Interview by Grace O'Neill
As her book of essays, My Body, is released in Australia,Par Femme speaks to the polarising supermodel-turned-writer Emily Ratajkowski about sex, power, beauty, feminism, and art.
It’s a late October afternoon in London—pitch black already, of course—when I log onto a Google Meet with Emily Ratajkowski, the model turned actress turned writer, to discuss her book ‘My Body’. It’s the most I’ve looked forward to an interview in a while. Not because the book, which I consumed in one sitting that morning, is good (although it is), but because Ratajkowski is a figure that has fascinated and, on occasion, infuriated me for the better part of a decade. Not since Madonna has a pop culture figure so rankled the feminist establishment. Ratajkowski, who skyrocketed to fame as the breakout star of the controversial ‘Blurred Lines’ music video, courts ire across political aisles with her assertion that posing scantily clad for lingerie shoots et al. is a feminist act because it has bolstererd her financial wealth and cultural influence. She is that rare cultural figure that unites conservative pundits like Piers Morgan (‘This is Emily Ratajkowski ‘promoting feminism’, somewhere Emmeline Pankhurt just vomited’, hetweeted with images of Ratajkowki, lingerie-clad and writing in spaghetti for LOVE magazine in 2017), and Guardian columnists (‘My only take on Emily Ratajkowski’s book is that the Emily Ratajkowski who wrote about the problems of capitalism, the male gaze and female beauty standards seems to be a very different Emily Ratajkowski from the one who runs her Instagram account’,tweeted Hadley Freeman the week the book was released). Mention her name to anyone under the age of 60—scratch that, any woman under the age of 60—and you’ll spark a heated debate that could span hours.
Ratajkowski’s early brand of so-called ‘choice feminism’ was admittedly hard to stomach, unless you looked at it with your eyes half-squinted. Its logical limitations were simply too obvious: if a woman’s sense of personal ‘empowerment’ was the only variable in making an act feminist then a bible bashing Senator’s vote to repeal abortion rights could theoretically be a feminist act, as could a famous author tweeting that trans women aren’t really women. In many ways, Ratajkowski’s philosophy embodied a cynic’s view of the millennial mindset: solipsism dressed up as meaningful political activism. I could accept Ratajkowski’s assertions that ‘making bank’ off a perfectly proportioned body is a kind of gaming of patriarchal capitalism, but it’s clearly a zero sum game—Emily Ratajkowski: 1, the women who buy products under the false conception it will bring them closer to looking like Emily Ratajkowski: 0. But then EmRata niggles at you, like a scratch in your brain that you’re trying to get at with your tongue. The idea that Ratajkowski is a feminist because shefeels great as she makes millions of dollars off being hot (who among us wouldn’t!) doesn’t quite work, but the idea that she can’t be a feminist because she unapologetically panders to the ‘male gaze’ to make money feels puritanical: anti-sex and anti-beauty.
Besides, the idea that women are inherently powerless creatures helpless to the whims of evil male gatekeepers who only seek to dominate and control them is one I personally reject. Watching straight men regress into salivating boyhood at the sight of women like Ratajkowski doesn’t do much to affirm that sex relations amount to nothing more than ‘men = powerful, women = subservient’. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of art and literature—or, really, anyone who has had sex—understands that the power of feminine sexuality is far more complicated than that. But of course EmRata has always known all of this, and has always possessed a far more nuanced sense of herself and her politics than she was ever given the opportunity to articulate. Which is why she took matters into her own hands, with a book of 12 original essays that deftly tackle subjects ranging from the complexity of female friendship to the blurred ethics of being so beautiful that you’re paid ludicrous amounts of money to ‘hang out’ with sketchy billionaires. “I called the book ‘My Body’ because I think of myself as an example of a woman who succeeded by commodifying her body and image. I wouldn’t have as many people reading my book, and there wouldn’t be this much discussion around it if I hadn’t done that,” Ratajkowski tellsPar Femme. “But I was interested in exploring the experiences that run contrary to that, the things that I didn’t want to point at or look at when I was 20 and talking about choice feminism and saying ‘Yes, it’s empowering, I’m a hustler, and if I want to be naked, like,fuck off, that’s my perogative.’ In reality it’s much more complicated than that.” She waits a moment then repeats that last line again. “It’s just way more complicated than that.”
