Her career and body may have provoked a thousand headlines, but Crystal Renn isn’t fazed. Stylist meets the supermodel turned supreme philosopher...
Words: Ruby Warrington. Picture credit: Rex
Crystal Renn’s life story has already been a book, but I’m putting bets on now that one day the film version will be on a cinema screen near you. One of the most striking models of her generation, Crystal has, in a relatively short time, become a kind of mega brand. One that represents diversity, provokes debate and gets continually booked for catwalk shows and multimillion-pound editorial campaigns.
It may have started with her 2009 tell-all tome Hungry, but the model who went from thin to plus-size, before losing weight to become, well, middle-sized has transcended the drama that originally brought her household-name recognition. She has now become a very special kind of supermodel.
She’s an international cover girl several times over, with photographers such as Terry Richardson falling over themselves to shoot her; Carine Roitfeld works with Crystal continuously, calling her “magnificent”; Karl Lagerfeld reportedly courted her for months before signing her to represent Chanel in 2010. And with a new international campaign for festival outfitters Free People, Crystal’s star is only going to burn brighter.
ABOVE: Crystal on the Jean Paul Gaultier catwalk in 2005
We meet in a tapas bar around the corner from the 26-year-old’s agency in the SoHo district of New York. Crystal orders tortilla and a glass of “very rich, full-bodied red wine.” “I don’t drink that much because I can’t handle it – no hard liquor,” she tells me. “Maybe it’s because I’m American Indian…” It’s fair to say that Crystal’s background is more eventful than most. Her mother Lana dropped a malnourished Crystal with her grandmother Kathy (who Crystal thought of as Mom – she tells me she owes everything to her) in Miami when she was three months old. Lana later persuaded Crystal and Kathy to live with her in Clinton, Mississippi when Crystal was in her early teens. It was there, aged 14, that she was spotted by a scout who told her she could be a model if she lost weight. Within two years she was modelling in New York and suffering from anorexia.
Crystal’s choice of drink suits her – in the flesh, she is the living embodiment of the word dramatic. Dressed all in black (off duty, she wears nothing else), her hands are weighed down by heavy rings in amethyst and black quartz. From her short-lived marriage to her teen sweetheart, teacher Gregory Vrecenak (it lasted two years; they divorced in 2009), to her obsession with astrology (“I’m a Gemini, but like a Scorpio emotionally – loud and vivid and intense”) and her current boyfriend (who she refuses to name), Crystal swoops from topic to topic. Which is not to say she comes across as angst-ridden – despite the “demons” she tells me she still deals with on a daily basis.
Rather, here is a passionate and animated young woman with a keenly analytical brain, a deep thirst for self-knowledge and an opinion on everything. One hour soon becomes three, and we take the conversation outside into the spring sunshine where she opens up about being raised by her grandmother, what she’s learnt about men and how modelling helped her come out of her shell. But first, back to the stars…
You seem very knowledgeable about astrology. Do you really believe in it?
Yes! I have Saturn in my eleventh house, so I find being social very draining. I’m an introvert; I spend most of my time alone, and I enjoy it. I travel alone, I do my own thing and I get energy from being by myself.
How did you get interested in it?
I met a make-up artist who was into star signs. I knew I was a Gemini but I’d never really thought about it – I was sent to Christian school as a kid and they tell you that it’s like blasphemy – but I wanted to know more. When I started teaching myself, it was all so accurate I couldn’t deny it. I was like, “Oh my god, it makes so much sense. I have a Scorpio moon.” I’m so intense. But I have Capricorn rising, so I come off very direct and very driven. I became more understanding because of it.
In what way?
I sometimes find people very confusing. But [if I do someone’s astrology chart] I know who I’m dealing with. It helps me at work. I know my boundaries with people.
Are you a spiritual person in other areas of your life?
Yes. I have deep spiritual beliefs. When I was a child it bothered me so much that we were all different religions; why couldn’t we find the truth? Not that what I was taught was wrong, but I realised that “the truth” is going to look different for us all. If you were born in India versus Manhattan, you’re going to have a different perspective. Once I accepted that, I decided I’d make my own beliefs. My happiness levels only grew. I am more accepting of people; I have friends from all walks of life. I’m into it all – astrology, meditation, Buddhism…
ABOVE: Crystal modelling for Chanel in 2010
You were raised in Miami and Mississippi and live in New York. Where do you feel at home?
Because of my job, I feel at home all over the globe. I was raised in Miami until I was 12, then Mississippi until I was 15. It didn’t really work out there, but that’s OK because I met this [modelling] scout and he gave me the world. My mind expanded to the point where London is my neighbourhood, Vietnam is my neighbourhood. I get excited about feeling connected to the whole world. That occurred through my experiences with modelling. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
You were only 16 when you moved to New York to start modelling. That must have been intimidating.
When I first moved into a model apartment, it was so loud with the girls laughing and chatting all the time. I actually started a prayer book about what I wanted to accomplish, how I saw my life. I got so upset once that I burned it. It was so stupid! Now I’m at a place where I’d never do that, but I was so disturbed by what I was writing about that I freaked out and didn’t want to own it. I was really sick then [with anorexia]. When I was getting better, I realised, “This is not me.”
