“How’s this interview going? Do you think you’re talking to a normal person here?”
G igi Hadid is jazzed bout Zulu. He'll be arriving any minute. Someone decided the former equestrian/current “It” girl would enjoy a photo shoot that involved posing with her spirit animal, a black Lusitano horse, and as she gets styled, she gets a little wistful about her childhood.
“We were living in Aspen, and my first pony, Rocky Daddy, was a rescue from a farmer next door,” she says, shouting over the roar of the blow-dryer. “The farmer was kind of old and couldn't take care of him, so my mom asked if we could, and that's the pony I started riding.” Hadid got her first pony when she was two. “Every morning, I'd feed him, and Mom would let me dress myself, so I'd put my rain boots on backward, which I thought was really funny.” She pauses for a moment. “I never really had a great sense of style. I was wearing what I wanted to wear. I don't really know what my style is.” Could have fooled us.
Then again, maybe you don't need to know what your style is when every single thing you put on your body looks spectacular. Imagine that for a moment. Versace? Check. Hilfiger? Well, sure; she collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger to design his new nautical-themed line, Tommy x Gigi. Tom Ford, Diane von Furstenberg, Chanel, Marc Jacobs: At 21, Hadid has done their shows and/or been featured in their campaigns. She's the face of Maybelline New York, regularly smoldering in ads for crimson lipsticks and fluttery mascaras. If she decided it would be cool to dress like a rodeo clown, half of America—or at least those under 30—would be suiting up in puffy pants, Stetsons, and red noses.
Hadid is five foot ten and in person has the build of a hot praying mantis. But in the fun house mirror of high fashion, she has been deemed “curvy,” and with her full cheeks and honey-colored skin, the happy result of her Dutch/Palestinian heritage, she hearkens back to the shapelier supermodels of the '90s—the Naomis and Cindys and Christys. Heroin chic, no. Multivitamin chic, maybe. Not that she looks blandly wholesome; if anything, those arched eyebrows make her look like she's got a raunchy secret that amuses her. As my 14-year-old son put it, “She looks like a beautiful villainess.”
The otherworldly face and body aside, Hadid has a public persona that is somehow deeply relatable. One young fan said to me, “She doesn't have a lot of kiss-ass in her vibe—she reads as someone with zero fucks to give.” At the same time, she can seem almost vulnerable. Responding to online trolls who have said that her fame is due to her wealthy family and her social media presence more than innate model perfection, she will admit to being a little wounded—but she laughs about it, too. When her walk was roundly criticized for being too clomp-y, she did a video about “perfecting” it by running on a treadmill in a full designer outfit and heels. And after her bottom was declared too wide (how?), she appeared in a video in which she turned to the camera and deadpanned, “Today's workout has been seven minutes. I've really been pushing myself this week.”
This sense of humor about herself, and about fashion, has connected deeply with millennials—those very millennials that advertisers crave. First, and perhaps most important to that bond, is her social media presence: 3 million followers on Twitter, 24 million on Instagram, and God knows how many on her favorite platform, Snapchat. (I can't really tell you the number because I'm too decrepit to figure out how to use it.)
“There are only a handful of girls who have this kind of power—Gigi and Bella [Hadid's sister] and Kendall [Jenner] and Cara [Delevingne]—and every brand wants them,” says Lindsay May, a cofounder of Mayflower Entertainment, which pairs companies with the celebrities who best telegraph the brand's message. Now, when deciding whether to hire an endorser, companies ask for the person's social media stats instead of the gross on her movies. “Gigi was one of the best at monetizing social media in this way.”
Hadid herself acknowledges that she is something of a savant of social media, able to keep her fans checking endlessly for updates on her work, her posse (including Taylor Swift and Jenner), and her love life—she's currently dating Zayn Malik. Asked how it is to have the former One Direction singer crooning to her with his shirt off (as he frequently appears on Instagram): “Yeah, that's not hard to look at. I'll never complain about that.”
Hadid continues, “I wish I had a strategy to [social media]. I could write a book and make millions. But I never feel like I'm working when I'm doing social media. I guess I succeeded at it because it came naturally.”
Coming naturally seems to be Hadid's go-to phrase; one of her gifts is that she never looks as if she's trying too hard.
Jelena Noura “Gigi” Hadid's history is known to anyone under 30 with an Instagram account. She was born to Mohamed Hadid, a California real estate developer, and Yolanda Hadid, a former model and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast member who recently split from music producer David Foster. Hadid has the kind of fraught family history that has probably bought lovely houses for several therapists: Her biological father is engaged to be married for the third time; her ex-stepdad, David Foster, has been married four times and at one point was married to Linda Thompson, the mother of Brody Jenner and Brandon Jenner, her children by Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn). So Hadid's stepfather was also the stepfather of her best friend Kendall's half brothers. You with me so far? Actually, never mind. Just think of it this way: When you consider the looks of everyone involved here, they would have the most beautiful family reunion ever.
Hadid started modeling as a child, and while she didn't exactly know fashion stardom would be in her future, she knew one thing for sure: She was good at it.
“I don't know why, but I just knew,” she says. “I knew I wanted to make pictures better.” Her mother was a very good photographer, and a camera was rarely out of reach. Partially because of her mother, Hadid says, “I was obsessed with photographers and where models were supposed to fit in. Obviously, I'm not taking iconic pictures as a six-year-old, but I studied models as part of an image, not just as a model, if that makes sense.” She was transfixed not so much by the people in various ads but by the mood their presence created. “I first got inspiration for energy in a photo looking at those Tommy Hilfiger family-picture ads, where there were so many people and it looked like so much fun,” she says.
