Lily Cole is a really, really smart model. Which makes her a fucking unicorn. They don’t make ‘em like this. She went to Cambridge. She wants to help those in need. And on top of that, she has the kind of otherworldly, ethereal splendor that makes her so much more than a looker—she looks part porcelain doll, part artist’s muse in a painting, part siren of the sea. You could slap a mermaid tail on her and see her in a fantasy of crashing waves, or veiled in white tulle as a princess bride. She is the consummate image of feminine beauty. Whatever the gamut of the artistic canon, she’s heard it all. “Some the painting references I’ve had are Botticelli, John Currin, Pre-Rafealite,” she admits when prodded, but photographs are what catapulted her to international fame. She graced the cover of British Vogue at 16, and is now, a decade later, an industry veteran.
But don’t just think of her as simply a still image; her burgeoning acting career is already proving to correlate with her versatility in portraits. As the fair maiden Greta, plucked for her exquisite bewitching looks in Snow White And The Huntsman, Lily is the victim of a horrifyingly venomous Charlize Theron, who chows hearts of the nubile to extract their charms into her aging blood. (“I didn’t mind her sucking the life out of me!” says Cole.) In her heart-wrenching scenes, the redhead’s wide-set enormous eyes glistened with pure fear, as her small frame trembled in almost imperceptible shudders; you wanted to dive through the screen and rescue her. What was also fascinating about the role is the ironic twist that she becomes an old, wrinkled hag—a stark opposite to the youthful, dewy-complected beauty she is used to giving the camera. “It took seven hours,” she says of the painstaking makeup process.” “I think regardless of what attention you've had previously it's got to be a pretty jolting experience to see yourself looking a hundred years older! They did an amazing job of prosthetics, so it was very real. It made me reflect on what I would feel was important at that age... and I could only think of my grandkids.”
Most models who become quote, unquote “actresses” really shouldn’t venture beyond playing a dead body in a chalk-outline, but Cole’s passion for the craft transcends simply wanting to be famous. Her next projects include “Gravy,” co-starring Sarah Silverman, and “Orion” with David Arquette, and after having enchanted both critics and audiences with her roles in both Snow White and The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, it appears the sky’s the limit for Cole, who has decided to give up posing and to act full-time. (“I would still consider modeling for a painter,” she confesses.) And while she admits she would have loved to have worked with Avedon, she actually enjoyed shooting the photographs accompanying this profile, though they’re a star contrast of the frothy, glam alta-moda confections she’s been part of. “I often prefer that style,” she muses. “Stripped back and raw. It’s all about the photographer and the creative team.”
Cole brings an almost intellectual, art-historian’s point of view to the work, which is unusual for a mannequin. In addition to bucking the trend of double digit IQs, she also says her dream day is not some fabulous jet-setting fashion week rager, but a more subdued paradise. “It would be away somewhere empty and quiet, filled with people I love, nature, beauty and sunshine,” she says. “ And yes, food.” (I taunted her about whether she eats.)
In addition to her countless accolades, Cole just received an honorary doctorate for her myriad environmental projects, and based on her upward trajectory her next chapter may be her finest. “I’m spending most of my time right now working on impossible.com,” she says. “It’s a social network to encourage a gift economy.” I perused the site and it’s a truly moving kinetic bulletin board of posted wishes—a network of people seeking help and those who offer it—to assist finishing a patchwork quilt, to suggest gifts for a godchild, to teach a young artist how to screenprint. It appeals to the core goodness of individuals and makes the troubled world feel a bit cozier. Not a bad global force for a girl whose chance encounter on the street in Soho at 14 led to her discovery. Rocker Marilyn Manson said he wanted to cast her in his film about Lewis Carroll as Alice. But unlike the Wonderland heroine, Cole doesn’t need to drink a thing—she’s already getting bigger and bigger.