When I agree with Małgosia Bela on Zoom to talk about "Winter Girl," a book about her 25-year career published by 77 Press, we have to schedule two phone calls. It is fashion week and Małgosia has to travel from Milan to Paris. She says she will return to her Warsaw apartment in a month, her schedule as full as it was at the height of her career. But the idea of compiling a book came at a time of slowdown. It was summer and she was receiving fewer assignments, which her agent aptly explained: she is a "winter girl." "My look is much more suited to turtlenecks than bikinis," she says. When I show her the 2009 Pirelli calendar I recently found in the basement, in which she is portrayed hanging from the tusk of an elephant, Małgosia recalls that the story of that trip to Botswana was the first one she wrote. She writes, in fact, in a very touching way-as well as expertly playing the piano (a moment immortalized in the book by Steven Meisel), acting in films, and, of course, being a supermodel-and her intimate memories are what distinguishes "Winter Girl" from other coffee table books.
MAJA VON HORN: "Winter Girl" made me realize that it's been 24 years since I admired her in the March Italian edition of Vogue, the so-called "The Małgosia Issue." Such a career is rare in fashion.
MAŁGOSIA BELA: It was a matter of several factors. First, it was luck, timing: I was discovered at the right time. Next, it was a matter of what I put into the field, and for that I can thank myself and my parents, who passed on the work ethic to me. The third element is good management, which is especially important today. Nowadays you can make a career out of nothing, out of some silly PR that you then keep advertising. But a career like mine has to be sustained intelligently, guided in a way that doesn't burn out, balancing sharp editorial work with commercial work, so you can make a living. I am fortunate to have agents who understand my strengths and make sure that I am not asked to do something I am not comfortable with. Ten years ago I was asked to start an Instagram account. I haven't done it yet.
M.V.H.: Are you talking about your agent in Poland?
M.B.: No, but Darek [Kumosa, the founder of the modeling agency Model Plus - ed.] put his hand on it, because he referred me to good agents abroad. My career in Poland is nonexistent, I have never accomplished anything here, and Darek understood right away that I had nothing to look for in the country. When he sent me to do a story for one of the Polish magazines, people thought I was a cleaning lady who had come to tidy up the studio. My current agent, who is younger than me and without whom this book would not exist, understands me so well that we are on the same wavelength. No algorithm would be able to replicate this understanding; the human element is indispensable. Artificial intelligence cannot understand my sense of humor or my cynical approach to certain things. This book is a celebration of human creativity and collaboration with wonderful people.
M.V.H.: What sets this book apart from other coffee table books on fashion are its words. Ten essays, full of amazing details and anecdotes about your early days as a model and your work with the biggest names in the industry. Have you taken notes or kept a diary over these 25 years?
M.B.: No, I have never taken notes. The ten essays in the book are short, all under 1,500 words. Just as my husband [director Paweł Pawlikowski] makes films that can't be longer than 83 minutes, I have this magic limit of 1,500 words: I can't do more than that, I start rambling, and I have to be shortened. I used to tell these stories to my friend Filip [Niedenthal, founder of 77 Press, the publisher of "Winter Girl" - ed.] because he was always interested in my career. I call him "Filip full of curiosity," because he remembers all the names and details. He was a very good listener, laughed politely at my stories and acted like a therapist who sits and listens. Meanwhile, I was organizing these stories in my head. When I had to sit down and write them down, it was a terrible time. I would do anything - clean the closet, vacuum, take the dog for a walk, go grocery shopping, make dinner - to avoid sitting down and writing.
M.V.H.: It's like most people who write.
M.B.: I had to commit myself, otherwise it would have been just a vanity project that Filip could put together on his own.
"When [my agent] sent me to do a story for one of the Polish magazines, people thought I was a cleaner who came to tidy up the studio."
M.V.H.: Almost the entire generation of great photographers you have worked with over the past 25 years are no longer with us-Richard Avedon, Peter Lindbergh, Irving Penn (who never photographed you, but who gave you an important life lesson, which you talk about in the book). How does the work compare with them and with the new generation of photographers?
M.B.: This book is a summary of a certain era. What is a luxury today used to be the norm. In the past, we had two days to take five photos. During Avedon's photo shoots, the first day was devoted to research, rehearsal, ideas. There was no moodboard, maybe there was some inspiration material, but not specific images. Now when I get to the studio, there is a moodboard with my photos from over a decade ago. And a request from the client, "Let's do this." Copy-paste. I miss the creative exchange for which we had time at work. It didn't mean we went on vacation together afterwards or went out to dinner-I don't have those relationships at all in the industry. But I also don't want to complain just that in the past it was so good and now it's horrible. We can't help it; it's a matter of technology and the direction of the world. I still have encounters that disorient me, like a recent shoot-not yet published-for W magazine with fashion designer Joe McKenna and photographer Jamie Hawkesworth. It's like we've gone back in time 25 years. No moodboards, just the clothes and the space. No pressure to take dozens and dozens of pictures-we could take five or six as long as they were good. Everyone was focused, no one was on the phone. Jamie didn't even take polaroids, but just called Joe, the stylist, from time to time to look through the lens and see the shot. No one knew what the images looked like. The photographer had tremendous respect for the stylist and the stylist for the photographer. It had been a long time since I had had such an experience, and I was moved that this is still possible. Because it is so rare nowadays, I appreciate it even more.
