|Lily Cole: ‘I’m impressed by what technology can do, but [my site] Impossible is driven by analogue instincts, like valuing time and meeting people in the real world.’|
Lily Cole interview: 'Our concept of beauty is so restrictive'
In her career, Lily Cole has been feted as a model and actress. Now, playing the legendarily beautiful Helen of Troy, she is confronting what first brought her to attention… her looks
Sun 8 Jun 2014
here's an unpredictability to Lily Cole. She made her name as a model while still a schoolgirl and has trodden the familiar route of model turned actress, but in the meantime she went to Cambridge University, where she graduated with a first in history of art, and soon after leaving took the altogether less familiar path of becoming a model turned technology entrepreneur. Last year, she launched a wish-fulfilment website called impossible.com, a site where people post their wishes and that "encourages people to do things for others for free".
In the cafe of the Hampstead theatre, north London, she looks at first glance like any other casually dressed twentysomething, though her dark coat is suspiciously well cut and it turns out the trainers she's wearing she designed herself (they're made using wild rubber from the Amazon, part of an initiative she worked on with the WWF and Sky to help support communities in the rainforest).
There aren't too many 26-year-olds out there who can talk about the complexities of supply distribution networks, who have been shot by both Juergen Teller and Playboy and who believe they change the face of global capitalism by creating a platform to encourage small acts of kindness.
You're playing Helen of Troy in Simon Armitage's new adaptation of The Iliad, The Last Days of Troy. Have you felt any pressure in playing the most beautiful woman in the world?
I don't think that the pressure comes from that one description. Beauty is so relative and so subjective and that's just a description of her but I can't play that description. Everyone will have a different opinion of what that image is. I don't feel pressure, but a responsibility, maybe, in playing a character that's so well known or at least who has occupied such a big part of the human imagination for such a long time. The beautiful thing is… not something I can do anything about. I can't change how I look.
Simon Armitage said that one of the things he wanted to do was give Helen a voice that has largely been missing in previous productions.
He's given her a very interesting, very peculiar voice. He hasn't landed it clearly. And that's not a criticism, because it's deliberately so. Her voice is one of questions as opposed to answers. Her character asks questions of the other characters, all these men, and what are the real intentions and desires that drive all war and conflict. He's done a really good job of keeping enough unsaid so that there is space for multiple interpretations.
He also compared…
…me to an Iraqi supergun!
Yes, he compared Helen to the 45-minute claim: that she is ostensibly the reason why the Greeks go to war but is not the reason the Greeks go to war. Do you think those modern resonances come through in the play?
Yes. And the idea that so much of this conflict is being driven by the desire for wealth. It's history repeating itself again and again. They don't just take Helen, they take the wealth of the whole of Troy. That's implicit not just in Simon's depiction but in others' too, though it's just one interpretation.
I read somewhere that one of the actresses you admire is Charlize Theron and she's another great beauty who started out modelling but whose breakthrough role came when she uglied up [to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster]. I wonder if that appeals to you, the idea of playing somebody who is much more counter to type?
Actually, the role I played before this one was a small part in London Fields, based on the Martin Amis book, and she was a serious addict and hopelessly dependent. They didn't do anything as extreme to me as Charlize in terms of prosthetics, but they certainly did their best job at making me look shit.
Did you test it out at all the street? Did people react differently to you?
I didn't but I certainly know that from life. There are many days I go out dressed down, no makeup, feeling kind of rough, and I elicit much, much, much, much less attention than if I put on a dress and makeup. If I'm wearing heels and walk down the street, I am really conscious because most people are paying attention.
Do you think wearing makeup and dressing up actually makes you more beautiful? Or do you think you are signalling something about your femininity?
I think it signals something. I mean, it does make me more beautiful in a really momentary flash and that is someone's first impression. I actually considered not wearing any makeup at all for Helen. I didn't want that mask of beauty. I love it when people don't wear makeup. It suggests internally they're so cool and comfortable with themselves.
I did a shoot about six months ago where I grew out my armpit hair and in a small way it felt that I was resisting. Our concept of beauty is so restrictive. We treat it like it's got an eternal truth to it when it hasn't. It's relative to the country we're in and time period. And the media reiterate that idea again and again through visual culture and that becomes "beautiful", and women aspire to that image as opposed to realising that how we are naturally is very beautiful.
Was that one of the interesting things about studying history of art at Cambridge: seeing how visual culture and ideas of beauty have shifted so much over time?Totally, also just seeing the depiction of women for hundreds and hundreds of years. Many more women have been depicted than men, so even the fact that a woman is seen as a beautiful thing to paint [was interesting]. There aren't that many images of Helen of Troy but it's interesting to see how different painters have interpreted her over the years.
