BuzzFeed Fashion’s “How I Made It in Fashion” series takes an in-depth look at how the industry’s stars got to where they are. Below, model Josephine Skriver talks about her rise from diaper model to runway star — and how her gay parents made all her success possible.
I’m from Denmark. My mom is gay and she was single, but she wanted kids. She wanted me to be able to have a dad. So we had this magazine called Pan-bladet in Denmark, which is for the community of gay people, so she posted an ad in the personals where she asked, “Are there any gay couples or gay guys out there who wish to be a dad? Because I’m a single mom and I wanted to have kids.” Five guys replied, and she really ended up liking my dad, and shortly after that they made me. And everything was kind of meant to be, and it’s kind of funny — my life started in a magazine and now all I do is appear in magazines.
I have a younger brother who’s 13 now — same mom, same dad. My dad married a guy, which was really nice. I grew up with him until I was about 6, but then they split but we’re still really close — he’s like my uncle. He’s still there every Christmas so it still feels like a big family because there are so many people there.
I definitely think it has been a lot easier for me coming from Denmark because people are not as judgmental [as in the U.S.]. But when I was born, [having gay parents] wasn’t so normal. My mom always said, “You have to be really open about it, it’s important not to hide who you are, because as soon as you are embarrassed about something people are going to mock you about that.” So in school I never really got teased. I’ve heard a lot of other people say, “I like you, and your parents are fine, but I still don’t like gay people — like, other gay people, I don’t know.” Maybe you grew up in a family where you just don’t know what gay people are [like], and what you don’t know might be scary to you.
It’s always been me that’s dragged my parents to the gay pride parade because I’ve always been so proud of them. We call ourselves “rainbow kids.” I was always just so proud. And every time I see people nowadays speak up for [gay rights], I feel like we’re getting there. I still feel like there’s a lot of fighting against it. But they always focus on the kids, I feel. Like, “Oh, it’s going to be bad for [gay people] to have kids.” Or, “They’re gonna make more gays.” First of all for me, that wouldn’t be so bad, but second of all, I want to be the voice for the kids because it’s really not that bad. You’re sure your parents love you, because they really, really wanted you in the first place. Gay people having a baby — it’s never just, “Whoops!” It’s amazing to get where I am now, as a model, and actually be able to raise my voice.
My mom was always the tomboy who played soccer, my dad was more the art guy, and he taught me about music and the arts. My aunt was always more fashion — she worked [as a fashion consultant]. She had a lot of friends who were in fashion, so from a very young age, I did jobs for friends.
My first ever catwalk, I could barely walk. It was in the mall. It was not like I was with an agency or anything. I did ads for some diaper brands and stuff but then I was, I think 5 or 6, and I had to shoot with this guy and I was like, “No, no more, mom,” and she said, “OK, of course — if you don’t want to do it anymore, you don’t have to.”
I just took a break for 10 to 15 years. Because I played soccer in school, I ended up in New York, when my soccer team was on an exchange program for a week, and we had this one “see everything in New York” day. So it was like running around New York, and all of a sudden this guy comes up and stopped my coach because you see my whole team and then you have me [taller than everyone else]. And he’s just like, “Oh, we really want to represent you blah blah blah.” And I was like 14, 15, and I was like, “No, I don’t know you, this is weird.”
I came back to Denmark and told the story to one of my aunt’s best friends who was like, “Oh, you have to try it out.” Then I got stopped in the street again, and more and more people encouraged me to try it. So I thought, “Maybe, let’s try it out.” So we sent some pictures to my agency Unique, and very shortly thereafter they were like, “Oh, yeah, we want to have you.” I met with the New York agency, but I wasn’t ready — I was still 15, so I wanted to finish school.
After that, I tried out for New York Fashion Week, and it went really well so I continued to Milan and Paris. I thought I was just going away for a week, and five, six weeks later I come back, and I’m home for a few days and all of a sudden I get shipped back off to shoot with [Steven] Meisel.
My mom traveled with me during my first fashion weeks, with my bookers. She’s just been a great support. She’s never steps in front of me. And just when everything gets to be too much, instead of having a freak-out backstage, I had my mom. I feel almost bad for my mom because she got all my leftover frustrations from everything. But it was really great to have her support, so if I didn’t get a show — or if I did get a show — I had someone to share it with. And I think it helped her a lot to understand what I’m going through, and now she’s not so afraid of leaving her girl alone on the other side of the Atlantic.
