"I had the feeling that someone had made a big mistake."
Despite spending more than two decades in the fashion industry, Polish supermodel MALGOSIA BELA struggled with imposter syndrome for a long time before finally accepting her professional success. GILLIAN BRETT meets one of fashion's most refreshing stars to talk second acts, parties and the pitfalls of social media.

Despite spending more than two decades in the fashion industry, Polish supermodel MALGOSIA BELA has kept a secret that's hard to find in such a hyper-connected world. Bela is the elusive Polish supermodel with piercing green eyes and glassy cheekbones, the face of more than 50 international magazine covers and no social media profiles (although there are, of course, fan pages dedicated to her). In short, she has the cool self-possession of a woman whose confidence is innate and not influenced by 'likes'.

"I think I lose a lot of jobs because I'm not on Instagram," she says as she snuggles into a wicker chair after her PorterEdit cover shoot in Warsaw at the secluded Corsican beach resort where she's vacationing with friends and her husband, film director Pawel Pawlikowski. "But it's a conscious decision on my part. It's true that if someone books me, it means they don't mind me not having it." Fresh from a morning swim, she arrives bare-faced with her hair pulled up into a ponytail, radiating a natural beauty that no Facetune could ever replicate. She sips a sparkling water with fresh lemon, crosses her legs elegantly like a horse and chats cheerfully about the beach party she attended the night before.

"I think I'm losing a lot of jobs because I'm NOT on Instagram. But that's a CONSCIOUS decision on my part."

She was expected to be reserved, but Bela is affable, funny and disarmingly honest in person. At 42, she seems at peace with it, no doubt because everything kind of fell into place as she approached 40: she met her husband, moved back to Poland with her 15-year-old son Jozef and got a job as editor-in-chief of the newly founded Vogue Poland (she is now the magazine's creative director). She still models - albeit far less than in her heyday - and reveals that the overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome and guilt she struggled with in her early career has finally subsided. "I talked a lot with my husband, who is a great film director, about how even great artists can feel like imposters," she says. "I also struggled with a lot of guilt, but when I talk about it now, I see that there was a lot of sacrifice and loneliness and things we had to give up. It took me a few years to really accept [modeling] as a profession and deal with the guilt of it not being a real profession, just a glamorous one. It wasn't until I had my son that I was able to come to terms with it.

"This was my chance to see the WORLD. I had never traveled before - I lived in a communist country until I was 12, so traveling seemed like a luxury to me."
Bela, who studied English literature and is a classically trained pianist, wanted to become a university professor like her mother from an early age, until a chance encounter with a model scout in a Krakow theater when she was 21 dramatically changed her career trajectory. "His way of persuading me to become a model - which just didn't make sense to me - was to buy me a ticket to New York," she says. "I felt like this was my chance to see the world. I didn't travel at all - until I was 12, I lived in a communist country, so traveling was something very luxurious and we didn't do it. They thought I was after a friend who lived in Canada, an exchange student who had come to my university, and that I would go to New York because it was closer.

"As a mom of a young person, that was crazy.... I had $300 in my pocket, had no credit card and no cell phone. I had the phone number of the agency that might take me. I had no portfolio, I had no pictures. I ended up at JFK, went to a pay phone, called the number, and they told me they'd never heard of me - not a good start." Luckily, someone at the agency eventually got her a spot in the new faces department and gave her the address of a model apartment whose cab ride cost a fifth of her entire budget. "I would never allow my son to do something like that, but times were different. I think when your parents can't control you all the time, you become more inventive."

Alexander Wang sweater; Nagnata shorts; Prada boots; Albus Lumen hat
"I was never super-COMMERCIAL or making millions of dollars or anything, but my financial status changed and I was able to help my FAMILY, and that was a drive for me.
Top Versace; pants Peter Do; sandals Prada; sunglasses Andy Wolf
Blouse and boots The Row; bikini briefs Matteau; hat Sensi Studio
Bela's big break came when she met the influential stylist Joe McKenna. Known for his sleek and sophisticated aesthetic, she had just come from a test shoot with long black hair extensions and lots of makeup - "everything Joe loves, right?" But McKenna recognized her otherworldly beauty beneath the prosthetics and made her the face of Jil Sander this season. After opening and closing the Spring/Summer 2000 show and appearing in front of the camera for campaigns photographed by David Sims, Bela's chameleon-like ability to transform from edgy cool girl to classic beauty caught the attention of more brands, including Versace, Valentino and Stella McCartney (with whom she's a longtime collaborator and for whom she walked this season). "I was never super-commercial or making millions of dollars, but my financial status changed and I was able to help my family, and that was a drive for me," she says. "Still, for a long time I felt like someone had made a big mistake. When I first walked into [Richard] Avedon's studio, I thought he would see through it." But he didn't? "Well, he saw me as more than just a model. He pushed me a lot towards acting."

Bela calls Avedon one of her most important mentors (she even wrote a 100-page thesis on him for her master's degree in cultural anthropology). "I think because he had such a great presence and personality, I took everything he said and did as a lesson and advice," she says. "He taught me that a shoot is an intimate conversation, a dialog between the model and the photographer. If you really focus on that dialog, everything else is unimportant - high heels, uncomfortable clothes, wind machines. Ultimately, that gave me a lot of confidence in front of the camera. Working with Avedon was a turning point for me in that respect."

She also vividly remembers the big set-ups on the Tim Walker shoots, which included "20-meter skeletons or an airplane made of bread or giant snails - that was always something very, very impressive." With her passion for embodying different characters, it's no surprise that Bela turned to acting. She played her last role last year in the remake of the Italian cult horror film Suspiria by director Luca Guadagnino. But it remains her avocation and a world she enters more often to support her BAFTA-winning husband, whom she met four years ago through a mutual friend, a director. They married secretly in a small ceremony attended only by their children, close relatives and witnesses. That same evening, they threw a big housewarming party in Warsaw - to which the bride wore a "black, tight and very sexy" dress by Victoria Beckham - and announced their intimate wedding in front of over 100 guests.

"[AVEDON] taught me that a shoot is an intimate conversation, a DIALOGUE between the model and the photographer. That gave me a lot of CONFIDENCE in front of the camera."

Bela sums up this unobtrusive approach perfectly. She radiates absolute serenity and speaks with a wisdom that her fresh face does not suggest. Her "secret" is a change in lifestyle and an investment in self-care. "My lifestyle is much healthier now. Twenty years ago it was mainly coffee and cigarettes and I was constantly on the run," she says. "Now I like to eat well, sleep well and need some kind of exercise to feel good in my skin. She swims an hour a day, five days a week, and uses a non-committal blend of natural, organic skincare. "I like to put anything on my face that smells edible and feels like oil. That's what happens when you turn 40 - you learn to treat yourself with a little more love.
April 11, 2024