You may know the outlines of supermodel Karlie Kloss' spectacular story: At age 13, she was discovered (wearing Birkenstock clogs) at a St. Louis mall. Her first week of high school, she was stomping down New York Fashion Week runways for Calvin Klein and other major brands. Now 26, she's graced 40 (!) Vogue covers, serves as host of the rebooted Project Runway and global brand ambassador for Estée Lauder, and is the brains behind Kode With Klossy, a non-profit that creates learning experiences and opportunities for young women and inspires them to pursue their interests in tech. She's also a newlywed.
But, as Karlie tells Refinery29's global editor-in-chief and co-founder Christene Barberich on this week's UnStyled, she grappled with self-doubt about her appearance (yes, really). "I was really insecure about my body," says 6'2 Karlie. "I grew up in the Midwest, and at the time the ideal beauty was Jessica Simpson. Very curvy, and I was flat as a board, and no boy gave me the time of day."
She sees the beautiful irony in that now. "I really own it, and love it, because that makes me different, and I love that it makes me different. It didn’t always feel that way." Karlie has advice for anyone (teenaged or otherwise) for making the most out of whatever feels like a painful difference. "Instead of letting it control you, instead of letting it eat you alive … [flip] it on its head," she suggests. " Being so tall and lanky and skinny as a teenage girl certainly didn't get me any dates to high school dances, but it did open up this world of a career for me."
But once Karlie had made it — she seriously made it — she had something else to contend with: The downside of being "a billboard, a blank canvas for other people to project whatever their vision is. As a model, you're seen and you're not heard," she explains. "That was really kind of unfair, and something I really resented about my job. I really hate the fact that people judge me and see me as only for what they see on the outside."
Soon enough, she recognized the huge opportunity that her celebrity and access ultimately afforded her. "I can use my [position] to do the things that I genuinely love, that are genuinely reflective of who I am..I really love the fashion industry, but it's not all of who I am."
It was, of all things, a computer coding class that sparked Karlie's big idea. "I wanted to understand how things were built," she recalls. "How was technology that is changing industries and touching billions of people's lives every day [is made]. I had my eyes open to how creative and how powerful coding is."
To hear Karlie and Christene's entire discussion listen to this week's UnStyled, and subscribe via Apple Podcasts today.
(Quite fittingly, this season of UnStyled was inspired in part by Mrs. Estée Lauder's iconic quote, "I never dreamed about success. I worked for it." )