That the book is so well-written should surprise no-one. The media’s early fascination with Emily Ratajkowski was rooted in the fact that her good looks are matched by a ‘surprising’ eloquence and bookishness (she recently unearthed an old profile in a French fashion magazine in which an incredulous writer scoffed that Emily had read Roberto Bolaño’s 1,100-page epic2666.) When she was interviewed byEsquireabout Blurred Lines in 2013 Ratajkowski argued that the video actually skewered the ‘sexy girls as props’ archetype that others said it embodied. “On the surface level, the naked women dancing, I understand that can be perceived [as sexist],” she said. “But we’re directed to have a sort of confidence, a sarcastic attitude about the whole situation. That eye contact and the attitude really puts us in a power situation.” And anyone who continued to doubt the intellectual merit of Ratajkowski’s thinking was force-fed humble pie when one of the book’s essays, ‘Buying Myself Back’, was published byNew York Magazine in September 2020 (it went on to become the magazine’s most-read piece of the year, no small feat in a year that saw the defeat of Donald Trump and the outbreak of a global pandemic). The essay showed the deft touch of Ratajkowski’s pen as it documented the fraught relationship models have with their own image, opening with the fact that Ratajkowski is forced to pay paparazzis if she wants to share photos they’ve taken over her, culminating in a neat undermining of the artistic merits of Richard Prince, who sold a drawing of one of Ratajkowski’s Instagram posts for $90,000. The essay brought to the head the ‘exploitation vs empowerment’ conundrum that Ratajkowski seems one of the best-placed individuals to explore, and she answered it by ruthlessly scything the ‘vs’ and showing sexual and financial power dynamics as they are: fluid narratives that can shift, quietly and sometimes imperceptibly, dozens of times within the same encounter.
Ratajkowski began writing the book years ago, casually putting to paper some thoughts she was having about discomfiting professional and personal experiences. But it didn’t cross her mind that she might become a published author until she sold the rights to ‘My Body’ during the first lockdown. “I didn’t ever think of it as a career pivot,” she says. “I just started writing for myself. I’ve always been a really avid reader. My mom is an English professor and so growing up reading was a huge part of my life that continued as I became an adult. But I didn’t ever think of myself as someone who could write a book, because there are so many writers I admire so much that it was like,Why would I ever try?” But she kept writing, re-reading some of her favourite essay collections—Lacey Johnson’s ‘The Reckonings’, Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’, and Jia Tolentino’s ‘Trick Mirror’—as well as non-traditional memoirs like Carmen Maria Machado’s ‘In The Dream House’, for inspiration. In many ways, the writing process was a kind of therapy. Ratajkowski touches on many traumatic experiences throughout ‘My Body’, from a high school boyfriend who stalked and then assaulted her, to a photographer who badmouthed her in interviews for years only to audaciously ask her permission to sell unpublished photographs he’d taken of her as NFTs (Ratajkowski is gloriously rage-filled in her final essay, an open response to the email). It was only through writing, editing, and publishing the book that Ratajkowski made sense of some of these experiences. “I just did the audiobook last week and re-reading some of the stuff I was like ‘Wow, I have a fully different perception of that situation having read it now’,” she says. “Even talking to people, doing these interviews, someone will say ‘Oh that person was stalking you’, and it’s like ‘Oh, wow’. I feel like I’m still learning about my experiences and gaining perspective on it.”
Ratajkowski is someone who has made a career off ‘over-sharing’ herself—but it’s always been her face and body, not her thoughts. Is there an element of fear or trepidation in releasing something so vulnerable? Ratajkowski nods. “I’ve put myself out there in a way that’s less protected than ever before. I think that when it comes to my body, when I post pictures of myself, it’s an image that’s curated. Whereas with this, spilling my guts, it’s definitely much scarier. I’ve already had a little bit of a taste of the clickbait news cycle and how one line gets twisted into some specific thing that it wasn't initially intended to be.” She’s referring to the news story dominating headlines the day we speak: an extract of the book has been leaked in which she accuses the singer Robin Thicke of assaulting her during the filming of the Blurred Lines video. The stories are sensationalised, the essay itself is a well crafted analysis of the aforementioned fluidity of power dynamics on set (Ratajkowski found the female-directed, female crew-heavy shoot enjoyable until a drunk and leering Thicke returned to set for extra footage at the end of the day and cupped her bare breasts without consent). She had so wanted the experience to be the frothy fun of those first few hours—to deny the army of cynics that decried the song as a tacit endorsement of rape and the accompanying music video impossibly misogynist—that she denied the episode, even to herself, for close to a decade. “Still,” she says optimistically, “I have faith that people will read the book and make decisions for themselves.”
