Lily Donaldson Is Killing It Softly

In the age of the Insta-model, Lily's managed to become one of the fashion world’s most famous faces without giving any of herself away

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Lily Donaldson is insisting on carrying my glass of water for me. I’ve imagined a hundred times how a late Sunday afternoon date with one of the most elusive supermodels on the international stage might play out. Funnily enough, this scenario – her carrying my drink while I juggle my bags, notebook and myriad pieces of recording equipment – never featured.

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Photography: Kai Z Feng

I had never imagined that Lily would feel bad and want to make amends within the first five minutes. But the Green Bar at the Hotel Café Royal, London, where we have met, is too quiet and she is too self-conscious to speak openly in front of the placid table of three Eastern Europeans and a solitary woman reading the paper in the corner. So she has asked, awfully apologetically, if I wouldn’t mind if we moved somewhere else. Not, I hasten to add, because she’s afraid of being recognised; rather, she’s afraid they’re going to hear what she’s saying and think, ‘Who the hell does that girl think she is?’ We relocate to the roomier restaurant next door. It’s a less imposing kind of quiet and, resettled, we try again. Take two.

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Lily Monica Donaldson is a rare proposition in today’s landscape: a model for whom zaniness and outspokenness cannot be plotted on a graph in direct proportion to achievement. Lily is a model introvert. A proper Londoner – she was born in Hackney, raised in Kentish Town and schooled at the prestigious Camden School For Girls – at 28, she’s notched up over 10 years in the industry and is as recognisable a British export as Cara Delevingne or Jourdan Dunn. She has walked the catwalk for everyone from Tom Ford and Balmain to Victoria’s Secret. But she’s an editorial, rather than a catwalk girl: models.com puts her currently at 58 magazine covers and 100 editorials, versus 34 shows. She also features on two of its most prestigious lists – Top 50 Models and Top High Earners – and was one of the models who took part in the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. She’s notched up 56 campaigns: you’ll know her piercing blue eyes and delicately assembled features from Burberry. But, unlike Cara or Jourdan, you might not know her name or, indeed, who she’s dating, what pets she has and what she ate for lunch yesterday.

Interviews with Lily are rare. I know this because I spent the week before we met reading everything I could find, and there wasn’t much. I learn that she has a sister (it transpires that she has three younger half-siblings, too), and that Fleetwood Mac legend Mick Fleetwood is her great-uncle. I learn that she relocated to New York when she was 18. But a sense of who she is? It’s fleeting. ‘When I was younger, I was really shy and I found interviews terrifying,’ she admits. ‘Now, I find it fine, and think it’s kind of nice to do. Sometimes.’ She’s wearing Converse, grey skinny jeans and a blue jumper that she periodically pulls up over her mouth once she’s finished speaking. She has a long gold chain around her neck that she keeps popping into her mouth. She will not sit still. The interview process seems physically painful for her.

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Photography: Kai Z Feng

There’s a dangerous misconception these days that introverted people can’t be great; that if you’re not shouting, then you’ve got nothing to say. That introverted people are somehow paralysed by insecurity and nerves. That they are one-dimensional, boring even. It’s simply not true. Lily and all she has achieved is testament to that. She says things that I relate to so easily: ‘You wouldn’t necessarily know it, but I’m kind of a goofy person’, ‘I’m not shy when I’m with my friends’, ‘I’m like the mother hen’. And I find myself admiring her because she has single-handedly built a brilliant career by exhausting herself in a way that only introverts will understand. You can’t do what she does without putting yourself out there. She works with new people almost every day; people who she not only has to talk to, but who have to dress her, touch her face. She travels all over the world, often at a moment’s notice, solo. She might feel afraid, but she does it anyway. Her feelings on the Met Ball, for me, sum it up quite perfectly: ‘It’s actually really f*cking scary. But I’m always so excited to go – and then I’m getting ready, thinking, “Why did you say you would go? It’s so scary!” But then you go, and it’s one of those fabulous things. And it’s like, why not?’

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Lily’s come a long way. When she first started out, she let her own reticence to adapt to having a public profile impact upon people, and she feels bad about that now. ‘I remember going to Glastonbury when I first started modelling and people would say, “Are you a model?” And I’d be like, “No, I’m a squid hunter.” I’d make things up. Then I realised that when I was saying that, I was making people feel really uncomfortable.’ So she taught herself to smile and agree to photos instead.

As a fellow introvert, I like her enormously. She’s honest and considerate. The word ‘shy’ crops up repeatedly in our conversation. It’s fascinating to me, I tell her, that she can walk the Victoria’s Secret catwalk in a bra and knickers in front of millions of people around the globe, yet get ‘camera shy’ (her words, not mine) having a conversation with me when my Dictaphone is switched › on. ‘Yes, I think it’s almost the reverse,’ she says thoughtfully. ‘Because [on the catwalk] you don’t really have to show yourself – you just put on this kind of thing. It’s very bizarre.’

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Lily is reluctant to talk about her family, but it’s fair to say that she wasn’t a girl who got into modelling to put food on the table. Her father, Matthew Donaldson, is a photographer, and is often wrongly credited with giving Lily her start. But she got scouted independently, at 16, when she was out with friends in Camden Lock (‘I wasn’t really into it, but I wanted to get a horse’) and she has done all of it, since, off her own back. She works. The ELLE team spent three days on set with her, and everyone from the bookings editor to the fashion director fell in love with her. She’s professional to a fault, they say, and it’s something on which she tells me she prides herself: ‘I’m very respectful. So many people put so much time into shoots, so you get there on time and no messing around. You just have to turn up on the day, but other people have been preparing for so long. I mean, it’s a job; a proper job.’