“I guess I saw what a lot of people don't see in models, which is that it's hard work, and you're not just another object in the photo.” Hadid has worked very hard for her fame; let's face it—you don't get millions of Instagram fans by not giving a shit. “I don't know if I got it from riding or school or volleyball or my mom or all of them. But I've always been the person to self-alarm at 4 A.M. to finish a school project.”
Fame is still new, and a bit strange, and there are one or two things she misses. Like it would be nice to be an observer sometimes and not just the observed. When she first moved to New York in 2013, no one knew her, and she could walk freely in the city. (Between modeling gigs, she studied criminal psychology at the New School: “Instead of watching the Disney Channel, I was watching Forensic Files.”)
N ow she tries to walk around freely, and it doesn't always work out so well. There are paparazzi often parked in front of her NoHo building. But she refuses to have round-the-clock security: “I have security at the right times, but I also like to walk down the street by myself. I'm a Taurus; I'm hardheaded.”
She also could do without the assumptions that because she is a privileged girl from a family that's not exactly averse to the spotlight, she is not a “real” model, that she wouldn't have made it in this business were it not for family connections. With all the gushing fandom comes a level of vitriol, over everything from purportedly fake tans to fake relationships, that strips a person of his or her humanity.
“I always want to prove myself and to let people know I'm a good person,” she says. “A lot of people don't realize they're typing this stuff, and that's a lot of negative energy—regardless of whether we see it or not. People just don't realize the power of their judgment.”
So let's settle the question right now. Mary Clarke, a cofounder of Mother Model Management, is a leading modeling scout and agent who launched the careers of Ashton Kutcher, Karlie Kloss, and others. What if she'd seen Hadid at a checkout counter? Would she have approached her?
“Of course,” says Clarke, who recalls seeing Hadid backstage the first season she was on a runway. “Some of the other girls were surrounded by an entourage and seemed annoyed by the hair and makeup people. She's the opposite: sweet and friendly and enthusiastic—such an engaging person, which a top model should be.”
Perhaps a large part of this sweetness stems from her closeness to her family—fellow models Bella, 20, her brother, Anwar, 17, and particularly her mother, Yolanda. Gigi is a mama's girl. She gets very emotional when she talks about her mother's battle with Lyme disease, which Yolanda will be documenting in an upcoming book.
“My mom has neurological Lyme disease, which means it's spirochetes that are from bacteria that the tick has. The spirochetes are like little screws and kind of embed themselves in the brain tissue,” she explains. When the disease affects the nerves in the brain, it's harder to detect because “it's not in the bloodstream anymore. You have to do a special test for it.”
Having a nebulous disease with symptoms that come and go is bad; being accused of faking that disease for attention, as Yolanda has been on Real Housewives, is much worse. (Those accusations are reportedly the reason she quit the show this year.) Hadid remembers that when she was in high school, her mother sometimes couldn't get out of bed or even watch TV. “And she couldn't come to my volleyball games—the light and sound really got to her.” Hadid's voice trails off and her eyes fill up, but she quickly shakes it off. There were other times, Hadid adds, when her mother accompanied her to events when she really wasn't up to it. “She tried to be a power mom.” Fortunately, Hadid herself has not contracted Lyme disease, though both Anwar and Bella contracted it and were treated when it was in its early stages.
A big part of Hadid's appeal is that she is relatable—despite looking the way she does and having the resources that she has. She's bored senseless by the treadmill and weights, so she has taken up boxing—a skill that came in handy this past September, when, as she was emerging from a fashion show in Milan, a “prankster” grabbed her from behind, immobilizing her arms and lifting her off the ground. She managed to elbow him and get free. Twitter's first reaction was to suggest she was being bratty, though the popular opinion shifted quickly. “Honestly, I felt I was in danger,” she told Lena Dunham in her newsletter, Lenny, “and I had every right to react the way I did. If anything, I want girls to see the video and know that they have the right to fight back, too, if put in a similar situation.”
Hadid's beauty regimen consists of almost nothing because, not to belabor the obvious, but 1) she is fussed over by professionals daily, and 2) just look at her. On her days off, she'll wear no makeup or maybe nude lipstick. And she uses St. Ives Apricot scrub, which has been around since I was her age, meaning a very, very long time. “It's been around because it's the best,” she says sweetly.
And the future? I don't even ask her about marriage and children, because she's 21 and going out with Zayn Malik, and if I were her and someone asked me that question, I'd punch them in the face.
In her free time, of which there is precious little, she watches TV and cooks with Malik (last night: meat pie and apple crumble). She makes art—spray paintings and watercolors mostly, of a variety of subjects, though as a true California girl, her high-school portfolio consisted of different cars in various mediums. She likes to skydive, she thinks, sort of, based on doing it once and feeling as if she were going to die. (Fun!) And yes, she'd like to act. But she has turned down a passel of “dumb-model roles,” as she puts it, and knows she's not yet ready to get the roles she wants. She's studying. “I think I'll only do one or two movies in my life, so I want them to be good,” she says.
Finally, it's time to get busy. Zulu has arrived. He's jet black—he goes with everything—and his mane and tail have been braided so the curls match Hadid's. She beams. She mounts him and guides him easily. At one point, lying naked on his glossy bare back, Hadid looks as comfortable and happy as if she were lying in her own bed.
When the day is done, Zulu nuzzles Hadid on the cheek. She smooches him right back. Lucky horse. Lucky girl.
Hair, Rudi Lewis; makeup, Sally Branca; manicure, Megumi Yamamoto. Prop stylist: Bette Adams. Fashion stylist: Beth Fenton.
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