One of the book’s most interesting essays tackles Ratajkowski’s early relationship with her mother, who raised her daughter with lessons about beauty that feel antiquated to the millennial eye. “My mom came from a family that made her feel embarrassed by the way she looked. She was super beautiful, but they made her feel like that was something she shouldn’t be proud of, something that was almost shameful,” Ratajkowski says. “She really didn’t want me to have that experience, but of course there were all these little messages that I picked up about the scarcity of attractiveness that made me feel like it was very important to be perceived as beautiful—and of course the world reflects that.” It’s obvious that Ratajkowski’s mother, who was so enthralled by beauty that a young Emily would lay in bed at night, squeezing her eyes shut, praying she would be beautiful, has had a lifelong impact on her daughter’s sense of self. But Ratajkowski, who welcomed her first child, a son named Sylvester, in March, is quick to defend her mother’s perspective. “I think that a lot of mothers want to protect their daughters, and feel that a way they can do that is by teaching them about the reality of the world, which is that women are judged by the way we look in a way that men just don’t have to deal with,” she says. “It’s interesting because when I first got pregnant I thought I wanted a girl, but when I found out I was having a boy I felt a lot of relief around this particular issue. I thought, if I had a daughter, how would I have handled teaching her the reality of what it means to be a young girl in our world, and how to understand your value through the lens of the patriarchy? It’s tricky.”
Ratajkowski has that kind of luminous, otherworldly beauty that can’t help but put your own flaws into sharp focus (“How was she?” a friend texted afterwards. “I’ve never felt less attractive” I responded). After half an hour in her presence, it seemed impossible to me that part (part) of the ire Ratajkowski inspires is not partially motivated by good old fashioned jealousy. She is a living embodiment of AnnaKhachiyan’s assertion that the only thing harder to stomach than a beautiful actress sleeping with a director for a part is a beautiful actress who got the role off her own merit.That certainly explains the hordes of Twitter grumps who insist the book was ghost-written, and the snidey op-eds likeAir Mail Weekly’s(‘The tribulations of the brainy and beautiful. Tiny violins, please!’) But to take ‘My Body’ as an opining of how difficult it is to be both hotandsmart—a kind of extended riff on Kate Beckinsale’s cringey Howard Stern interview—is to wilfully misread it. Ratajkowski is grappling with core questions about the human condition: what does it mean to have power? Is the pursuit of beauty noble, as artists have always considered it to be? Is feminism incompatible with the animalistic nature of sex? Ratajkowski opens her book with a quote from John Berger’s seminal bookWays of Seeing, “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, morally condemning her…”, but she could have just as easily picked this one by Camille Paglia, another favourite writer of hers: “Sexual objectifcation is a supreme talent that is indistinguishable from the art impulse”.
Whatever your thoughts on Emily Ratajkowski—and you undoubtedly have them—there’s no denying she is a formidable cultural force. Can you think of another model whose memoir garnered earnest reviews in theAtlantic,theNew Yorker, theWashington Post, and theGuardian? Like her predecessors, who Elizabeth Wurtzel might call “bad girls”, she’s a cultural force who point blank refuses neatly conform to expectations (lest one think she will change her aesthetic now she is a critically-acclaimed essayist, Ratajkowski went to a fashion event in New York wearing this last week). But she’s unlikely to care that you think she’s too thin, or that her abs are too unrealistic, or that she’s holding her baby wrong, or that her selfies are too gratuitous. This is perhaps Ratajkowski’s greatest superpower: an imperviousness to the cultural white noise that surrounds her. When I speak to her she has a self-possession, an aloofness even, that makes it clear that she'll politely and thoughtfully answer your questions, but is not overly fussed about what you make of her either way. Perhaps it’s a calm that only comes to those who win the genetic lottery, then juice that golden lemon for every drop it will yield. Or perhaps it’s the battle-weary exterior of someone who knows they will be misunderstood whatever they say. Or perhaps it’s simple contentment: the contentment of a new mother, soon to beNew York Times’ bestselling author, and prolific model with the whole world at their feet.
Words: Grace O'Neill