From a small town in South Africa to the pages of Vogue, Georgina Grenville was the archetypal blonde bombshell during Tom Ford’s tenure at Gucci. During the period in fashion where quirky, off-kilter looks dominated runways and magazines, Georgina’s classic beauty offered a refreshing respite. Although she has scaled back on modeling to focus on family life, Georgina is still very much in demand. I spoke with her via email at her home in Paris.
Tell us about your childhood growing up in South Africa.
I had a very simple, “normal” upbringing in South Africa. I was born on a farm in the Eastern Cape that is close to a town called Kokstad, which at the time was a small farming community. I was born before the end of apartheid to liberal British parents who decided to farm in South Africa instead of staying in Kenya, where boarding schools would have been a must. I have two brothers, and I was the piggy-in-the-middle but have none of the middle child complex. Being the only girl, I was in a pretty privileged position. My brothers and I were, and still are, very close. When I was about 5 years old, we moved from the farm to the city.
Durban was a great city to grow up in. It’s on the Indian Ocean, and I spent most of my childhood on the beach. It’s a small city, and as youngsters we all had a lot of freedom. Being a model was never really an ambition of mine. As a child, I wanted to be a nurse, then a teacher, and then a race car driver. I never felt pretty, and I don’t think anyone put money on me growing up and becoming a model. I was awkward and quite shy.
When I was about 13, my mum decided to enroll me in a modeling school. It probably took some nagging on my part. She did it mainly as a way for me to have some fun, but also to help me feel more comfortable in my skin. At the school they taught us how to apply makeup and walk on a runway. The course culminated in a competition that I won, and that was the beginning of a long career in modeling for me.
You won the South African round of Elite Model Look. How did your career take shape after that?
The big competition I won in South Africa was called Rooi Rose Supermodel of the Year. It was actually the idea of the owner of the modeling school, Leigh Downing, that I enter. When I entered, I never in a million years thought that I could win it. At just 14 years old, I was the youngest competitor, and then I went on to be the youngest winner of that competition, which was televised live. I won that competition in 1990, and in 1991 I flew home to crown Charlize Theron.
I remember crying my eyes out the night before the finals because I was still battling how to walk in high heels. I spent hours walking up and down the hotel corridors trying to master a walk. I was crowned Supermodel of the Year the next evening.
It was all pretty amazing stuff for a little girl from Kokstad. To be honest, I still pinch myself from time to time to make sure I am not dreaming. Part of the prize was to go on to the international part of the competition and compete with girls from all around the world. This part of the competition was in Ravello, Italy on the Amalfi Coast. On the way there I did my first real photo shoot in Rome for Rooi Rose magazine, the sponsor of the competition.
All in all, it was an incredible experience, and I ended up being a runner-up in the international competition. By the way, it wasn’t the Elite Competition but one organized by Why Not Model Management, Milan. The next stop after that was Milan, where I was expecting to be signed by Why Not Model Management. I was still 14, and although my parents did not come with me, I had support in the form of five other South African girls and our managers/chaperones, Gianfranco and Roberto. They had an apartment set up for us and were in charge of making sure we got signed to an agency.
Why Not Model Management never signed me, which was my first experience with rejection in the fashion world and was pretty hardcore for baby me, but it also led me to some good luck. The good luck came in the form of an older Italian lady named Marcella who had a small modeling agency called Marcellas’ Studio. She was wonderful, supportive, and protective. She took me on the very same day I was rejected by Why Not Model Management.
My modeling career began with me traipsing around Milan doing go-sees and castings. You have to remember that back then we had no cell phones, so I spent a lot of time staring at maps and trying to get from point A to B on various forms of public transport. I remember plucking up the courage to call my booker for the first time. I had no previous experience with adults apart from friends’ parents and teachers, so when I called I was very formal and asked to speak to Ms. Whatever-Her-Last-Name-Was and made the whole booking table laugh. I was mortified. I was very formal as I had never called an adult by their first name before.
It was an amazing and fun time in my life. It was the end of 1990 and I was 15 and living it up in Milan. I went out too much, and Hollywood and Lizard—the trendy clubs at the time—were second homes to me. Having fun was a huge priority for me back then. I obviously had to do some pretty quick growing up, but overall I was lucky and things went well for me. I wasn’t doing anything incredible workwise, but I was making enough money to support myself. Mainly, I shot catalogs and quite a lot of bridal wear, which is crazy considering my age at the time.
I also met some amazing people. The first stylist to really take me under her wing was a woman named Lucia Rafaelli. At the time she was working for Lei magazine, but before that she was at Vogue Italia. She was an incredible stylist and a great teacher, and I’ll always be grateful to her because she was one of the first to believe in me. Through her, I met Barry Lategan and Alex Chatelaine, both wonderful photographers and interesting people.
I also met and became friends with photographer Aldo Fallai and had the luck and pleasure to shoot a lot with him. These people were my teachers and friends, and I believe I was lucky to have met them as they all played a hand in creating this amazing career for me.
How did you deal with the isolation of being in New York so far away from family and home?