What kind of things were you writing about?
That I wanted to have more faith. I was kind of living like a nun in my teenage years, meditating, reading about scriptures and going to my pastor. He was like, “You’re a kid, why don’t you go to a party or something?” But I was so adult very young. I feel like I’m chilling out as I get older. I was a very serious kid. And then I was off on my own. I had all these thoughts going on; about these girls, my agency, my body. I was like, “Where am I, what is my place in this world? Because now I’ve seen it and it’s way bigger than I thought.”
And people around you weren’t supportive?
I kept this side hidden, and I can only talk about it now because I have so much distance that I can look back. People didn’t know; I was very protective of my journal, very serious and intense. I remember always wearing black and not saying very much. I’m so much more chatty now. I was very weird.
In what way? Don’t all teenagers struggle with their quirks?
I was an outsider. I was not the pretty, petite blonde the boys wanted. I didn’t do cute very well. Boys were scared. I was a loner and did my own thing and was fine with it. I enjoyed time with my cat. Drinking at parties didn’t occur as a teenager. Now I’m so chilled by comparison. I’ve seen everything and I don’t judge, even if they are completely different to me – I don’t care, it doesn’t bother me. My way of viewing the world accepts everybody where they are.
Do you have a lot of demons?
I had a lot happen to me even before my memory started to work, before the age of six months. I don’t have a dad, my grandmother raised me. Basically some pretty bad sh*t went down that is tattooed on [my] soul, and I saw things I should not have seen. It gets better, though. I just didn’t deal with it as a teenager. I would just watch pain occur and be like, “That’s fine”. I was not a crier and I didn’t like to be touched. I was very cold. My family thought I was autistic as a kid.
What have been your biggest tools in overcoming those demons?
It depends on the issue. As I age, I get better at handling things – or just saying goodbye to them. Like, pain is pain and you just say goodbye and move on. Something as simple as that can help you. I’m usually the go-to for my friends if they want a rational, “Come on, let’s think this out and not go overboard” opinion. I’m not the hug-and-cry-on-my-shoulder kind. One recent thing I’ve found to be great is filming myself – instead of writing, I keep a diary on camera and then I watch the tape. I want to be my own psychiatrist. It could be a 45-minute “session” and I watch and I can see what I’m really feeling in my eyes and analyse from a distance.
What career path would you have taken if you hadn’t been scouted?
My intention was to go to Yale and be a lawyer, because I can always see both sides to everything and I don’t immediately judge people as good or bad. But I couldn’t stand to see somebody innocent be put away. If I was to do something completely not fashion-related now, I’d definitely be a doctor. I love medicine – it’s a weird thing to be into, but it’s a hobby of mine to read about different diseases. But I can’t imagine going to 12 years of med school having been exposed to the world I have through modelling. Maybe in another life…
ABOVE: Crystal at a party in New York
Has the trauma you went through with your weight, and all the discussion it started, given you a platform to be not just a model, but a spokesperson too?
I’m just glad my experiences have been able to touch some people. These are issues people find very difficult to talk about, and it was like therapy. I’m a soul and have a back history. The eating thing is not the be all and end all. I’m not always thinking about my weight, but I do think my experiences make it easy for people to connect to me, and I want them to. I had a dream and a goal, and people laughed at me when I told them, “I’m going to get healthy and be a supermodel anyway”. They were like, “Yeah sweetheart, sure you will.”
Do you feel like your generation is quite apathetic when it comes to changing the world? Or do you see a lot of twenty-somethings who want to make a difference?
I don’t think we have a choice any more. There have been problems throughout history, we know, but we’re in a place now where we can actually make things happen – be it through a cool, interesting charity, or a different way to fix a problem. I see people who are tired and fed up who want a better world. We’re all scared, it feels like so many things have come to a peak – environmentally, socially – but with the internet we have the knowledge and the reach to make people aware of what’s really going on.
What issues get you riled up?
I want to empower women about diversity. So you’re not like anybody else? Well, guess what – that’s the best thing about you! I love people who are kooky and weird and are just honest about it. I want to encourage women to accept it in other women, because women hate other women too much, and that’s a problem.
Who in your personal life are you closest to?
Probably my boyfriend and my grandmother Kathy. I love her so much. She made every part of my life possible and I owe her my breath. My boyfriend has been there for me in pretty amazing ways – he’s helped me know a different side of men. I didn’t have a dad, so I learnt everything about men from the ones I’ve met. And my boyfriend has taught me they can be gentle, loving and supportive, and they can be your best bud. We’ve been together a year and three months and it’s been really special for me – it’s the first time I’ve had a best friend who’s a guy. I have been so blindingly in love before without having the ‘like’ thing, that feeling of, “You’re my buddy, and I love you”. It’s so special and I’m thrilled to have that. It’s made me believe in men.
You were married and divorced by the age of 22. Do you still believe in the institution?
I could be married in five minutes! But based on what I think now… it was a nice experience to have young, because you know what you will and will not put up with. And when it comes to my future, I guess marriage makes sense, if children were my path for example. I’m not rushing down any aisle, I enjoy my independence. I don’t even know if I want to live with anybody – I’m all about partners living next door, like Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton.
Crystal Renn is the face of Free People; freepeople.co.uk