In Conversation With Rachel Roberts

I’ve always tried to go with the flow

Model and actor Rachel Roberts, the archetypal blonde with the infectious smile, epitomizes the image of the Southern California beach babe. Hailing from Vancouver, Rachel has been a mainstay in the fashion industry since the ’90s. She has graced the covers of countless magazines and her star turn in S1MONE was just the beginning of her pivot into acting. With no signs of slowing down, I caught up with Rachel at her home in California.

Tell us about your childhood growing up in Vancouver.

It’s a rainforest, so it was very different from the deserts of Southern California. Life doesn’t stop when it rains like it does in LA. I was a latchkey kid with divorced parents who both worked full-time. My father was a dentist from London, and my mother a Canadian hairdresser. I guess I learned to be self-sufficient at an early age. I rode my bike everywhere or took the bus. I had a small group of very close friends—quality over quantity—who were all very colorful and creative types. 

Tell us about how you got into modeling.

My mother Lila modeled briefly in the early ’80s before returning to hairdressing. When I was 15, I was sitting in her hair salon when she asked me what I thought about trying modeling. She brought me to Liz Bell—my mother agent in Vancouver—who introduced me to NEXT in New York. I guess they saw something in me I didn’t see because I had to lose 40 pounds to start modeling. It was quite a leap of faith on everyone’s part, but with three months of daily boot camp and a strict diet I lost the weight and went to Europe.

You’ve spent your entire working life as a model. Why do you think you’ve been so successful in such a fickle industry?

It’s mostly thanks to my parents’ genetics, and luck. It may also help that I have a strong work ethic; I’ve only ever been late for work twice in 27 years. I started in the business in the mid-90s when models, who weren’t necessarily a household name, had amazingly successful careers. Though the industry has evolved in a positive way by finally embracing all ethnicities, ages, and genders, I imagine it’s not easy to start in the business today. Unless you have a social media following it’s hard to get your foot in the door.

At what point did you realize you had made it?

I spent the first three years of my career pounding the pavement in Milan, Paris, and London mostly shooting editorials and barely scraping by. On a trip back to New York I was sent to see Jennifer Starr, who was casting the Pirelli Calendar for Bruce Weber. As the daughter of hippie parents—and growing up going to a nude beach—nudity was never a big deal to me. They took a chance on me as the only new face in the calendar which then led to my first main story with Bruce for Italian Vogue along with campaigns for Ralph Lauren. As you can imagine, those jobs opened a lot more doors for me. 

In addition to your prolific modeling career you also act. Talk to us about the parallels between the two.

Acting was a happy accident for me. I was the only one of my friends who wasn’t trying to become an actor. I was satisfied playing characters in front of a still camera. Though after being cast in my first film S1M0NE I got the bug as they say. There’s nothing like losing all sense of time and space when you are deeply immersed in a scene. Though, if I’m being truly honest, acting will always slightly terrify me. You aren’t just portraying the look of a character but embodying a whole person. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced when you started to pursue acting?

I think it will always be a battle to prove people wrong when they meet a model-turned-actor. They just see a pretty face. Luckily, people like Milla Jovovich, Cameron Diaz, and Charlize Theron broke those stereotypes. S1M0NE was my first audition—I had no formal acting training—and they were looking at unknowns for the role of a computer-generated movie star, so it was a very specific role to study for. It was sort of a learn on the job experience which was terrifying opposite Al Pacino. After that, I had my work cut out for me to really study the craft and show people I could do more than play a robot. 

If you think of your life in chapters what do you want to achieve next?

I try not to look ahead too much. I’ve always tried to just go with the flow. This chapter has been very family focused. I hope the next chapter will be back to traveling the world and working. My husband is a filmmaker and helping him produce his next film is something I want to focus on. 

In retrospect, what has been your proudest achievement in life?

I know it sounds cliché, but my two children are by far my proudest achievements. It’s the job that challenges me to be a better human and rewards me more than anything else I’ve ever done. Helping to raise two human beings that will hopefully help make the world they are inheriting a better place is the biggest, most humbling gift. 