I spent about 3 years building my portfolio between Milan and Paris. There were times that were difficult, but I think that because of my age I was resilient and never took anything too hard. Milan was my happy place and Paris was more difficult, which is funny now, considering Paris is where I settled.
After those 2 years I began to set my sights on New York City and got there via Tokyo. Tokyo at the time was a great place to go and work. I managed to make enough money in 3 months to get me to New York. At this point, I had also changed agencies in Milan and was now represented by Fashion Model Management, who set me up with Faith Kates at Next Models. There I was at the end of 1994, the little girl from Durban, SA, feeling all grown up and on top of the world in New York City.
From then on, things happened pretty fast. A chance encounter with Tom Pecheux in a NY restaurant led to a meeting with Mario Testino and shooting an early BCBG campaign. Another chance meeting with Enrique Badulescu led to a shoot for French Vogue, still a favorite of mine. I had already shot a story with Steven Meisel and Joe McKenna for Italian Vogue around the same time. All these little things added up to the beginning of a really amazing part of my life. Meeting these three photographers was one of the most important events of my professional life.
Then there was also meeting Tom Ford, which was the thing that really turned my career into something extraordinary. Being the Gucci Girl was what brought me the most opportunities. I also was lucky to enjoy the support of both Liz Tilbiris and Anna Wintour. I regret that, because of my youth, I never fully appreciated the opportunities while I had them. I don’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it, I just regret not taking more advantage of the position I was in.
I battled with loneliness throughout that time. It was a lonely life, mainly because of the travel and hours. Even though I was surrounded by people most of the time, I didn’t always deal well with things and at a certain point I ran away from everything. I needed to.
Who were the greatest influences on your career in the beginning?
The greatest influences on my early career were all the people I mentioned above. I also had a great friend and wonderful agent named David Milosovich, and we worked together throughout my career. He put up with a lot but always remained true and real, as well as loyal.
When did you realize that you had made it?
Sadly, I only realized I had made it after the fact. No, I’m kidding. I had different experiences over the years that made me realize I had made it. One was my first American Vogue cover, in which by the way, we flew down to shoot in the Florida Keys. We flew on a private plane and were back in NYC in time to watch Dawson’s Creek, a guilty pleasure of someone on the crew, and the agency threw a surprise party for me that included a cake with the Vogue cover made out of icing!
Another was a limo ride I shared with Jack Nicholson and the guy I was seeing at the time, an amazing guy by the way. What about it made me realize I had made it? Come on! I was in a limo with Jack Nicholson! Other experiences that made me realize I had made it included being asked to appear on Absolutely Fabulous as the “Gucci Girl,” hanging out with John Galliano and Naomi in Madrid, and taking the Concorde frequently between NYC and Paris. Those memories are all very special.
In spite of all the buzz generated around Instagirls, models such as yourself are still very much in demand. What do you attribute this to?
An Instagirl isn’t really the same as a model is she? That is my explanation for models still being in demand. Models of my age still being in demand I think shows a very positive evolution of our society. It also makes complete sense as most advertisers and designers sell their products to a huge range of women, so personally I think all the different ages should be represented as there is certainly room on the market. I also imagine that it’s women in their 40s who have the most buying power, so I am super happy to be in a position where I can represent them.
We were also all pretty fabulous. In the 90s, models had strong personalities and lots of character. Those attributes were part of what you needed to make it. I hope that people enjoy working with me now, and that’s why I continue to work. I am much more comfortable in my skin, and at the risk of sounding Zoolanderish, I’m a better model because of that.
I haven’t met too many Instagirls, but in general, the younger models I’ve met seem really cool and together. I’ve worked with a doctor and an architect recently. Fashion seems to be getting its fun back.
What are some of your memorable moments from the height of your career?
My life is made up of memorable moments, some of which I’ve already mentioned. Shooting the Versace campaign with Steven Meisel in 2000 was another experience that I will never forget. Other memorable moments include so many amazing people I was fortunate to meet, but I would be writing forever if I tried to tell you all of them.
I did work hard, but I also feel that I was super lucky time. Again, to be in the right place at the right time is invaluable in the fashion industry. Then it takes stamina and strength to stay on the top.
In retrospect, what did you discover about yourself through modeling?
I discovered that I’m super resilient. I also discovered that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts but what’s on the inside, even in the modeling industry.
What are you up to these days?
These days I’m a mum and part-time model. Three kids have kept me pretty busy up ‘til now. They are 12, 11, and 6 now, so I’m finding myself with free time once again. I hope to one day finish one of the books I’ve started to write, that is, if I can ever get up the courage to put myself on the line and let someone else read them.
I have really been enjoying working again as a model, so at the moment that’s what I’m up to, and it’s keeping me busy. Weirdly, I enjoy my job now more than ever before, maybe because of my age and the fact that it’s taken me until now to like the way I look. I feel like I’m getting the chance at a do-over, so I’m just going with the flow and enjoying life as it is.
My heart remains in Africa, so I also spend as much time as possible there with my kids, and travel remains an important part of my life and something I enjoy sharing with my kids and my husband. I figure I’ll decide what I’m going to be when I grow up.
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