M.V.H.: Speaking of Avedon, you said in an interview about 20 years ago that he recommended that you see the film "Come and See," which ended up having a powerful effect on you.
M.B.: Yes, he literally gave me the film. She told me, "You come from those eastern regions. I wonder what effect it will have on you." She also gave me books to read, we had a pretty special relationship. I wouldn't call it friendship, because he didn't confide in me and we didn't go into intimate details. But he was my mentor. If we spoke in Polish, I called him "sir" [a standard way of referring to someone with whom you are not intimately familiar - ed.] I had tremendous respect for him, and I was fascinated that at 80 years old he would get as excited as a child, literally doing a little jump at every picture. I get embarrassed by that kind of thing, especially when I feel tired or worn out. He had incredible energy and passion.
M.V.H.: I was in London at the time and bought the film on DVD on your recommendation, and shortly after that I met my current husband. On our first date at home I showed him Come and See.
M.B.: And that's how you made him fall in love with you!
M.V.H.: We were both shaken by the movie, but yes, I think he was impressed, and you played your part in that.
M.B.: I get goosebumps thinking about it. I actually met Małgośka Szumowska [Małgorzata Szumowska, Polish director - ed.] some time later. When she asked me what films I watched, because she was looking for a girl for her film "Ono," I told her that I had recently seen "Come and See," and she said, "No way! That's my favorite movie." I got a part in her film and later she introduced me to my current husband Paweł. Avedon is behind this.
M.V.H.: But you also like to work with young photographers.
M.B.: I prefer those who know what they are doing. From time to time, someone from the younger generation has a specific vision and pursues it. That's a good thing. But it's harder for me to get along with them, because this younger generation has grown up in such a strong culture, which is very different from my experience.
M.V.H.: But isn't it that when a photographer has less experience, he or she has a better chance to be creative?
M.B.: The thing I dislike the most is working with someone who feels like a star. Whatever I do is "awesome," and I find that really annoying. That's when I have to take control of the whole thing. This is the downside of working with people who could be my children: they are shy and overwhelmed by my resume. But if there is a young person who has a vision about me and is not at all concerned about my past work, but instead focuses on what we have together right now, it can be very fresh, fun and creative. And that is important, because at my age, it is not necessarily the case that whatever I do is beautiful. I was never completely photogenic, like Kate Moss, for example, who you could put in a corner and she would look great in a 2D photo. I'm not like that.
M.V.H.: Aren't you being a little shy?
M.B.: No, I'm being serious. That's why I think I'm a very good model. I know what to do to make things beautiful, I know how to get in tune with what is ineffable in the set design, someone's idea or even just the dress in a simple white studio. It sounds trivial, but I see how rare that is in photos. My idol has always been David Bowie, I've always wanted to be like him. What he does in the photos, what he wears, he simply becomes that. He goes on stage with something huge on his forehead, and that is authentic. When I was young I dreamed of being an actress, and instead I'm like an actress in a silent movie.
M.V.H.: But you have acted in several films. Were there any particularly important roles for you?
M.B.: I don't think I attach much importance to any of them. I usually get cast as in the film "Suspiria" [directed by Luca Guadagnino] - as some kind of monster or castrating mother.... "Suspiria" was actually a great experience because I was able to use my modeling skills, like being completely still for five hours while they put makeup on me or stick stuff on me, or not eating or drinking for 12 or 18 hours. I don't have acting skills, but I know how to embody. Maybe I don't have the craft, but I have emotional resources and I'm casually able to use them. But I always consider myself an amateur. My parents dissuaded me from acting when I was 13 years old. They told me I was too tall and had a speech impediment, so I had better concentrate on playing the piano. And that's what I did, but I had such stage fright during performances that my piano career was doomed. It was only when I became a model and stood in front of a camera that I eliminated my stage fright.
M.V.H.: You started in the era of supermodels, when your type of beauty was not considered "commercial." Now she seems to be more versatile than ever.
M.B.: Have you seen Ruben Östlund's latest film?
M.V.H.: Yes, "Triangle of Sadness."
M.B.: There is a scene at the beginning of the film, where during a casting call male models are instructed to do "H&M," so they make a "commercial" face, and "Balenciaga," which means an edgier face. Over the past 20 years I have actually gotten numerous jobs for both brands.
M.V.H.: Filip Niedenthal says that you push the envelope.
M.B.: He knows that very well.
M.V.H.: Are you a workaholic?
M.B.: No, I'm just a professional and a perfectionist. It's not obsessive, but if I know something can be done better, then I do it better. That is the standard for me, always has been. My son doesn't take it well, he sees it as pressure, a strain, but I don't perceive it that way at all. According to the benchmarks of the new generation I am intense and demanding, but for me it is normal. I think I have experienced the same pressures.