Living through a pandemic has given people time to reflect. What have you discovered about yourself during this past year?

The pandemic has taught me to let go of what I can’t control. To stay in the moment as much as I can and enjoy the little things. I don’t idle well—kind of like my muscle car—but I’m working on patience. None of us knew what would happen and how long life and work would be put on hold. I have so much gratitude for my family and my health. It’s been hard for so many people and I’m very lucky to have my health, a roof over my head, and food on my table.

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Rose Van Bosstraeten on Slow Consumerism and Her Boutique Sway

“I have no idea how I’ve lasted so long”

The industry veteran, and long-time favorite of Nicolas Ghesquiere, reflects on two decades in fashion and co-founding Sway, a boutique of sustainable and fair made goods.

Talk to us about your childhood.

I had a happy childhood—there were five children; three girls and two boys—and we lived in a big house in the countryside near Brussels. We always had friends and family stay with us during the holidays, and with five kids it was never boring. I took ballet, but honestly, I was more interested in playing soccer, which I did in school. I also sang in our school chorus and we made it on TV, which was a big deal in the early nineties. Around the age of 13, my father abandoned us—those were rough times— and then I started modeling around the age of 14.

You’ve had the type of career longevity aspiring models dream about. Why do you think you’ve lasted so long in such a fickle industry?

Thank you. I have no idea why or how I’ve lasted so long. When I started modeling in the late nineties, we thought it would only last for a few years. In the end, I’ve been doing this for over two decades. At the time I knew there was a limited time to work as a model. Luckily, views on beauty and style have evolved and wrinkles and different body sizes are no longer taboo. In my case, I was at the right age when that evolution started and that’s probably why I’ve worked longer than usual. About seven years ago it started to be cool to call back older models on the runway. I’m glad because the fashion industry needed this. When you look at the diverse group of models on the runway now, it’s absolutely amazing!

Talk to us about the genesis of Sway.

My younger sister and I own Sway, a boutique of sustainable and fair made goods. All of our items are organic or recycled and meet fair working standards. It all started in 2017 when our friends sold their sustainable shop in a great location. We both jumped at the opportunity because it was still a niche at the time. We wanted to break down all the negative perceptions about eco-friendly clothes and make more people aware of what they buy and where their clothes are made. We adapted the style and renamed it Sway. Since then we can happily say a lot more brands work sustainably. It is our job to filter through the greenwashing and choose the best brands for our customers.

For those who don’t know, tell us about what slow consumerism is and why it’s important to you.

Slow consumerism is an alternative to fast fashion. For the consumer, it is a way of investing and taking care of built-to-last items. It promotes a more sustainable way of living and consuming. It’s about respecting ethics and the environment, and not buying an item that will last one wear and then end up in the landfill. It actually influences a big range of your everyday habits—which is a good thing—and is necessary to save our planet and ourselves. 

What are the core tenets of Sway?

Every item we sell must meet fair wage standards for everyone involved in the process of making the clothes and fabrics. Many of our brands are members of the Fair Wear Foundation, and most of our brands are made in Europe. We also sell goods from artisans in Belgium. Another tenet is that every item must be recycled or organically grown. It should have the lowest possible impact on the environment, and on the people who make the clothes. We don’t aim for high fashion at Sway; everyone should be able to afford sustainable clothing. 

How do you decide what brands you want to collaborate with?

The collaboration depends on the tenets above, and if the brand’s style matches what we believe our customers are looking for. 

How has your business pivoted during the pandemic?

At first, we were really shocked and we thought how could you not be open?! This had never happened before to any business. Luckily, we invested in a brand new website in 2019 and we focused on our social media presence. We shot our collections, wrote blog articles, and stayed positive. After all, the world was on hold, so why panic? Our customers didn’t mind our approach, and the pandemic offered an opportunity to reflect. Conscious consumerism is a part of it. We’ve met many people who’ve decided not to buy fast fashion anymore.

What are your plans once travel is a reality again?

As a model, I’ve traveled the world, and it has taught me a lot. I would love it if my daughter could see the world as I did. We’re not making too many plans now for long-distance travel. For our next family trip, we’ve decided to take more road trips or travel by train and less by plane. It’s less exotic to stay in Europe, but it has so many aspects and exciting places to offer. We are visiting France this summer if it is OK to travel.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I’ve always been a tomboy and I guess I still am a bit. I love gardening—I’m a nature lover—and I couldn’t live in a city. Probably not too many people know this about me. 

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Se Oh on Feeling Vulnerable in America and Our Nation’s Reckoning With Race

“Being creative makes me feel grounded”

As America faces a wave of anti-Asian violence with Stop AAPI Hate reporting 3,795 incidents between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021, I spoke to Se Oh about how he’s feeling during this time, and how he balances modeling with his passion for set design.

This is a particularly terrifying time for the Asian community in America. How are you feeling in this current climate?

I feel vulnerable like everyone else. What worries me more is how the news further objectifies us rather than humanizes us. 

What actionable steps can someone reading this take to be an ally?

I think the perception of Asians must change first—and soon—stereotypes and all. Assess your own perception of Asians first, then be keen to see how Asians are portrayed in the media. Are we empowered or muted? Celebrated or fetishized? Bring your observations to the table when there’s a discussion pertaining to the issue. I’m a firm believer of how these conversations within communities—small and big—can ultimately influence the collective conscience of a nation.

In addition to modeling you’re also a set designer. Do you identify with one career more than the other, and how so?

If there’s one thing I know—without a doubt in my mind—it’s that I love making things. Being creative makes me feel grounded.

How did you get into set design?

I started working in theatre when I was a senior in high school for the missing credit in extracurricular activities. It literally changed my life because I felt like I found a place where all my interests—building, painting, drawing, music, and performance art—intersect. I felt right at home.

How has your background influenced your approach to design?

I understand things through imagery much better than literal definitions by nature. I think that does affect the way I design because I get bored quickly with hyper realistic sets. I’d either pitch for an abstract direction from the start, or I’d try to instill some sort of emotional statement in what initially appears to be a harmless kitchen set.

How much of your method is instinctual versus technical?

I like to think with my hands. Either I’m doodling, or I move on to making crude sketch models to turn my ideas into a tangible form. I try hard to not worry too much about the machinery; there are technicians capable of figuring that out for designers anyway. The biggest challenge for me when I’m designing is to ignore the pesky rules, like gravity. 

Where do you source your ideas, and what inspires you?

I love so many things, music, architecture, fine arts, even pretty birds. I also love listening to other creative people speak in interviews. I think I watched i-D’s The Fifth Sense episode on Es Devlin at least 100 times on YouTube.

When you’re commissioned to work on a project how much autonomy are you granted and what is your methodology?

It’s important to me that the process is kept fluid and conversational, like dancing. I can present to the director what makes my heartbeat faster, but if the director doesn’t respond the same way, then it’s crucial for me to pull back. Otherwise the dance is spoiled, and that’s not fun for anyone.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

I’m more familiar with people’s ignorance than their misconception about what I do; which is fine. Maybe more people will become interested in live performances after having been confined at home for so long.

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Introducing Hannah Matheny

North Carolina native Hannah Matheny may be a newbie on the block, but her dedication and discipline—rooted in her love of dance—will stand her in good stead. After laying the foundation with The Model Coaches, Hannah signed with Muse’s Curve division—home to activist and body positivity champion Charli Howard.

Tell us about what your childhood was like.

I grew up in North Carolina and spent most of my time in school and the dance studio. I was very busy throughout my adolescence, as I was also involved in various clubs, volunteer experiences, weekend dance competitions, and I worked as a cashier in a grocery store. I started dancing when I was four and it helped me develop discipline, an appreciation for the arts, and a foundation for my future modeling career. At the same time, dance also initiated habits of disordered eating, and body image issues that I continue to work on to this day—especially remaining in an industry plagued with similar ideas. I left the South when I was 17 to attend college, and I found independence and opportunity in New York City.

Talk to us about how you were discovered.

