It’s difficult to pinpoint a model whose influence has the kind of reach that Paloma Elsesser’s does. At 28, Elsesser—who was first scouted by Pat McGrath on Instagram—has cultivated a following that stacks up against those of most supers. The fact that Elsesser has walked the runways of Eckhaus Latta, Fenty and Proenza Schouler, and landed a cover with British Vogue almost comes second to her idiosyncratic personality, unique look, and what her rising fame signifies—a change, or at least a step in the right direction, for greater inclusion and representation in the fashion industry.
Lately, Elsesser has been working on a slate of projects, even during the coronavirus pandemic. Her latest work comes in the form of Coach’s campaign for spring 2021. Titled “Coach Forever,” the ads were shot virtually by photographer (and W favorite) Juergen Teller and feature the likes of Megan Thee Stallion, Kate Moss, and Kaia Gerber.
“Getting creative with a photoshoot over Zoom works in Juergen’s favor, because for him, alongside some other seminal photographs from the era that he came up in, there was a certain grittiness and unkemptness that works,” Elsesser said of Teller, with whom she worked for the first time for the Coach campaign. “Juergen has architected a style of photography that Zoom or FaceTime can kind of lend itself to.”
Below, Elsesser provides a window into her personal tastes—what she’s reading (1960s South American revolutionist theory), listening to, (Björk, always), and what she’s looking for in the house she’ll soon purchase (solar panels).
Tell me about shooting with Juergen Teller.
It was my first time shooting with Juergen; obviously his work has been so cemented in the industry, and is also so timeless and free. Even though the shoot was through Zoom, I still felt really connected and that the kind of freedom he portrays in his imagery was still intact. It felt super collaborative, which I think is pretty much in line with all of his work.
So you did it over Zoom?
Yeah, we did it over video, from Germany—it’s such an interesting time, but fashion prevails, imagery prevails. It still can be effective if everyone who is participating wants it to be good. I think that’s a pervasive part of all the things we’re doing now. It’s like, we want it to be better, we want it to be good. We have the power to do that.
I’m sure that’s not the first shoot that you’ve done over video, right?
No, it’s not. I actually came in good timing cause I felt like, during full lockdown, there were so many video shoots that—not that it got old, but I think that being confined to home and figuring out different ways to work gave me a new sense of compassion or understanding of how to produce a shoot. When you’re shooting in your house, it’s like, you’re a stylist, you’re a makeup artist, you’re the movement coach, you’re the prop stylist, you’re the hairdresser. You’re all the things, and the model—which was cool, but also can be overwhelming. With this particular project, it was timely because I felt excited about it again, because in New York there was a very subtle, slow return to work.
Okay, on to the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up in the morning and what is the first thing that you read?
I normally oscillate between a 7:30 and 8:30 wake-up. It depends, but I also do the thing where, I call it “home office,” before I actually get out of bed, it’s another 30 minutes. I wake up, I meditate first, before I interact with the world. So technically the first thing I read is my phone to prompt my guided meditation. And then maybe I’ll read a text that my mom has sent me. I’ll peruse Instagram, but I definitely feel like I need a bit of marrow around jumping right into what’s going on in the world. I definitely do a news check-in; I appreciate that a lot of these news outlets have shortened versions of what’s going on. But normally, it’s meditate, texts from my mom, Instagram, news.
A lot of people who I’ve talked to for the Culture Diet interviews talk about how they wish the first thing they did when they woke up was meditate.
Honestly though, I do that because I’ve wanted to do that. And I feel really grateful that in quarantine I’ve gotten a better morning routine. I am so intensely human and imperfect and flawed. I think with the time quarantine gave me, I could more actively itemize how affected I am by the phone. When I was working or traveling, I couldn’t really look at the bigger picture of like, Oh, why am I in a stank mood when I wake up? Like, no shit: ’cause I hop on Instagram, think about what I’m not doing, I’m not on this vacation, etc. That’s not a great way for me, personally, to start my day. So again, I do meditate when I wake up first thing as a response to the depravity of not doing so. I am by far not a deity. I just do it because I literally need it.
Yeah. Handle the scandal, as I say.
What books are on your bedside table?
I am currently reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which is a heavy read—it’s a late 1960s revolutionary text about America’s influence on South American warfare. But I think it gives insight into the thoughts, the ideations of oppressed folks, and it feels very relevant to what’s going on today.
What’s the last thing that you Googled on your phone?
Let me see. The last thing I Googled on my phone was the address for the Marni store, where I was doing a fitting. Let’s find something more interesting. Oh, there’s “solar panels” right under it. A house that I put an offer on has solar panels, which is really sick. And then I was wondering, ’cause there’s another house that I like and I’m like, how much would it cost to install solar panels? They’re super good for the environment, plus then you have really low utilities each month.
So I’m assuming that you’re looking at houses in sunny places?
