music, always the long-term plan, saved her. At this point her ambition to play music, she says, “is just a flower growing through concrete.” She doesn’t dream of being an overnight pop star. “Singing, writing songs, is kind of my biggest fear, but it’s the thing I feel I need to conquer.” This spring I watched as she joined Pharrell Williams onstage in New York to perform a duet he wrote for them for a short fashion film made by Lagerfeld. Cara sings with a restrained rasp, though her heroes are more unleashed: Prince and Al Green.
“I first met Cara at the Met ball two years ago,” Pharrell recalls, “and I thought, Here’s a person with this unique energy. But in working with her, what amazed me was how prepared she was, how carefully she studied. Cara overshows up.”
“She’s more together now, more grounded,” says Sienna Miller, who has known Cara for most of a decade. “But even as a young teenager she was this ebullient force, this magnetic presence. I’m not sure it’s ever happened before that someone could move so seamlessly through different fields and achieve in them all. I kind of always thought you had to choose. But then most people don’t have Cara’s talent.”
Though she stood around looking lovely in 2012’s Anna Karenina, the next couple of years herald her undeniable cinematic arrival. Cara is due to appear in no fewer than seven films: The Face of an Angel, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the Amanda Knox story (in which she does not play Amanda Knox); Kids in Love, a coming-of-age story set in London; Tulip Fever, a period drama; London Fields, based on the Martin Amis novel; Pan, an origin story about Peter Pan and Captain Hook; Valerian, from the director Luc Besson; and the one that may turn her into a movie star, Paper Towns.
The film tells the story of a pair of childhood friends living in the suburbs of Orlando, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara) and Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff, who played the lead character’s blind best friend in The Fault in Our Stars). Their paths diverged years earlier, when Margo ascended to queen of her high school’s popular crowd, but one night toward the end of their senior year, Margo climbs in through Q’s window and recruits him as her accomplice in a meticulously planned act of revenge—thrilling, dangerous, and romantic. The next day, she disappears, fueling the mystery at the film’s core. “People tell me I’m just like Margo,” Cara says. “But as a seventeen-year-old I was nothing like her, so mischievous, so sure of herself. Her boyfriend cheats on her, and she screws up his little life. Maybe I’m more like her now.”
Schreier, who previously directed the 2012 sci-fi film Robot & Frank, believes the character of Margo resonated with Cara instantly. “I had her improvise with Nat, who had already been cast, and it was gripping,” he remembers. “She won the part in the room that day.” Margo may bring to mind the sullen glamour of Winona Ryder’s character in Heathers, or the bewitched Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks; she is the reluctant goddess, a girl whose mythos drives her friends to set out in pursuit of her, only to learn at the end that the real Margo is someone quite different from the girl they’d imagined. Paper Towns is about how simultaneously oppressive and irresistible it can be to be the object of collective fantasy and projection. It’s hard to imagine anyone understanding that better than Cara Delevingne.
“Somehow I was the only person on the face of the Earth who had never heard of Cara,” recalls Wolff, her costar. “Then she walked in and I said, ‘Hey, you’re on a billboard right outside my apartment.’ Cara has this rock-star quality, but there’s also a fragility to her. That’s what makes the best actors—they’re complicated.” When the camera wasn’t rolling, Cara cavorted in her generous fashion. One evening, she whisked a group of her castmates to a hotel suite at a water park. On another occasion, she recruited 30 extras to film a spontaneous response to the rapper A$AP Ferg’s viral video “Dope Walk” in between setups.
“Being on set was like getting to relive school again, but happy,” Cara says. “Trying to be an adult and be mature for so long, I’d kind of forgotten how young I was.” Though she first took the stage in a preschool play, she doesn’t pretend to much in the way of technique. “I’m no Method actor. I’ve tried staying in character, and it’s just exhausting. But after playing Margo, I broke up with my boyfriend in a totally Margo way. I wrote him a letter and left. That wasn’t me, it was Margo.”
Those who have been gathering the crumbs on Cara’s romantic trail may be confused about whether it’s men or women who excite her. She conveys a Millennial’s ennui at the expectation that she ought to settle upon a sexual orientation, and her interests—video games, yes; manicures, no—might register as gender-defiant in the realm of dresses and heels. (“I’m a bro-ey chick,” says Cara.) As this story went to press, she was seriously involved with the singer Annie Clark, better known by her stage name, St. Vincent. “I think that being in love with my girlfriend is a big part of why I’m feeling so happy with who I am these days. And for those words to come out of my mouth is actually a miracle.”
Cara says she felt confused by her sexuality as a child, and the possibility of being gay frightened her. “It took me a long time to accept the idea, until I first fell in love with a girl at 20 and recognized that I had to accept it,” she explains. “But I have erotic dreams only about men. I had one two nights ago where I went up to a guy in the back of a VW minivan, with a bunch of his friends around him, and pretty much jumped him.” Her parents seem to think girls are just a phase for Cara, and they may be correct. “Women are what completely inspire me, and they have also been my downfall. I have only been hurt by women, my mother first of all.
“The thing is,” she continues, “if I ever found a guy I could fall in love with, I’d want to marry him and have his children. And that scares me to death because I think I’m a whole bunch of crazy, and I always worry that a guy will walk away once he really, truly knows me.” When I suggest to Cara that to trust a man, she might have to revise an old and stubborn idea of hers—that women are perennially troubled and therefore only women will accept her—her smile says she concedes the point.
It’s now past midnight. There are no photographers in sight, and indeed the only person who appears to recognize Cara in the amber light is the barmaid, who as we leave approaches to tell her she’s dropped something, then hands her a piece of crumpled paper and quickly disappears. Cara pulls it open to find a message—food? drink? party? call me—along with a phone number.
And for the moment, she appears to be considering something other than beating her retreat. “You’ve got balls, babe,” Cara says at the prospect of another stranger, another puzzle. “Maybe that deserves a reward.”