You were spotted by a modelling scout at the age of 14. Looking back at it now though, does the fact that you were so young trouble you? The fact that the fashion industry uses underage models to show off their clothes, sometimes in a sexualised way?
It doesn't trouble me too much from my experience. I didn't do very sexualised imagery until I was a bit older. There were some publications such as Vogue, for example, that don't use girls under 16. The way we present images in general bothers me. So the way that beauty is understood often as being largely Caucasian and largely young is inherently problematic. And the idea of what is fashionable, of what is hot or not, and that being applied to young girls is also hugely difficult. I know how I was when I was a teenager and how insecure most teenagers are.
What was the inspiration behind your website, impossible.com?
I was talking about the economy with my friend Kate when we were in the middle of the financial crisis. We were saying why is it that when the economy falters like this, society immediately falls apart? Because, from the moment before the crisis to the moment after the crisis, we have exactly the same number of resources, skills, things, time.
Yet, once we lose that means of moving them around, we all fall apart. So what if there was another way, a way of trading things without money? Then that tripped into what if there was a website or a technical platform? You don't know what you can give your neighbours and what they can give you. Well, what if there was a website that did that?
I hadn't heard of that gift economy as a concept at that time, but it felt like such an obvious thing. I was just like: "Why does this not exist?" By the time I left university, I felt there was a way of doing it and every time I'd meet somebody, they'd pretty much always go: "I love that idea. How can I help?" So I ended up with this quite large group of people who were cheerleading and helping and at some point I didn't have a choice.
It seems that Jimmy Wales [the founder of Wikipedia] has been quite an influential friend to you and impossible.com. How did that friendship come about?
It was at Davos. Wikipedia is one of the biggest gift economies around, so I was like: "I can't believe I'm meeting you!" I had hardly started working on it, but I told him the idea and he ended up really loving it and continues to be a great supporter. He's a believer.
We've had mostly very positive press, but one journalist criticised it, and I mentioned it to Jimmy and he was like: "Yeah, you should see what he wrote about Wikipedia 15 years ago." The fact that Wikipedia has proved it is possible to do something like this is pretty inspiring. Whether we can achieve that is still yet to be seen, but it is certainly an inspiration.
That critical piece you mention was in the Mirror and followed up by one of the tech magazines and it criticised you for getting £200,000 of taxpayers' money from Nesta… what did you make of that?
It was predicated on very selective information. For example, I do not have anywhere near as much money as they said [the Mirror claimed Cole is worth £8.5m] and even if it were true, the government awards funds to people who are much wealthier than me, to fund non-profit initiatives like this. I think that there's a rhetoric in our culture that because this person is rich, they therefore don't deserve anything and we can hate them.
They didn't include the fact that I also funded that equivalent amount of money, which was as much as I could afford at the time. And they didn't mention that it was a social business and that it's not going to make any private profits.
The website looks like it is just one of those things that is a bit of a numbers game. So, if you had…
…critical mass, then it could be this very useful tool, but without critical mass it makes it very difficult to use because it just depends who is in your area.
You can search stuff locally. I'm actually planning on creating groups within it. Right now, a lot of people are using it for online things because that's dispersed, it's not tied into any geographic locality. But hopefully it will grow and areas will get denser. We're about to issue a toolkit so people can grow their own local communities.
Why is it impossible.com?
So much more is possible than we imagine. If we allow ourselves to imagine – and co-operate with each other – a huge amount more would be possible. I do think that hopefully impossible.com will empower and encourage people, by framing something as a wish, and putting it out there. It's often small-scale things that feel magic.
You're also now the co-owner of a book shop, Claire De Rouen Books, aren't you?
Yes. It's on Charing Cross Road and my friend Lucy [Moore] now runs it. She had a really strong relationship with Claire de Rouen who founded it. When Claire passed away, she took it over and I helped her buy it. She's also publishing the thesis I wrote at university. A lot of the philosophy behind it has driven impossible.com and I just wanted to put it out there. She asked me if we could publish it, and we worked with a designer and made just 500 of them so it's a very limited edition but they're very beautiful objects. We're doing a free ebook version too that will come out at the same time.
It's quite funny because you are sort of getting this name as something of a technology entrepreneur, but your other business is so old fashioned – it's like collecting telephone books or something.
Yes, because while I'm incredibly impressed by what technology can do, Impossible is driven by quite analogue instincts like valuing time and experience and meeting people in the real world and building community. I try to bring that into the design of it too, so it's all handwritten, hand-scribbled. The first time I made wire frames, which are the layout of the website, I made them with collage. I gave up hiring other people to make them for me; I suddenly realised I can do them myself with paper and scissors. I'm not trying to pretend I'm a tech genius. I don't code.