Paloma Elsesser: 30 Lessons In 30 Years

“I settled for comfort and because of that, I lost magic”: Supermodel Paloma Elsesser reflects on everything she’s learnt from fashion to failures, from love to letting people go

By Isobel Van Dyke

4 March 2023

s London Fashion Week draws to a close and our eyes move to Milan, there has been one model at the forefront of the AW22 shows. London-born, LA-raised supermodel Paloma Elsesser has been in high demand since her first ever shoot, around eight years ago - when she was approached by legendary makeup artist, Dame Pat McGrath via Instagram to star as the face of McGrath’s makeup line.

Starting out in her early twenties and after nearly a decade in the modelling industry, Elsesser turns 30 this year. Unable to work during the pandemic, covid-19 forced her to take a break and reflect on the whirlwind that was her twenties. It was one of the first times she had really been able to pause, to consider the highs and lows, and plan out which parts she’ll be taking into her thirties - and which she’ll be leaving firmly in her twenties.

During a moment of peace before the storm (both fashion week and Eunice), Elsesser met me at the Tate Britain one glorious spring morning. Rarely is Elsesser able to be a tourist when in London - though is a devout fan of art exhibitions - and so we spent the day strolling among 300-year-old paintings, as well as visiting Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now, curated by David A. Bailey and Alex Farquharson, on now until April 3rd.

Having been awestruck by the work of artists such as Ingrid Pollard, Liz Johnson Artur, and the designs of Grace Wales Bonner, we spent a moment in silence engulfed by four walls of Rothko. We flitted between Francis Bacon and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and sat for 40 minutes hypnotised by Isaac Julien’s video installation artwork.

Elsesser has one of those enchanting personalities that whatever you say to her - no matter how big or small a comment - you feel truly listened to. It doesn’t matter who she’s in conversation with, to her, every voice holds equal importance and she will listen with patience to every opinion, regardless of how they may differ to her own. What was meant to be a 30 minute interview, soon spiralled into a day of gallery-meandering and a long lunch, discussing love, family and childhood over a bowl of tomato soup.

With a big birthday often comes big reflections, and as one of the most successful models in the world right now, Paloma Elsesser shares with us everything she has learnt along the way - many of them learnt the hard way.

“‘How have you learnt how to love who you are?’... ‘I haven't. But the lesson is a commitment and a surrender to finding that out.’”

Isobel Van Dyke: A lesson you learnt on your first ever photoshoot?

Paloma Elsesser: That I’ve got to practice.

IVD: A lesson that you learnt from a childhood friendship?

PE: The art of play. With my two earliest friendships I have very specific memories of feeling very free and playful and we really were given permission to explore that. I think I really did have a childhood in that way as I was given a lot of freedom for exploration and so were my closest peers.

IVD: A lesson you learnt from your mother?

PE: Well, a lesson that I learnt from my mom - that's an extension of my grandmother, who were both incredibly important women in my life - is that life is a series of adjustments.

IVD: A lesson that you learnt from your dad?

PE: It's not a lesson but something he bestowed upon me was a faculty of wonder and curiosity. My dad is extremely curious and very knowledgeable about a breadth of things. Yeah, wonder and curiosity.

IVD: Curiosity is one of the best traits a person can have. How about a lesson in finance… What did you do with your first paycheck and would you do anything differently looking back?

PE: I always thought about a paycheck in reference to my rent. There was a time when I got $500 in one day, and I was like ‘my rent is paid in one day’. So I always thought about that, though that's not as fun and exciting - but it is a time that I reference that was less than 10 years ago. But I think the first thing I bought was a bag.

IVD: What was the bag?

PE: I bought a Celine bag. It was used, but I got it, an old Celine bag. It was kind of a symbol of where I was at, that I could do it. All of my bases were covered, my rent was paid and I could do that without putting myself in some sort of position. I know I wouldn't do it any differently.

