Paloma Elsesser
Photo by Ricky Alvarez
Emerging Masters

Paloma Elsesser: “I’m living less fearfully”

Short Profile

Name: Paloma Kai Shockley Elsesser
DOB: 12 April 1992
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Model

Paloma, you’re often celebrated for as a voice for change in the fashion industry and a self-love advocate for women and girls. Would you call yourself a role model?

I would never call myself a role model! I cannot! (Laughs) I mean, any impact you can have to show people what is possible, that’s great. But I also think, maybe it's not such a linear journey. It doesn't have to be so literal. For example, I like when people say you inspire me to send my photos to a modelling agency,  but I also love when people you inspired me to ask out this guy I like, or you inspired me to get a PhD or whatever it is. That's really cool. I love when it's not so literal.

After all, there’s no one right way to be a role model.

When I was really young, I just wanted to change something. That’s all I wanted to do. I grew up reading a lot, I still write some poetry and that kind of stuff, and I went to school for psychology and journalism, and I wanted to be a psychologist when I was younger. I've just always wanted to change something, to change and be changed. I mean, I would love if I can look back and say that I did something that maybe helped somebody, that shifted their perspective or thought — and that could be in a bunch of different ways, not just how you feel about your body. So no, I would not call myself a role model, but I hear that echoed back to me, and it’s something that I feel is such a profound gift, that at 30 I'm so lucky to have left even a small crumb of a legacy or an effect or an impact.

“I’m giving myself what I didn’t have, which is structure, and care, and grace, and being okay with digging into these weird, darker corners of my brain. I’m living less fearfully.”

Tavi Gevinson says that this whole idea of a role model was a lot of pressure for her as a young person, when it actually wasn’t her job at all. Can you relate to that?

One hundred percent! I agree with what Tavi said: I'm not actually responsible to make people feel good about themselves. Plus, the intention when I started wasn't like, “Okay, I’m going to be an activist.” I’m thought of that way because I’ve been open about, like, “This is just the body that I came in, and this is how I feel about that body.” There was no intention there of it becoming anything… It’s also, as you said, an irresponsible responsibility on someone who was just like, “This is how I look, and this is how it’s going.”

It also seems like a lot of responsibility because not only do you have to be a role model for girls, but also for women of colour, and for plus-size women.

I do often feel a lot of pressure to not let the girls down! Which isn't fair to my own process and my own experience, and ultimately to the girls, you know? You’re going to let people down, you’re going to mess up sometimes. That’s a newer fear that I hadn't really felt earlier in my life.

Maybe instead of being a role model, it’s better to think about it like: what can I do and say and be that my younger self would have needed at the time?

I like that. I think my younger self needed more structure, more tenderness through structure, more ease… Because outwardly, I was very tough, I had a tough exterior but I’m really sensitive, you know, I’m an Aries. So now I’m in my gentle era, which I think is about feeling amazing and feeling that you can move through the world as yourself. I'm giving myself what I didn't have, which is structure, and care, and listening, and grace, and being okay with digging into these weird, darker corners of my brain. I’m living less fearfully. I think I still have a lot to figure out in that department, and in trying to figure that out, I think that will create more ease.

“I learned by looking at the figures who I most admire. Those are characteristics that I value in people, and how can I, in turn, value that in myself?”

Is it difficult to talk about these kinds of issues? Especially in a world like the fashion industry where models are often seen as these silent figures…

Being shy and mysterious, these are things that we are indoctrinated to believe at a young age would make us more valuable or better. So I had to find some kind of solution, and I think by not being quiet from the beginning, that has really served me now. I think having a later start as a model, that was really a gift and a privilege because I had a formative idea of what purpose looks like to me, and I could apply that to my job. If I was just a silent robot, it would be hell, like I would not be able to survive this. There’s also this weird emotional erasure that I think exists in every job, that’s like: be professional. For example, you’re suffering but you have to work through it and that’s “so professional” of you. That is so bizarre to me! I can't speak for everyone, but I can imagine every human being is pretty sensitive, I definitely fit on the more sensitive side…

It’s hard not to question why it’s seemingly so wrong to show our emotions.

Exactly. It goes back to what we were saying about being a role model, like, I'm not here to tell you that I wake up every day and like myself and everything's dandy all the time or that life is amazing all the time. I’m not here to sell you that dream. I’m still figuring it out! But the industry has this obsession with being cool and nonchalant, and I think that’s kind of harmful to the ultimate goal, so I’m not going to try and play that game all the time.

Recently you talked about how for you, the most iconic women are the ones who “unapologetically take up space.” Is that also how you hope to live your life?

I am just kind of a person that takes up a bit more space in ideology, in feeling, in thought. I used to feel very insecure about that, but I learned by looking at the figures who I most admire, whether it be even like my own mom, or someone like Björk or whoever… Those are characteristics that I value in people, and how can I, in turn, value that in myself? It took a while for me to figure out that this is who I am and this is what I like about myself. I am not quiet, or mysterious… And while I think it’s really cool to be that, to be pensive and to be observant, there are also people who are not ghostly in this world, and they have enough tenacity to be like, “Okay, these are my thought, these are my ideas.” And I’m going to do that.