Image courtesy of Malgosia Bela/Next Models NY.
I’ve waited literally 8 years to interview the Polish model and actress, Malgosia Bela. This was not only because of her incredible track record for clients ranging from Versace to Jil Sander, Chloe and YSL Opium as shot by the landmark photographers of our day such as Steven Meisel, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Juergen Teller, David Sims and Craig McDean. What fascinated me about Malgosia was the stories of her multi-disciplinary skills …from the Master’s degree to the acting career to her ability to brilliantly play the piano. I finally caught up with Ms. Bela on a spin through Los Angeles. The Malgosia I sat down for a cup of tea with was completely unaffected, not wearing a scrap of make-up with no sign of the fashion life except for her low key double band Hermes Cape Cod watch. Once we opened up the conversation the fact of Malgosia’s amazing life force became abundantly evident. It was very much worth that 8 year wait!
Wayne Sterling: I understand you’re literally hours back from a New Guinea trip.
Malgosia Bela: Yes. I was mountain climbing. Although that could have been a real disaster if I had taken even one wrong step on that mountain. I could have broken my leg or worse but it was so great when we got to the summit. I’m on my way back to NY in a few hours and then onto Poland.
Wayne Sterling: From my research I know you graduated from college..
Malgosia Bela: 2 years ago. My master’s degree was in Cultural Anthropology. I started… the basis of my studies was American Literature but then you can expand your studies towards the end, so I moved into anthropology where you can pretty much write about anything you want and I decided to write a 100 page thesis on Photography and on Richard Avedon. That was in 2005. When I started, my professors were pushing me to write about photography to incorporate my experiences in the fashion industry and I was like, no, no, no ..this is so predictable. But eventually I did it because I had what you would call… a first hand experience. It’s difficult to talk about fashion in academic terms or so it seemed to me at first
WS: There’s a funny tradition of French academics attempting to do just that… from Barthes “The Fashion System” to Bordeau.
MB:Oh yes. Funny enough I found people at the university were genuinely interested ..they wanted to know why certain things had to be shot at a certain time… Why the show seasons were the way they were.. It was a concept that was hard for them to get. The whole thing is very close to the idea of advertising itself which is also a form of communication… Avedon died and that was an inspiration for me to write something that was about photography but specifically about him.
WS: So your thesis ended up being about Avedon…
MB: It was 100 pages on photography but it was also on him… but you know… you had to have a chapter on the history of photography…
WS: Ah…you had to give it a context.
MB: Exactly. It was not only about his fashion photography it was also about his portraits..
WS:You couldn’t have chosen a more ideal subject. His career IS the history of contemporary photography
MB: Exactly.. which is the history of fashion but it goes deeper than that. It goes into the social history of the photography. It goes into politics… He was very egalitarian in his approach to his work. There was a great range to what he did.
WS: There is that great story of how he tricked the Duke and Duchess of Windsor into having an emotional expression on camera.
MB: …He told them that his dog died.. Yes. He was very aware of what he was doing and the power of his photography.
WS: Even verbally. People who are very good visually are usually not good with words.
MB: Avedon was very good with words. Thankfully he was quoted a lot so there was some material I could work with. The American West.. the foreword alone was so articulate and carefully thought out. Running throughout his work was this whole idea that photography was alive..that a photographer is a manipulator and he presented himself as one. Once you believe in that it’s pointless to say “this photograph is not true”. The photography isn’t supposed to be true. It’s always cropped, you choose the lighting…
WS: I love the way he would move his ideas from the documentary of American West to the advertising images for CK be in the 90’s
MB: At first I thought it was absurd to write about something I was doing only for 6 or 7 years but that and my son are the things that give me a sense of accomplishment in life. It was hard work at times..I was doing a film at the time and then having a little child while working on the thesis …
WS: How did you get through the challenges?
MB: (laughs) A lot of tears and a lot of cigarettes.
WS: Tell us a little bit about your acting ambitions.
MB: I’ve done 4 films in Poland and that was when I took off in modeling. But as for working in LA, it presents an interesting problem. Coming from the modeling world I’m expected to look like a model. When I walk into the room here they are a little bit disappointed. They see pictures and then they expect to see a finished product in person.. I have to give credit to the fashion industry. A lot of people have a great eye and they can still see… despite bad skin or horrible make-up or bad hair.. someone who’s going to look good in the pictures.
WS: That’s an interesting point you make about the commercial images in LA. I went to a birthday party yesterday with a few famous young actresses there and they were perfectly, fully groomed for the paparazzi pictures.
MB: Meanwhile I’m from the world of no makeup… hair pulled back… Just being yourself. Here it’s always the same comment…
WS: (laughs) Can she wear red lipstick…
MB: And that’s not what I’m after but it’s OK.
WS: Perhaps it’s just a question of finding the right director. Or are you thinking of creating your own material?
MB: More and more so. The older I get the more of a control freak I become. But to me acting is also more about knowing yourself and discovering more about yourself so I think it would be great for me to create the material that would allow me to challenge myself.
WS: Maybe it could be a film where the character is a pianist. I hear you are a trained musician. Are you on the level of a concert pianist?
MB: I went to music school. If I was better I believe I could be a concert pianist …if I were practicing everyday. But I could teach yes.. I’m certified to teach.
WS: All that hard work Malgosia and you’re more known for fashion pictures.
MB: Yes but that’s OK.
WS: It has its advantages ?
MB: Of course it gives you a lot of freedom. Sometimes you feel like a victim of your own images but on the other hand I am so grateful for the career I’ve had. I have this feeling that I’m portrayed more as a person now so that gives me a lot of satisfaction. There was a time when I was bitching about the industry but there really are people, on a certain level of course, who really have an amazing eye and it has been a great honor to work with them. I think they’re just as devoted to being good and unique as any other artists.
WS: Which makes your work with them closer to collaboration no?
WS: Thank you so much Malgosia for sitting down for this interview. I find you very inspiring!
MB: Thank you so much!! It’s really good meeting you finally; I really enjoyed having this talk.