Lily Cole 

Photography by Petra Collins. Words by Paul Bui for RUSSH Magazine.

On a beautiful sunny day in Miami I catch up with Lily Cole as G-Star prepares to announce her as the new face of their upcoming campaign. Upon meeting her, I’m greeted with that heart shaped face and flaming hair that was so prevalent in the 2000s when the fashion world was enamored with a Pre-Raphaelite look. It’s a face that blazed magazine covers the world over and ruled runways from Cacharel to Chanel. But Lily Cole is not your typical model. The British beauty has certainly had a phenomenal career – first in fashion, then in film. Yet it’s the technology realm that she’s seeking to conquer with an endeavor that’s as altruistic as it is pragmatic.  

“I actually feel weirdly most connected to the technology world right now,” she tells me when I ask if she still has a strong relationship with fashion. “But I don’t feel married to any one world and I quite like that. I still have lots of friends I collaborate with in fashion. And I go into the film world obviously for work. But technology has increasingly become a more political world. I feel I cross-pollinate between them and they cross pollinate one another because there’s an underlying intention that can be seen in all of them.”

The technology that Cole is talking about stems from an idea she had in university. The premise was to build an online social network that fosters a kind of cultural giving and receiving. Users can post things they would like help with or things that they can do, and then the platform reveals people who either live nearby or people they already know who have the skills that match this need. It’s a simple yet clever concept, which has already been rolled out in England under the domain Impossible.com. Similar to Wikipedia (whose founder Jimmy Wales is helping Cole on the project), Impossible.com is based on the model of a gift economy. 

“We have to keep making it better, and spreading the word and making the community stronger and more responsible. But overwhelmingly we’ve had a very positive reception to it and people are actually using it now in London. I’ve heard quite a few happy stories in the last week of it helping people.” What are these happy stories? “Little things mostly. A friend of mine who is a screenwriter offered very last minute to host a workshop. We put it on Impossible.com – within 12 hours we had a room full of 20 to 30 people, and he gave a free workshop to them talking about screenwriting. It was awesome. And while I was there I met a girl who came up to me after, she was chatting to me, and was like ‘I’ve got to run, sorry, but I’m giving someone a tour of London through Impossible’ – somebody had wished for a tour of London and she’d offered to do it. It was very sweet.”

As sweet and simple as it may seem, Cole has spent the last two years working on this project. It’s difficult to imagine many models having the patience and intuition to develop such a philanthropic platform. But Cole is different. Even when she was discovered at the age of 14, walking around Soho in London, the idea of quitting school to travel the world modelling was never an option. “I was a bit tentative about it [modelling] at first but then I got into it and even in my active years – probably 15, 16, 17 and 18 – I was always studying. I was quite geeky so it just landed itself that way.”

In her formative years, Cole worked with some of the world’s most renowned fashion photographers from Steven Meisel to Irving Penn. Her distinct doll face landed her campaigns with Chanel, Hermes and Longchamp, all the while fronting covers for Vogue, Numero and Interview. While modelling allowed her to travel the world and reap new experiences, Cole has always had a strong interest in the arts. Her mother was an artist and drama had always been one of Cole’s favorite subjects at school; acting seemed like the natural transition. “I think there are things from modelling that have helped me with acting on a very practical level,” she says. “Being comfortable in front of a room of people and a camera is quite helpful. But in terms of a craft, they’re very different. With modelling you’re not really digging into a character, there might be a feeling to it but it’s a lot more reactive and I’m just trying to absorb what the photographer wants, and capture that. Whereas when I work on a character, I’m really trying to find that character, I’m really trying to sculpt a person.”

No doubt drawing from her own character, Cole made her acting debut as Polly the geek in the 2007 teenage comedy St Trinians, a remake of the 1950s classic. But it was her first leading role as Valentina – in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – which cemented her place as a serious actor. Various roles soon followed with a brief stint on stage at London’s West End Old Vic theatre. Despite Cole throwing herself into acting she hasn’t completely abandoned modelling. In the new G-Star campaign – which she stars alongside Chess pro Magnus Carlsen – Cole looks as strikingly beautiful as ever. If anything, her new passions seem to have added more depth to the campaign.

I wonder then, whether being more than a pretty face creates a better picture. This idea comes as no surprise to Cole who has a theory about models who succeed through their personality. “I think it’s not a coincidence that most models who have been successful in the past, have quite interesting personalities and you can see how they attract people to continue to work with them,” Cole says.  “I wonder if it’s obvious maybe in the past few years you get more of a sense of girls’ personalities because they have personal mediums to talk through. It’s more self-evident, because social media makes girls who are both interesting and beautiful become more of a brand of themselves.” An astute observation and perhaps a theory that’s applicable to herself.