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Natalie Cantell likes “dad jokes”. I ask her to tell me one. “The past, the present and the future walk into a bar,” she says. “It was tense.” Natalie admits her sense of humour is very sophisticated. So is she. Her resume boasts a degree in communications and a skill set that includes acting, writing, presenting and photography. “I’m always doing crosswords and geeky stuff,” she tells me. “It was always important that I had more going on as I was never really that proud to say I was a model. When I was younger, I think university was my way of giving the finger to the people who assumed whatever I thought they assumed about me.”
Does the ‘all beauty and no brains’ stereotype still exist in the industry?
“No, God, if only! These days it’s all about this pseudo-intellectual hipster counter-culture, loitering backstage and reading Penguin Classics. But some of my model friends really are some of the most well-read, well-travelled people I know. They’ve lived all over and speak two or three languages. Some even moonlight as amazing cooks, film-makers or musicians. There’s a more intellectual kind of beauty that’s been on trend for a while now.”
Cantell was invited to cover the AW14 shows at this year’s New Zealand Fashion Week for the Fashion One channel, which entertains millions of viewers in over 150 countries. “I had so much fun,” she says. “Just being a tiny part of showcasing Kiwi designers in such a colossal way was a dream come true.” Though she now lives in New York with her partner Ben, Cantell is proud of her Kiwi roots: “I think growing up here is the best start you can get in life. I was instilled with this idea that you could go off and do anything you wanted and my mum and sister are both so supportive. They kept me grounded and there was never any pressure.”
Natalie was discovered in St. Luke’s mall at the tender age of thirteen whilst shopping with her father. “I remember being on the escalator and dad leaning over with a really serious face,” she says. “He told me there was a man following us and staring at me. If he came over I was not to talk to him.” Her childhood ambitions were somewhat less glamorous than what lay ahead. She was adamant she would be the first woman to referee men’s first grade international rugby, though later had her eye on the job of the lady who turns the letters on Wheel of Fortune. Her fondest childhood memory is of growing up near the ocean and each spring receiving daffodil bulbs in the mail from her great-great aunt. Now Natalie dreams of going back to university and managing to live in the same city as Ben all-year-round.
“The more I’ve tried to veer away from modelling, the more I end up back shooting,” she says. “Covering shows was meant to be a strategic move into fashion journalism but I ended up getting to know guys like Phil Oh and Tommy Ton who would snap me for their street-style coverage. Those guys are also shooting major campaigns and they began requesting me for jobs. It led to a second wind with modelling.” She tells me the street-style element was a big game-changer as jobs became more interesting. She was asked to style shoots she was in and it progressed to collaborations with designers.
Her defining career moment was her first Abercrombie & Fitch campaign, the repercussions of which were dizzying. “When it came out I was in New York and it was everywhere,” she says. “As a teenager I’d thought the models on those billboards were so gorgeous and All-American. Suddenly I’m looking at myself twenty feet high in black and white next to this super-chiselled guy who I became good friends with. We’d be walking down Fifth Avenue and see our faces go past on shopping bags. Girls would go ballistic, but I just saw him as this lovely useless dude who ate a lot of chicken and always had stains on his t-shirts. It’s kind of nice to remember I was living someone else’s dream by hanging out with him.”
And how does New Zealand compare with the might of the Big Apple?
“We’re small, but our designers are world class. We should be really proud of what we produce. My friend Alex Catarinella came down from New York to cover the Fashion Week again this year. He’s always blown away by the standard of our collections. One of his final thoughts in his coverage was that Zambesi, who he compared to Alex Wang, ‘could totally go to New York Fashion Week and f—k things up!’ And he’s so right.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces