Esther De Jong emerged on the fashion scene in the nineties after a serendipitous meeting with photographer Anette Aurell. As fate would have it, Esther soon found herself at the epicenter of fashion’s coveted models of time. Still in demand some twenty years later, I caught up with her by phone as she reminisced on that magical moment in fashion.
I thought we could start when you were discovered. Tell us about that.
In 1995 I was studying in Holland and I felt immature and not quite ready for university, so I decided to go to Paris. I had friends from England, whom I met in Holland when they were exchange students, and now they were living in Paris. I bought a one way ticket and never looked back. About a month into back packing around and staying in hostels and on sofas I ran out of money. My friend suggested I become an au pair like her so I went to a nanny agency in Paris. They sent me on my first interview with Anette Aurell, a professional fashion photographer, and Richard her husband and their two wonderful children and they hired me. Annette had an editorial to shoot for i-D magazine and we all went to England while I looked after the children. The model didn’t show up and I was asked to step in and the rest is history.
So it was serendipity.
Yes it was.
When did you sign with an agency?
The pictures were published and I was introduced to the Marilyn Gaultier agency in Paris and I signed with them and their amazing team. My career took off pretty fast and I shot my first cover story after i-D magazine with Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue.
Was working with Steven the point that things really took off?
Correct, Steven is a big influence in the fashion business. He really helped me get started and gave me a lot of advice on the side as well.
You arrived on the scene during the post supermodel era. What was that time in fashion like and how would you contrast that to how things are now?
It was very different. The girls were much more individual looking. If you compare models like Nadja Auermann, Cindy Crawford, Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Amber Valletta and Kate Moss, they were all very different. I think individuality was much more celebrated. The supermodels really carried the designers, shows and magazines and were the center of the business.
One of the big shifts is the move into digital. Do you feel that creativity has been stifled and the process is less organic?
I would suppose it has. I remember the days of shooting with Polaroids. Then you would shoot tons of film and sometimes you would get amazing results and surprises. Now you can look over the shoulder of the photographer and see what’s going on, and that way you try to get the picture you want. I also think retouching became much more prevalent, which is not always a positive gain.
How do you feel about that?
I am not a big fan. Often with retouching it is overdone, especially in beauty ads, and everybody starts to look alike. It’s more beautiful to see real women and girls with personality.
The nineties are in fashion again. How do you feel about the renewed interest in that period and how do you feel to be working all these years later?
I think it’s great. It has come full circle but I don’t think it will ever be the same. Some of us girls have stuck around and I think it’s wonderful. I just love seeing Cindy, Michele Hicks, Kirsten Owen, just to mention some, popping up left and right in great projects.
A lot of the models that are still working are now mothers and they have things going on outside of fashion. How do you feel about fashion embracing, I hate to use the term, older women?
I guess it is a very personal word and it is up to everyone’s interpretation what to think or feel with the term. We are older women and most of us have children and a past with fashion and I think it’s beautiful. I believe the consumer can relate . There was a time in fashion when models were getting very skinny and very young. Maybe that is when actors got a lot of advertising campaigns and covers. Which was also beautiful, real woman, like Cindy and Claudia.
Those are not skinny girls. They are beautiful women, and always were and will be forever. I have always been naturally too skinny in my opinion and I’m happy I’m not as skinny because I am a little older and have a beautiful son. It feels really good.
I agree. I think that our societies preoccupation with youth is quite damaging. I think there has been a shift of late but it is still pervasive.
Yes it is.
Now that you are a mother, how has that changed the way that you model and the way that you see things?
It changed in a lot of aspects. I can’t just jump on a plane anymore. I am a single mother and whenever there is a job and I have to go anywhere I have to organize a babysitter or a tween-sitter in case Oscar is reading this.
Becoming a mother has matured me tremendously. I’ve always been a late bloomer and I never really saw myself having children until I got older. Then, after Oscar was born, I kept seeing myself having ten children, which unfortunately did not happen. Having a child changed a lot for me in a very positive way. Even though it has not been easy as a single mother, I think becoming a mother was the best thing that could have happened to me.
How has motherhood affected the choice of jobs you do? For example is nudity something that you wouldn’t do now that you are a mother?
I grew up in an environment where nudity was very much accepted. I have no problem with nudity, as long as it is elegant of course. I’ve shot nudes with photographers before and I would still for the right projects. We are all born naked and I think the body is beautiful no matter what age or gender.
Let’s talk about social media. It’s something that didn’t exist 15 years ago and now you kind of have to embrace it. What are your thoughts on social media?
I have to admit I probably should do more on social media. I like Instagram and I have my Facebook account but I don’t spend a lot of time on it. I use it to promote my modeling and connect with friends as everybody else does. Social media is great but I probably don’t embrace it as much as I should, which I am okay with actually.
I understand, I’m totally in agreement with you. Now you are living in New York and you have your son and you breed thoroughbreds, is that correct?
Have horses always been a passion of yours? How did you get into that?
I grew up in Holland and my family raised and raced horses. When I had the opportunity to buy my own farm in France I imported Andalusians from Spain. I decided instead of the white Andalusians I wanted to breed the black ones. I imported four black mares and one stallion while I was modeling. Then I moved to the United States and brought some of the horses with me. I have always had horses no matter where I was, even when Oscar and I moved to Los Angeles for three years we would go riding at Griffith Park . We would spend hours in the park going up and down the hills and when we came back to the east coast I kind of stumbled into the thoroughbreds and bought my first mare and I was hooked.
Looking back on your career what advice would you give to your younger self?
My career took off very quickly. I went from being this naive girl from the countryside in Holland to being this naive high fashion model shooting four campaigns in one season. I might have been a little bit overwhelmed but I was very lucky and thankful I had a wonderful career and am still working. What would I have done differently? I turned down jobs that I should have said yes to because I didn’t understand the scope entirely. Maybe I should have rested more and partied less but you know, I had a wonderful career, met so many amazing people and nurtured wonderful friendships, so in retrospect I don’t think I would want to do anything different. I had a career that was dropped in my lap and I was very blessed with that. Hopefully I can enjoy it for some more time to come.
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