Picturing Helena

Helena Christensen, Danish supermodel and photographer, has transformed what could have been a short-lived appearance on the catwalk into a successful career still in motion.

I remember running around as a child in the streets of Lima, Peru, with my sister and a bunch of local kids. My parents would give us some small change so we could buy ourselves that most Peruvian of street foods, anticuchos; beef heart, marinated, skewered, and seared on the grill. We had strawberry smoothies to go, turning the whole thing into a wild combination of flavours. The taste to this day reminds me of my childhood and it triggered an early fondness of food in me. Maybe it comes from growing up with a Peruvian mother who would make the most wonderful dishes, making the whole house smell of food. In retrospect, I believe that’s the reason I enjoy food so much and why I usually take that pleasure to a whole new level. I will turn any meal into a sensorial experience, even if it’s just a bowl of oatmeal with sugar and milk.

I was born in Amager, a district in central Copenhagen, and grew up in a one-bedroom flat on a side-street to the busy thoroughfare Amagerbrogade. Later on my dad, who is an avid horse-race gambler, got lucky with a bet, and we moved to a little terrace house with a garden. I don’t remember thinking that being in a one-bedroom apartment with my sister, parents, and later my aunt, who lived with us for many years, felt cramped, on the contrary, when I look back on living in that place, there seemed to be so much space, particularly in my dad’s big, red leather chair.

My mom worked in the financial department of an airline company, my dad worked as a typographer. One of the perks of having a mom in the airline industry was cheap tickets. We made the most of those discounts and would visit relatives in Peru and Miami and spend holidays in Thailand. I remember always being dressed up very elegantly for those flights. We would board the flight only if there were seats available and would be entering at the last minute. Sometimes it meant sitting in Business Class, sometimes it meant taking different flights: My mom and I in one, my sister and my dad in another. It was pretty fantastic to travel so much – and pretty stressful at the same time.

Those trips shaped my early horizons. There’s something profound about seeing the world as child. I’ve realized those experiences helped me cope with a lot of issues later in life. In many ways, my childhood was a normal, happy Danish childhood, but it also had a lot of outside influence given my mother’s Peruvian origins. My mom would only speak Spanish to me, and via American relatives my sister and I also learned English from a very early age. Being trilingual added a third dimension to those childhood trips, since I was able to speak with people in the countries we visited and learn so may personal things about them and their culture.

Continue reading in Oak volume Two