No, actually, it doesn’t really matter. It more has to do with light exposure. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or not—I’m looking in Brooklyn. I’m still in the very early stages and there are about a million stages to this process, but I definitely know that I will land on something in the next six months.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
Oh my god. That Nxivm documentary, The Vow [on HBO]. It’s so gnarly. I’m obsessed with cults and communes, because what’s most interesting to me is that I always feel like I’m in pursuit of self-expansion—but when does it suddenly turn into harm? Because sometimes, the central tenets and principles of some cults sound kind of cool. Like, wait, I’m not mad at that. But where does it become a power issue, normally at the hands of men? And then the violence is perpetuated and facilitated by women. It’s all super interesting. It’s broken up into different episodes; at the time that Nxivm came out, there were so many articles around it, but I like that the documentary breaks down the development and truly how insidious that kind of behavior is. So that definitely keeps me up at night because then I’m like spiraling into the patriarchy—so many spirals, but also really charged up.
Do you remember the last movie that you saw in theaters?
Oh my god, no. I can’t remember. It feels like forever ago. But I love the movies, I see so many movies. I’ll see, like, anything—I’m that kind of friend.
Do you remember the last concert that you went to?
I saw my brother Sage perform in the city—he’s a rapper, but he’s also a skateboarder and an artist. So that was the last, most memorable live music. I haven’t gone to so much intentional live music, but I think the last one besides my brother’s that was so impactful, where I bought a ticket, was to see Björk at The Shed. I just sobbed the whole time. At a Björk show, half the people are there alone. I dragged my one friend, but it’s like, you’re not just there ’cause it’s cute. You’re there because you’re a fan. It was so beautiful. And another artist that I love named Serpentwithfeet was touring with her. He was so amazing. I cried. Even reading some of his lyrics, it just makes me so emotional. Did you know Björk is a triple Scorpio?
Speaking of astrology, are you into it at all?
I would say I’m into it. I don’t think it commands or directs my entire day, but I definitely see how it’s relevant to my personhood and how I relate to others. I’m an Aries sun with a Virgo rising and I’m a Leo moon, and it makes a lot of sense: Aries, we’re very loyal, very outspoken, leadership-oriented, but very sensitive. But then I have this irritable, chaotic perfectionism, and a caretaker-ness that comes, I think, from my Virgo rising, which is supposed to be who you are also. And then Leo also makes sense—my boyfriend’s a Leo, double fire.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
My go-to karaoke song, which people are like always like, “What?”, is “Toxicity” by System of a Down. I think that people, I don’t know, maybe because it’s steeped in a little racism, they expect me to do Salt ‘n’ Pepa or something, which is also ill, I’m not mad at that. But when I’m like, No, I’m doing “Toxicity” and I know every single word, people are surprised. I guess I have three. So it’s “Toxicity” first, then “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush. Honestly, Kate Bush—if you can hit the notes and you know the lyrics, it’s a fab karaoke. And then third, I always do a duet of “My All” by Mariah Carey with my best friend Madeline. We sing our fucking hearts out.
What albums or playlists are you listening to right now?
Again, I’ve been listening to, still, a lot of Björk—but one of her first albums, when she was in the band Sugarcubes. Just because that was so much of the music that I would listen to in my first CD player. And I think that so much of what quarantine and isolation has provided is, like, what do I like to listen to and do when in private? But also, I listen to a lot of LA trap music. She’s all over the place.
What podcasts are you into right now?
I’m not a podcast lord. I just like music and I like reading. I want to get into them, I just can’t pay attention.
My friend has a theory that if you didn’t grow up listening to talk radio, then you don’t like podcasts.
But what’s weird is that I did. I remember so much of the three playlists from my childhood, specifically with my mom, was NPR, one; and two, Joni Mitchell, and three, West African world music. In so many of my memories there is NPR playing in the background. But maybe because of that, I would zone out a little bit, but still absorb it. But it’s really hard for podcasts to hold my attention. That’s a valid theory, though. I can see how that’s true.
What’s the last thing that you do before you go to bed?
It depends, but it swirls in the same three things: Kiss my boyfriend goodnight; do a little scroll on Instagram, and write a gratitude list. The order varies sometimes. If it was up to me, I’d do a scroll, leave my phone in the other room, kiss my boyfriend, and then do a gratitude list.
Do you write your gratitude lists in a journal?
No, I actually have a group of friends where we send each other daily gratitude lists. I’ve been doing it with specifically all Black and brown femmes. We’re just trying to find center and gratitude in this time. It feels really safe and nourishing; it feels really nice. Sometimes, I’ll have a hard day, and it’s like, I’m just grateful I woke up today. Some days there are more—sometimes it’s three things, sometimes it’s 50. It depends, but you’re always inspired to do it because you see your other people coming in with them. Sometimes I’ll just write one or two things, and then my gratitude is simply that this space exists.