To give you an idea what a couple of hours in the life of the supermodel Karlie Kloss are like, take the recent June evening which saw her board a plane from Japan for China to fulfill her role as a brand ambassador for Estée Lauder, arrive in Shanghai only to discover that hundreds of fans had been waiting to greet her, and rush off to her hotel room to pick up the phone at 10 p.m. for an hour-long interview. This is what Kloss has been doing for the past 10 years.
There was one thing that kept her latest around-the-world trip from being business as usual. She hadn't gone to Japan for work, but for her sanity as a 25-year-old, simply taking a rare vacation with her longtime boyfriend, Joshua Kushner. She even shared photos of their getaway together, landing her investor beau in the headlines right alongside his brother Jared by simply offering a glimpse of him to her seven million–plus followers on Instagram.
Kloss is aware of exactly how abnormal her lifestyle is. Perhaps more than anyone, she's also aware of how odd it is that it's become the new normal for all-American supermodels—a select group that now includes Kaia Gerber, Kendall Jenner, Gigi and Bella Hadid, all of whom Kloss predated when she broke onto the scene at 15 years old.
In her hotel room in Shanghai, Kloss reflected on just how much the industry has evolved over the past decade—and how she's managed to navigate the still-expanding wild west of social media fame.
Between debuting on the runway at Calvin Klein and becoming known as the Midwesterner who baked cookies for everyone on set, you've maintained this image of an all-American girl ever since your career began. Since the industry has only gotten more global since, what would you say defines the all-American supermodel today?
It’s been so fascinating to watch this evolution, even just in my career. When I started 10 years ago, the idea of the supermodel seemed so unattainable—this level of stardom and success within the industry and within entertainment that just seemed exclusive to the iconic epitome of supers, which in my mind are the icons of the ‘90s. I didn’t even think of being a model as being in the same stratosphere as these incredible women with tremendous legacies, who I really look up to and who still have tremendous careers today. And then at the same time as watching this evolution, I've also gotten to be a part of it. I’m so grateful that I started when I did, because I feel like I’ve been able to so intimately have and experience the best of both worlds. I know what it was like before we had social media and this global connectivity, and I’ve also really benefited from both. I can have a platform and a voice and a global conversation in real time; I can build out things I really care about into brands and businesses; and I can get off a plane in Shanghai and find a couple of hundred people waiting for me at the airport, which just happened an hour ago. It’s crazy how much the landscape has changed—not just for models, of course, but for the whole world.
You were definitely one of the early adopters, but were you ever reluctant to join social media?
When it first started, it was such a new frontier, so it just felt like, Well, what’s there to lose? It’s so funny how the numbers are all relative now. I remember when I had 30,000 followers, and so many designers would say, “Oh, my gosh, how do you have so many?” As I said, I think it has a lot of power for good, but it also depends on the day that you ask me.
When someone has a huge following, people—even huge designers—can easily forget that there’s still a person behind that account.
Yeah, I do feel that way. Some days I feel like I have a thicker skin and couldn’t care less about what anyone has to say, so negative comments just roll off my back, or I don’t even pay attention to them. You know that people know they won’t ever have to show their face to me and say that mean thing that they’re going to write on my wall, or—that sounds so MySpace—my account. But I’m a person, and it’s personal moments that I’m sharing, so it can be hard not to take it personally when someone takes the time to write something so negative. I have mixed feelings about these kinds of digital personas we create. I’m an optimist, and I like to see all the good that comes from social media, like how landing in Shanghai also means I can connect with the many, many followers I have on Weibo here. But it doesn’t matter if you have 100 million followers or 10 followers—the cyberbullying that exists in all of this can be really hurtful. I’ve grown thick skin through it, which also helps met not take it personally. It just comes with the territory of being a model now.
Yeah. I mean, it’s a funny thing, right? All of us are normal girls living our lives and sharing moments of it. In a way, though, it’s almost laughable to me, because I still think of myself—and still am!—the nice American girl who makes cookies for people on set. I just bake less cookies now and do other things, too. And I really feel for young women today, and young men. It doesn't matter how many followers you have—we're all susceptible to it when it comes.