The moment I reached 5’10”, classmates, friends, and even strangers on the street began to comment on how my height could easily lead me into modeling. I did not give their suggestions a second thought until I moved to Manhattan to attend college. After hearing further comments from my new friends—and living in a prime location—I finally looked into it. That’s when I found Trudi Tapscott. After attending a live coaching event held by The Model Coaches I signed on, making them my mother agency, and my journey began.

You worked with The Model Coaches before being signed to an agency. Talk to us about how that prepared you for modeling.

Anyone who shows curiosity about my modeling journey in the hope of beginning their own career knows that the first thing I will recommend is a mother agency. The Model Coaches specifically prepared me with resources that I would never have considered on my own. I had very little experience before I signed on with Trudi and The Model Coaches; however—within a few months—I learned the basics of shooting with a photographer, preparing digitals and a portfolio, interviewing with agencies, rehearsing a runway walk, and finding authenticity in everything that I present. After just those few months with The Model Coaches, I was fully prepared to sign with Muse Curve in New York City.

Before signing with Muse’s Curve division did you feel pressure to conform to a “straight” size?

I knew it was going to be a challenge being an “in-between” or midsize model from the get-go. I questioned where I fit into the modeling world. In the past, because of pressure I felt from society and myself, I had tried to work toward that smaller size, but I found that it was essentially impossible. I am not built to be a “straight” size model. After finding an agency who never expects me to change my body, and continuously provides me with equally welcoming clients and jobs, it was much easier to accept that myself. All that said, the modeling industry does still have some growing to do.

What misconceptions did you have about modeling when you started this journey?

The biggest misconception I had before entering the industry was that modeling was easy. I find a lot of people—even those who speak to me about it now—believe that. Just standing in front of a camera and smiling, right? In reality it’s much more difficult than it looks. Practicing poses, speaking to the camera, training for the runway, spending entire days on set beginning at the crack of dawn, going to castings daily just to face rejection, and waking up sore from a photoshoot were all things I had not previously thought about. After my first few shoots, interviews, and castings, my respect for people in this industry grew so much.

Who are your role models and what about them has inspired you?

I was lucky enough to grow up with a family that encouraged me to discover my passions and run with them no matter how risky or non-traditional they were. My entire family is inspiring to me, always demonstrating that you can do anything and everything that you want. I was fortunate enough to enter the modeling industry after necessary changes to diversify began. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), and plus-sized models have paved the way for people of all races, sizes, and abilities to gain visibility on social media and in fashion. Seeing people that look like you and who are proud of their bodies—as well as their character—is so important. Charli Howard, an English curve model, is one of those people for me.

What do you hope to get out of your career? 

I have so many dream modeling jobs that include walking for various designers, shooting covers for magazines, and appearing on billboards. It is a dream being able to continue to create art with my body, like I once did with dance. I never want to leave the world of creatives. Models, photographers, agents, and casting directors are some of the most innovative, artistic, kind, and compassionate people I have ever met. I am already beginning to feel the impact of my modeling career, despite the fact that I am still beginning my journey.

What are your goals for the future?

As a person with far too many interests to choose, I can only hope to do a bit of everything that I love during my lifetime. Modeling is the main priority at the moment; however, as I work full-time, I also attend an online university part-time studying Psychology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as intern for a relationship, sex, and mental health therapist. A dream would be to incorporate my interests, potentially gaining a platform where I can speak on my mental health, queerness, and body acceptance journey, and be a role model to anyone who may relate to my experiences.

What would people be surprised to discover about you?

I am vegan and I have been for a little over four years, and I care a lot about sustainability. I typically thrift my clothes and shop from sustainable small businesses when it’s possible. As for my groceries, I try to buy in bulk when I can and carry all my reusable jars and bags to a food co-op store in Union Square to fill them up. I also love to cook. Right now I am obsessed with making vegan penne alla vodka, various curries, and a chili my dad curated a recipe for.

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Model Tasha Tilberg on Sustainability And The Importance Of Being Connected To Nature

As one of the most prolific models of the nineties, Tasha Tilberg—the classic beauty with street cred—was as easily at home on the international runways of Europe as she was adorning billboards as the face of CoverGirl. With over two decades in the fashion industry under her belt—and no signs of slowing down—the Canadian beauty spoke about sustainability and following in the footsteps of her ancestors as a steward of the land.