My very first show I think was Rag & Bone. I think my last show in New York was Calvin Klein and in between that I did 20 shows. Then I went straight to Milan to do some looks with Gucci. Looks just means you are helping the designer to put together the outfits — trying them on to see, like, does this shirt fit with this T-shirt on the runway? And that would take maybe three to eight hours. And that probably would happen during the night. They always used the newer girls they like to do the looks in the beginning. After you’ve done the shows for a while you get a better schedule because they already know, “Oh, she’ll look good in this, this, and this.”
That first season in Milan, I opened Alberta Ferretti and closed Prada in the same day and I didn’t even know [that was that a big deal] because I didn’t know enough about fashion. Now I have a whole routine, I know people and everything, but that was just — it was amazing.
I would tell young models to be really polite. I feel like a lot of the new girls are like, “Oh, why do I have to sit and wait for six hours?” But it’s a process. Get ready to wait a long time, make sure you always have snacks and water and something entertaining to do. And don’t be complaining in front of the designer or anyone because they’re working their butt off — everybody is doing their best. I am the “hangry” type. I get angry if I’m too hungry. I have to make sure I always have snacks in my bag because it does get stressful, and sometimes you don’t have time to eat, or you get stuck too long at some place. When my blood sugar drops, that really affects me.
Also, try to get enough sleep, even though it’s not really possible, and to try and eat healthy because you need the right vitamins even though you might have a metabolism that allows you to eat McDonald’s all the time.
I can’t [eat McDonald’s] like that anymore. I’m 20 now. I used to. That was fun.
I did 54 shows my first season. After that, I met Meisel at a casting with Pat [McGrath]. Pat I knew from the shows. We just talked and I was again thinking, “Oh my god this is going to be so intimidating — this is major.” But he is so nice, so calm. He’s sitting there with his bandanna and really relaxed and just made me really comfortable, so we just talked and laughed. It was actually my longest casting ever. We talked for, like, 10 minutes. A lot of time they just see your book and it’s, “Next.” But he actually took his time. Shortly thereafter I got confirmed for Italian Vogue.
I was really impressed with that shoot because normally you’re in front of the camera and you have to move and they take thousands of pictures and, of course, one is good. Meisel maybe takes 10.
Shooting with Meisel opens a lot of doors. Shortly after that, I got a Bulgari fragrance campaign with Inez and Vinoodh. It took us three days to shoot one picture. They made a fake pool in front of a lake to make it look like we were in the lake, which was super cool. I had the fanciest trailer ever, I have to say. It was like — maybe if you saw the Justin Bieber movie or something, it was kind of like that. It had white leather couches and I was like, “Wow.” That was my first glimpse of like the higher-fashion model life, when it gets really glamorous. When you’re shooting advertising, all of a sudden there’s like catering and chefs that stand there and make the food for you and you’re like, “Oh, really? Wow.”
One of my favorite shoots actually was in Scotland. It was for Harper’s Bazaar. It’s raining and it’s cold, but we were so far out in the Highlands that it was like being in the middle of the Lord of the Rings. We’d just take three pictures, went back to this cottage, sat in front of the fire and got warm, then went out again. There were so many mosquitoes, so the whole team would have, like, mosquito nets over their heads but you can’t really put that on me. Once I had to stand in the middle of this swamp and I felt like I was covered in mosquitoes because they just, like, slowly sat all over my skin. I came back [covered in bites]. It was three days before couture, so I was just itching insane in Paris. I don’t think the makeup artist for one show was super-happy about my legs, because my arms and my legs were covered in small mosquito bites and I was like, “Sorry!” They covered them with makeup. Luckily, they disappeared after three days.
Since I got dark hair, for one shoot, they wanted me to look more Latina. And I always find it a bit weird that they don’t just book a Latina girl instead of [making me up] with tons of dark [makeup] — like a suntan. And making my hair look extra dark to make me look Latina because they didn’t want me to look too Scandinavian. For me, that’s a bit odd.
But definitely lately with Joan Smalls being number one — and a lot of the campaigns lately have had a lot of Asian models, which is nice — it’s getting more and more diverse. I think fashion is a place where there’s room for everyone.
Now I’m 20 and have an apartment in Manhattan, which is basically pretty crazy. When I sit down sometimes I’m like, Wow. I feel like it’s been ages for me being a model now, but basically it’s just been two, two-and-a-half years, and so much has happened; I’ve seen more of the world than I thought I ever would. It’s just amazing.
I must say, my family’s been amazing. They’ve been so supportive. I thought they would be like, “That’s not a real job.” But they were like, “Go for it! Go for your dreams!”
—As told to Amy Odell