Up-and-comers like Kaia Gerber have said they really look up to you, and at this point, I imagine the same is true for a good portion of the girls you’ve been working with for years now through your projects like Kode With Klossy. Have you felt compelled to also become a role model?
First of all, I really take it to heart and appreciate that anyone cares to pay attention to what I’m doing or what I have to say. I also appreciate the fact that that comes with responsibility, which I think I’ve managed to do. I have three sisters, so maybe it’s something sisterly, but I feel like a big sister, even to Kaia, who’s such an amazing young woman. She has the brightest future ahead of her, and now that I've been through it a couple of times before, I do feel kind of like she’s my little sister; I can support her and give her advice in the way that so many others did for me.
Last year at Cannes, you spoke very candidly about how casting agents once told you that you were both too fat and too skinny in the same day. Have you been speaking out more because you're so established now, or are you trying to really make use of your platform?
Well, I don’t speak out just for the sake of speaking out—I do it when I’m compelled to, or because I’ve experienced or learned from or been really upset by things that I think are important to address. Being called too fat and too skinny in the same day is just the reality of being a woman in the public eye, and I just try to make sure my skin is thick enough that it doesn’t get through. All I control is the image that I put out into the world, so I just want to do all that I can to be proud of what I stand for and who I am and how I take care of my body and how I continue to educate and challenge myself to do more. I very much take to heart the influence that it has on other women; to me, an important part of being a model today is also being a role model.
Does that mean that there’s a lot of calculation that goes on behind the scenes before you post on social media?
I try not to overthink it. For me, it’s a lot of just in the moment, showing and telling what I’m doing and getting to experience, because I really enjoy that. Sometimes it can feel a bit like an obligation to translate it all over to that social media persona that we all have, which is when I try to just actually enjoy and experience the moment. I think putting the phone down and being in the real world is also really, really important to just get some perspective on the effects of social media, and to take a break from constantly comparing ourselves to others on there.
Is that the type of advice that you’ve been giving Kaia?
Kaia is very smart, and she has the best role model in the world in her mother, so she doesn’t need any extra help. More than anything, I’m just really supportive of her, and proud of her work ethic and how she focuses on the balance of building her career with the rest of her life. When you’re at such a young age, it’s really challenging not just to build a career, but also to deal with all of the demands that come with this job.
You and the other supers today have always seemed super nice to each other, to the point that it seems like an agreement you all had early on. It’s such a departure from the supers of the ’90s. Did this dynamic just happen naturally?
I think it’s just the way that it’s happened. In my life, at least, there’s no time or energy for negativity. I just really love and adore and respect the other women in the industry, and I’ve built really close friendships with them. We’ve known each other since I was 15, and we’ve been through a lot together. Maybe it’s just that we’ve been able to support each other through some really intense personal and professional moments and periods of growth. To me, that that’s what real friendship is, so I feel really lucky.
Who are some of those you’ve stayed close with since the start?
Joan Smalls, Toni Garrn, Jourdan Dunn, Lara Stone, Doutzen [Kroes], Natalia Vodianova, Candice Swanepoel, Rosie [Huntington-Whiteley], Lily Aldridge, Adriana Lima… I’ve known them all for the extent of my career. I actually did one of my first big shoots for W with Joan, which was one of my favorites; she’s a really dear friend of mine, so being on set or backstage together just feels like playing around. It’s always fun to be on set with friends—I feel like that doesn’t happen often enough. And then having been around the block a few times now, I think I have this responsibility to kind of play the big sister role for the next generation of girls coming through, like Kaia, which is also something I really enjoy.
You’ve been much more low-key about it in the past, but lately, you’ve been more open about how your boyfriend, Joshua Kushner, is a big part of your support network, too. Was there anything that led you to open up more in that regard?
I don’t think there’s been a change—it’s more just sharing more parts of my life, and he’s a big part of it.
Was your trip to Japan as rare as it seems? How often are you able to get away with each other and have some alone time?
I’m incredibly busy, but I love what I do, and my boyfriend’s incredibly busy, but he loves what he does, too. I think it’s important to make time to be with your loved ones—to work hard, play hard. That’s the way I live my life.