Photography: Kai Z Feng

This attitude is indicative of the pretty healthy work/life balance that Lily has going on; a luxury not afforded to many of her model contemporaries, who have opened the virtual Pandora’s box and are now 24/7 brands in their own right. I ask her whether she feels any pressure to perform on social media and the answer is a straight-up no. ‘I just put out as much as I’m comfortable with. I don’t really think about it too much. But there is a line: you can overshare with people,’ she says. The kind of recognition that brings is not something she’s interested in: ‘I have friends who have that and it’s not something that I’d ever be after. I like to be able to walk around anywhere I like.’

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When said friends are the most famous of Insta-girls – think Cara, Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid – it’s understandable that she’s wary to unleash the kind of AAA-grade media chaos that envelops them constantly. Lily’s Instagram feed is full of pictures of her with them – hanging out on shoots, at gigs, in gorgeously executed editorials – looking like they’re having a ball. But to Lily, that’s her work life, not her ‘real life’. Real life is spending time with her boyfriend (who she won’t talk about in any meaningful way, but with whom she’s obviously completely smitten), driving off somewhere obscure – Detroit, or Albuquerque, or Texas – and just exploring new places. Last year, she drove across America herself. She loves watching documentaries, visiting museums and, like most people approaching 30, wishes she’d taken her time in education a bit more seriously. She always wanted to study art (she laughs at the suggestion all the girls in her school, which has a famously feminist ethos, were being groomed to become Prime Minister), and draws and paints ‘as much as I can’. But she never shows anyone.

From the age of 17, Lily worked non-stop. She describes herself as a ‘little headless chicken’ during those years, just trying to navigate her way through her teens and early 20s as best she could, like the rest of us. ‘When they would tie my hair up [on a shoot], I remember feeling so naked,’ she recalls. ‘Before, if I were in front of the camera, I would just have a sheet of hair, like a wall in front of me. Some of my earliest memories are just getting over those kind of awkward things that most people have when they’re a teenager.’ But when she was 24, she had an accident that forced her to slow down and get some perspective: while riding in Queen’s Park, her horse scared and she was thrown into a tree, at speed, and knocked out. She broke her knee and tibia, ruptured her posterior cruciate ligament and fractured her hip in seven places. She still has some numbness in her left leg (she prods it defiantly as she tells me this). Amid the glossy shots of Work Lily on her Instagram, there’s a jarring #tbt image of her in the back of an ambulance, covered in blood and bruises. It was a real turning point for her.

‘I didn’t know [how badly I was injured] for 10 days – I walked on my leg. As the days went by, I just didn’t want to be hurt; I didn’t want to be injured,’ she says. ‘Everyone around me was like, “You are so pale and not OK,” and I was like, “I’m fine. I’m still going to do everything myself.” By day five, I was walking with one crutch. By day nine, it was crazy; I literally walked down the King’s Road without any. I even went to the pub to meet some friends. Then I went back to the doctor and had an MRI, and he was like, “How did you even touch your toe on the floor?” It’s funny the power the brain can have when you’re determined.’

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She took two years off to rest, heal, read and travel. But she missed fashion and returned to the fray in 2013, only to find social media had changed the world. During the catwalk show season, at least.

‘The difference was extraordinary. Outside Balmain, it was a crush of people. I walked out with my friend Joan [Smalls], and it’s like the Camden [in me] came back: I almost became her bouncer. I’m like, “Come on,” ushering her through, whereas they were actually trying to get at me, too. It’s funny because it’s all about the ‘having a selfie’ thing, which I understand. But when it’s in that mass, it can be terrifying. There’s an aerial shot where you can see it. I had no idea. We just walked out, then suddenly we had to run back inside like, “Oh my god!”’

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It happened with Karlie, too. ‘We were walking from the tents and it literally took us half an hour to get from one side to the car because we had to inch. You can’t even see us. It’s like Where’s Wally? I’m not upset about it, because that’s in a very particular place. And I know now. Next time, I’m definitely not going to be leaving with Karlie – I’m going to be sneaking out the back!’

Photography: Kai Z Feng

When I ask Lily about beauty, diet and fitness, we’re back in more comfortable interview territory and she visibly relaxes. Lily’s food weakness is potatoes. She’s not a huge fan of working out (she is limited to what she can do because of her leg), but in New York does SLT classes (‘it’s Pilates on crack, basically’), because they’re short and intense. She’s evangelical about unrefined coconut oil in her beauty regime – it takes off make-up, leaves your skin soft, and is cheap and natural. Not that she’s particularly bothered about ageing: ‘I’m going to try to smile, because laughter lines are the nicest ones.’ She’s kind of looking forward to turning 30, she says, since she’s feeling happier all the time. She jokes she has a couple of years yet before she starts thinking about babies – though she’s so clearly loved-up, I suspect plans, albeit abstract ones for now, are very much on her mind already.

She doesn’t hesitate to call herself ‘absolutely, definitely’ a feminist, but it’s as an environmental activist that she is particularly passionate. ‘It can give me stomach aches for days on end when I really think about it,’ she says of global warming. She recycles religiously. ‘It’s one of the biggest things we have to deal with right now. It’s scary.’ It has inspired her to start work on a film – something ‘very political’ – in a behind-the-camera capacity which she’s incredibly excited about. She has to keep pulling herself back from saying too much about it. As we say our goodbyes, she tells me she hopes we get the chance to talk about it properly in the future.

It’s all to play for, I note. She nods – she’s grateful for that. ‘Choice is probably the biggest luxury you can have in life,’ she says. ‘Choice and freedom. I mean, there’s nothing better than that.’ Except, perhaps, knowing that you worked pretty damn hard to make both happen for yourself.

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