“Whilst in pursuit of safety, I settled for comfort and because of that, I lost magic - which is the most important thing to me.”

IVD: A lesson in self love? How have you learnt how to love who you are?

PE: I mean, firstly, I haven't. But the lesson is a commitment and a surrender to finding that out. I think that the biggest token of acceptance is just being willing for it to happen.

IVD: How about lessons in regret? Is there anything that you regret doing that you’ve learnt from?

PE: I regret putting comfort before magic.

IVD: What do you mean by that?

PE: I guess it's more related to partnerships, friendships, just relationships in general. Not seeing that safety and comfort are not the same thing. Whilst in pursuit of safety, I settled for comfort and because of that, I lost magic - which is the most important thing to me. So I think in relationships I've had with friends where I was like, this is both comfortable and familiar and safe, but like, are you challenging me to grow? Am I challenging you to grow? Are we expanding? Am I learning new things, not just out of hardship? Am I learning new things out of joy, out of magic? There was a long term relationship, there were long term friendships, and there were family-ships. So I think my biggest regret or my biggest lesson of my 20s is learning to prioritise magic over comfort.

IVD: How about lessons in fame?

PE: Visibility is a trap. It does not bring you happiness. It can bring you esteem. I mean in my experience, knowing that I have made changes in an industry devoid and unwilling to change. It does bring me some esteem, self esteem. But oftentimes self esteem can come on the outside. Fame is not all that it's cracked up to be. I don't consider myself famous, I consider myself visible. It's a trap a lot of the time, because I have to constantly draw myself back from the idea of what people want me to be and remember who I am.

IVD: That leads on to my next question. Lessons in social media… What advice would you give to the girl that you were when you first discovered Instagram?

PE: I mean, the girl when she first discovered Instagram was far more free because so much of my life didn't rely on it. So much of our lives rely on it. What was it like 2011? To be fair, I think I've always kind of reverted back to that girl. I've had a very clear understanding that Instagram and social media plays a huge role in my career, but it is not my career. To always provide people with a level of honesty and authenticity, and that also comes in the package of me not posting that much. Not always having something to say about politics, or not always having to prescribe a lengthy paragraph about why I'm wearing a fucking bikini. I say that because I could have at the two year mark, I could have just been like, wow business, give the people what they want, a bunch of selfies like this and opening a new package of clothes every day and doing the whole thing, and I probably would have millions of followers, but I do have an obligation. I do have an obligation to that 2011 sprightly girl who was chunky and weird, and was like, here's photos of me and here's a car and here's this and whatever. So I still try to stay true to that girl.

IVD: Lessons in modelling - what is something you've learnt from being on set that you wish you had known sooner?

PE: That it's alright to be sensitive. When I started, I found myself crying privately in bathrooms all the time. These days if I have to cry, I just cry. It doesn't mean I won't get the job done or that I'm a good or bad model, I'm human and I'm sensitive and it's okay to be sensitive.

“You see a picture of a beautiful couture gown, the backstory? It's cut up the back, smells like 15 other girls’ BO and there's makeup stains all over it.”

IVD: When it comes to anxiety and mental health - I mean, it's a very big question - but how do you cope with anxiety?

PE: It's up and down. My job is amazing, but it has been both a help and a hindrance to my mental health. My job is physical, so it doesn't matter what mood I'm in. I have to show up, which allows me to balance the feelings of doubt - that I'm a bad person, that I'm incapable of life. It doesn't matter what mood I'm in, all I have to do is show up and give all that I’ve got for that day and it might be a little, or it might be a lot for 10 hours. Then I get to leave and rest. It was really helpful for building up my self esteem in some ways, knowing I'm capable of getting on this many planes and doing this many things and being depressed and having anxiety and still getting it done and overcoming fears. However, I also got the onslaught of other anxieties about my body, being disconnected from my peers and my family because I was travelling so much.

