Emma Balfour on Charisma, Caviar, and Kate Moss
Emma Balfour, the Australian model and mother of two, tells our fashion director Dara about her scenic life down under, and looks back on her ’90s runway heyday, when charisma and caviar flowed freely.
DARA: Hi. How are you?
EMMA BALFOUR: I’m very well. I’m just hiding in my little tack room at the horse barn.
DARA: Amazing. I guess you’re starting your day. I’m just ending mine. What did you have for breakfast?
BALFOUR: I had a very typical Australian breakfast of toast with butter and Vegemite.
BALFOUR: Yeah. We do actually eat that. And I had a coffee as well.
DARA: What does a perfect day look like for you?
BALFOUR: My perfect day is what I get to do every day, which is hang out with my horse, go home, see the kids, see the sky. Since I’ve been back in Australia, it’s very much about being in nature.
BALFOUR: I’ve been back here since forever. It feels like my whole life. I moved back in ’98.
DARA: And you prefer it to anywhere else you’ve lived?
BALFOUR: London comes a very close second. I loved my ten years there, but that’s also because I was in my twenties and those are the years where your whole everything is solidified. I’ll always think of London as that place where I became me.
DARA: How did you get your start modeling?
BALFOUR: My dad was an architectural photographer and he shared a studio with a fashion photographer, Grant [Matthews]. I’d known him since I was tiny, and he suggested it because he thought I might do well. He got me in on a couple of jobs, and that was that. It took off. But I was so reluctant. I really, really, really didn’t want to do it.
DARA: Why not?
BALFOUR: I was just shy, and had no idea of what the job really was at that point, which you don’t when you’re 16. But I started enjoying it eventually. I enjoy it much more now that I’m older, which is weird.
DARA: How would you compare the industry when you first started to how it is now?
BALFOUR: I don’t know if it was the industry as a whole, or whether it was just me, but when I was starting out it felt like no one really knew what they were doing. [Laughs] Now you get on a job and everyone knows that you’re probably going to want something to drink at some point in the day. You might need a cab to and from somewhere. People endeavor to make you feel alright. Whereas back then everyone was very left to their own devices, which created some great things, but it was also slightly terrifying as a young kid, because it was a lot more free-form than it is now.
DARA: I can see that. Do you think there’s less toxicity in the industry now?
BALFOUR: People are trying to make it better, but those things are an inherent part of the business. A lot of what models sell is sex, and a lot of why you work with people is because there’s this thing that connects you, and whether that’s appropriate or inappropriate, that line is so goddamn vague. I think all you can do is protect and know yourself enough to know where that line is for you.
DARA: It’s almost like human nature.
BALFOUR: Yeah. Everyone’s trying to draw lines that are universal to everyone, but that’s so unrealistic.
DARA: You grew up in a traveling circus, right? What was it like growing up in such a loose environment? How did you figure out where your line is?
BALFOUR: I learned it really young, because when you’re little your antennas are really well developed, because it’s kind of all you’ve got. I learned to steer away from anything that felt uncomfortable. And my way of doing that was to just escape. I’d disappear. I was always quite small, so it was easy to vanish. But when you grow up seeing a lot, it makes you understand the diversity that there is, and that it’s all a movable feast. Some days you can cope with certain things that are unusual, and other days you feel fragile. The whole circus thing was a real eye-opener, because that was messy. Everyone was swapping everything with everyone. And as a kid you’ve got to have coping mechanisms.
DARA: That’s such a unique environment to grow up in.
BALFOUR: Yeah, but it’s the same as anything. It seems more extreme because there’s a romance to it. But anyone growing up anywhere has various different peripheral characters, and weird relationships within their own families. Everyone’s got that mess.
DARA: Right. How has your personal style evolved over the years?
BALFOUR: It’s gotten lazier. [Laughs]
DARA: I think that’s true for a lot of people.
BALFOUR: Well, you know what works and you know what doesn’t work. I live in a place that’s hot. I’m with a horse pretty much every day, so it’s gotten a little more comfortable.
DARA: What’s your horse’s name?
BALFOUR: She’s named by someone else. Her name is Isle of Havana, but we call her Havana.
BALFOUR: Yeah, it’s a bit glamorous. [Laughs]
DARA: What brings you joy?
BALFOUR: Watching my kids become grown adults has been pretty amazing. And my horse. Having a good ride around the park in the morning in the rain is the best, because there’s no one around.
DARA: That sounds nice. What frustrates you?
BALFOUR: Humans. We’re doing bad things and the world, at the moment, is frustrating.
DARA: It’s hard to be inundated with it all, and recognize that it’s something that we do to each other.
BALFOUR: When it’s not a disaster all over the world you can cope a little bit more. But at the moment there’s a bit of a pile-on of people behaving really, really badly and selfishly, everywhere you look. That frustrates me a lot.
DARA: Okay. A lighter question. Who is your favorite model right now?
BALFOUR: On a personal level, I just love Julia Nobis. She’s hilarious and amazing.
DARA: She has a good sense of humor.
BALFOUR: And she’s my kind of creature. I very much like that low-key vibe.
DARA: Will you ever retire?
BALFOUR: I did try.
BALFOUR: When it was the beginning of COVID, and we thought the world was about to explode, and everyone was going to die, and systems were collapsing, I thought the industry would never start up again. So now I never want to retire. I’ve actually really been enjoying it.
DARA: I love that. What’s been the best part of coming back?
BALFOUR: Just being able to step out of your usual life and get on an airplane again. The first time I went away for Bottega, I saw people I hadn’t seen in so long that were hugely important in my life.
DARA: Anyone specific?
BALFOUR: Well, I saw my old boyfriend, Dave Sims, who’s just the sweetest man. And I bumped into Kate Moss last time, who I hadn’t seen in 25 years. She’s exactly the same little ball of mayhem that she’s always been. It was so nice to see her.
DARA: Do you have a favorite story from when you first started?
BALFOUR: Kate never really used to love Fashion Week and being on her own, so I used to, for a couple of seasons, share a hotel room with her in Milan. I remember once we were really, really hungry and had nothing to eat and she was like, “Hang on.” She rummaged through a bag and pulled out this jar of caviar.
DARA: Oh wow.
BALFOUR: Which we ate for dinner, and I remember thinking, “Fucking hell, this is so weird. We’re having caviar for dinner.”
DARA: No big deal.
BALFOUR: Well you had to stay alive somehow, didn’t you?
DARA: That’s not a bad way to do it. Last question, are you still writing poetry, and what inspires you?
BALFOUR: Oh, yes I am still writing poetry. The inspiration is quite sporadic, but mainly it’s just small observations that just trigger something.
DARA: Can you read us a line?
BALFOUR: I don’t have a line to read you right now because I’m in the barn, but I could email you a favorite.
Hair: Sophie Roberts at the Artist Group
Makeup: Kellie Stratton at M.A.P.
Production: Sally Lemon
Lighting Technician: Sean Slattery
Camera and Film Technician: Jessica Ibarra
Casting: Establishment Casting
Special Thanks: Priscillas Model Management