M.V.H.: But it is also self-discipline. Have you been able to pass some of that on to your son?
M.B.: Yes, now that he has moved to Berlin for school, he does the same thing. And that's good, because I remember when I found myself alone in New York with no money, in a world I didn't know at all, my salvation was my parents' lessons, those boring, horrible lessons that were meant to inculcate values.
M.V.H.: "Whatever you do, do it right."
M.B.: My son made me realize that not everyone works well under pressure, but for me it's crucial. My husband says modeling will save my life. I know I can't drink wine with dinner, as I used to do, if I have to work the next day. I don't see it as a huge sacrifice, but as a way to function in this world where there is constant pressure to be fit, look a certain way, manage lack of sleep, jet lag, etc.
M.V.H.: You write in the book that you felt guilty that you were making more money being on the beach in the Bahamas than your parents could make in their entire careers.
M.B.: I recently saw a new documentary about supermodels in the 1990s, and a lot of it is about money. I had no idea how much money there was in this industry. My mother lent me dollars from a priest she knew so that I could have at least something when I arrived in New York. I spent a fifth just for the cab from the airport to Manhattan. For me it was not about money, and I think that was due not so much to the way my parents raised me, but to the fact that I grew up in a communist country. At 21 I was still attending university, which was free in Poland. I had a scholarship. My parents had this approach: as long as you are in school, you don't have to worry about rent. I have the same attitude with my son. I came to New York for adventure, not for economic advantage. I didn't even have a bank account. I didn't realize that I wasn't getting money to stay in the Bahamas, but for the right to use my face. It was several years before I understood that. I thought it was a free vacation. So when I got a makeup contract with Shiseido-which happened very soon-and suddenly $150 became $150 plus a few zeros, it was shocking. I didn't like it; I had a kind of Catholic guilt. I remember at that time my parents were making something like $300 a month.
M.V.H.: In the Peter Lindbergh story, you remember that for your first Christmas in Poland you brought your parents an issue of Vogue with your picture on the cover and $10,000 in an envelope.
M.B.: I brought that amount because it was all you could carry in cash. Maybe I was already too old to be impressed by money, or it was my upbringing. I never spent money on clothing, the pleasure of dressing well was fully satisfied or even amplified by the work.
M.V.H.: Soon after, from a studio in Manhattan, you were looking at the falling towers of the World Trade Center.
M.B.: Filip was with me in New York and I remember we felt like the world was ending, that fashion was over, that the industry was a joke, that it was total excess. It happened during New York Fashion Week, and at first all the shows were to be canceled, and then they were rescheduled, and then it was decided to continue to do them, but without music, and to call them "presentations" instead of fashion shows. And so we watched in horror as everything went back to normal within a week.
M.V.H.: It was similar during the pandemic. At first there was a lot of talk about not flying so much, because it is unnecessary and harmful to the environment.
M.B.: The pandemic caused a huge technological advance. I was shooting a Max Mara campaign with Steven Meisel: he was in New York and I was in Paris, along with his assistants, all on Zoom. We thought it might stay that way, that maybe we wouldn't have to fly as much, that we would have to limit our carbon footprint. And then it all came back with overbearance, there are even more shows, on every continent. It's terrifying.
"My son paid a very high price for me to appear in all these pictures. So it's also a tribute to him."
M.V.H.: In addition to the work of the world's greatest fashion photographers, the book also features a portrait taken by your 19-year-old son, Józio Urbański. How did this portrait come about?
M.B.: This is another story about turning what looks like a disaster into something good. When I asked the photographers for permission to use their photos in my book, they were all very enthusiastic and gladly gave me the images. Except for one. I wanted the book to have 100 photographs, and there was only one missing. We could have included another picture of Tim Walker or Steven Maisel. But we wanted to keep the good vibes around the book-it was a friendly, do-it-yourself project. And then I remembered the picture Józio took to try out a camera. My hair is tied back, which is my favorite look, I'm not wearing any makeup, the photo is a little underexposed -- but because of this image, the good karma of the book was preserved. I thought it would be nice to have my son in it, after all he is also part of my heritage and pride. He did not have an easy childhood, there was a lot of instability, uncertainty about when I would leave and when I would return. He paid a very high price for me to appear in all these pictures. So it's also a tribute to him.
M.V.H.: Didn't you want to follow in his footsteps and become a model?
M.B.: Absolutely not, although casting directors ask me all the time. But Józio, like any self-respecting young man, is interested in philosophy and would like to live in an artistic commune. He is studying sound design in Berlin-he definitely wants to be an artist, but he also wants to have a craft, which I am very happy about. He got this combination of pragmatism and talent from me, although he has more talent and I have more pragmatism. But I was able to convince him-or rather bribe him-to do a big Christmas campaign with me, which will be presented in the fall. He was very embarrassed, but he did it.
M.V.H.: How did you bribe him?
M.B.: You know, even if you are anti-capitalist, you have to buy that guitar or that piano with something.
December 14, 2023