The awareness is what helps remedy a lot of it. Journaling is super helpful and journaling freehand specifically. Before I was modelling I went to school for journalism. Well, I started in journalism, and then I went to poetry and psychology, and then I dropped out. I think a lot about what my life would have looked like as a writer, would it be different? Would it be worse? Obviously a lot less money, but it also created this weird intersection between visibility and writing, like I was journaling through the lens of someone else reading it - that was super unhealthy. But journaling for the sake of journaling. It's not supposed to be a tightly edited thing, just a stream of consciousness, it’s super helpful.

IVD: What's something that you've learnt about the fashion industry?

PE: It's not always glamorous, sometimes it is, but it's definitely not always glamorous. You see a picture of a beautiful couture gown, the backstory? It's cut up the back, smells like 15 other girls’ BO and there's makeup stains all over it.

IVD: A lesson in fun, how do you spend your days off?

PE: This is a big deal for me in general. I'm not somebody that ever likes to be alone. I hate being alone, I would rather sit in a silent room with another person. I'm a huge fan of the adult sleepover. I'm here for all of you, you want to come by and run errands with me, drop off my laundry with me, and I am learning this year how to enjoy being alone. I talk a lot, I like to be with people and share experiences with people. I really value connection and touch, but I'm learning to really enjoy my own company.

IVD: Lessons in letting people go? Obviously some people will come into your life for a long time and others a very short time, how do you deal with people leaving?

PE: I'm really loyal, there's also a very big tendency to think we've been friends for 10 years, we'll never not be friends, right? Some relationships that teach you a lot and are worth fighting for. But when the lesson has been learnt from them, you have to walk away. I am trying to teach myself how to not always have to learn the hard way, and I haven't gotten there yet. Being like if they're supposed to be there, they would. I think the uprising, for instance, was for me when I was quite confronting and solution oriented in relationships with non black people.

I started asking, are you my white friend who has no other brown or black friends? All we do is order takeout and watch TV. This isn't magical, like you don't actually see me, right? We don't have a 360 friendship but we've been friends for 10 years. What does that mean? Then on top of it, how are you showing up for the precarity of my life? People who look like me, and people who also don't have the same privileges as me? Some of those people have tried to creep back in. They’ll be like well, let's have dinner and let's talk and I'm like, for what? You can still have compassion. I can still try and have compassion and empathy for where people are at, but I'm gonna say, honestly, life is enough.

It’s my responsibility to accept that this person is exactly who they were the whole time. A friend who has no other black friends? Of course, they don't know how to show up for me, why would they?

“Figure out what you like about yourself, outside of what you look like.”

IVD: My next questions are about relationships. Something that being in love has taught you about yourself?

PE: Being in love has taught me that I'm worthy of love. I still struggle with feeling unlovable. I definitely didn't love myself at 22, but I was in love and I knew how to love that person until it stopped working. That showed me the way I was worthy of love and that I could be loved, I was deserving of love and that's something I wasn't fully sure about. I still struggle with it but it taught me that like okay, I have felt loved before.

IVD: Something that you've learnt about maintaining a healthy relationship?

PE: Communication and acceptance. My most nourishing friendships are ones which have endurance and openness.

IVD: Something you’ve learnt from failure?

PE: I'll be afraid of doing something because I'm afraid to fail at it and so I think I need to fail more. It teaches you it toughens your skin. How much have you learnt about yourself through heartbreak? That’s a failure.

IVD: Something that you are hoping to learn in your 30s?

PE: To be more trusting.

IVD: Final lesson, something you wish you’d learnt sooner that you hope others could learn from?

PE: Figure out what you like about yourself, outside of what you look like. I'm still on that journey, but I like that I'm affectionate or that I can connect with people and finding value in yourself outside of what you look like has been super, super, super helpful. I wish I knew that sooner.

The Short Stack

30 Lessons In 30 Years With Supermodel Paloma Elsesser

By Isobel Van Dyke

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