The last year has been challenging for people living through a pandemic. How has your perspective changed during these times?

It’s reaffirmed my beliefs that food security, and sustainability are very important—especially in small, remote communities like where I live. It is also proving that people can still be productive while working from home, and that people don’t need to fly around the world constantly for meetings.

Tell us about how you were discovered.

I went to an agency in Toronto when I was 14. My sister took a fashion class in high school and encouraged me to try it.

At the beginning of your career you purchased a farm when you were just 16 years old. Talk to us about that and the importance of being connected to nature for you.

I had traveled to Japan and earned enough for a down payment on my old farm. I had always dreamed of having a farm and working with the land. My parents had a farm, but they sold it before I was born. My paternal grandparents had homesteaded near Thunder Bay, Ontario by a crossroads called Sunshine. I think being a steward of the land is deep in my DNA. Being connected to nature is in all of us, but sometimes—when we urbanize ourselves too much—we forget what the smell of forests and summer meadows are like. I believe all people can feel rejuvenated by being immersed in a natural environment.

The word sustainable gets banned around a lot without specificity. Talk to us about what sustainability means to you.

Sustainable can mean different things on different levels. On a farm—such as mine—economical and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. My goal is to create a closed circuit where we grow nearly all the food we need to sustain ourselves as well as all the food for our livestock. We strive to eat seasonally, preserving our summer gardens by canning and drying foods, and extending our growing seasons by use of greenhouses. Using manure to enrich the soil is as ancient as keeping livestock. We also compost or feed our kitchen waste to our chickens so that really nothing is wasted. This is small scale family farm agriculture. Selling our excess veggies to other families is another way of connecting and sharing, and keeping our communities fed locally, and not by trucking all of our food long distances.

There’s a coterie of models that have attained cult status in the industry. Why do you think you’re considered a cult model?

Am I? That’s cool—I had no idea–this is a hard one to answer. Maybe my winning personality? I think I came up in a time of real change in the industry. People enjoyed working with models with different personalities, but they also wanted you to be a blank slate. I rebelled and wanted to represent an otherness in fashion at that time, or I refused to ignore myself. I was always open about being in the LGBTQIA+ community as well. I started getting visible tattoos when I turned 15, and I loved to cut my own hair—especially undercuts—but it wasn’t always appreciated by clients.

What do you think are the common misconceptions people have about you?

I’ve always tried to be pretty open about who I am, so I’m not sure what kind of misconceptions there would be about me. Possibly they would be misconceptions about models in general. Generally, I know many models who are modest, thoughtful, and are striving to make the world a better place.

You’ve achieved the type of career longevity young models can only dream of. What do you attribute your success to?

I took many breaks for many reasons. I needed to recharge, and possibly it made people miss me. I was never fully immersed in the fashion world. I have spent my time enjoying parties and different aspects of life on the road, but I took time away to replenish my spirit and to build my family and home. I worked hard to acquire skills that gave me different perspectives, and it made me feel connected to nature and the generations before me, like gardening, spinning, and weaving wool.

The industry has changed so much since you began in the 90s. In what ways do you think the industry has made progress and what work still needs to be done?

I think there have been wonderful strides forward for the fashion industry. There has emerged greater visibility and diversity in this industry. It’s always evolving, and there is still a long way to go. Holding brands accountable for how they source materials—and the environmental impact—as well as livable wages, are the next important elements that need to be addressed.

In retrospect, what have you discovered about yourself on this journey?

I have discovered that there are many ways to cultivate happiness. I learned that I am really good at my job—I didn’t always feel worthy or like the job—but I always had a strong work ethic, and now I really enjoy it when I work. I feel I can fully represent myself, and feel respected. I’ve enjoyed growing up, maturing, and learning all the lessons life has thrown at me.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope our world can find some balance. That our future children can have a world that has wonderful natural areas and wilderness untamed by humans.

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