Photography by Russell James
Fashion by Sean Knight
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, you know who our newest cover girl Kendall Jenner is. The second youngest daughter of media mogul and momager extraordinaire Kris Jenner, Kendall first rose to fame on her family’s reality television show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. In the earlier seasons, Kendall and younger sister Kylie played secondary roles, overshadowed by their three older half-sisters. It didn’t take long, however, for the Jenner sisters to become full-fledged celebrities in their own right.
While her sisters have taken the cosmetics and reality tv industries by storm, Kendall, with her legs that just might never actually end, has struck out on her own into the world of modeling, where she has quickly risen to prominence. Actually, she’s completely taken over. What started as photo shoots for brands like Forever 21 and spreads in Teen Vogue has quickly led to full-fledged supermodel stardom. In 2015, Kendall realized her dream of becoming a Victoria’s Secret Angel, walking in back-to-back Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows in 2015 and 2016. She returned to the VS stage last year after taking a year off due to conflicts. She’s also walked in shows for Chanel, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Versace, Bottega Veneta, Balmain… just to name a few. The older Jenner sister has also snagged contracts with Estée Lauder, Adidas, and Calvin Klein, among others. Since 2017, Kendall has held the title of the highest paid model in the world, and, according to Forbes, raked in over $22 million dollars last year. It seems there's no fashion mountain this woman can’t summit.
So, you know who Kendall is, but did you know that the photographer of our cover shoot, the iconic Russell James, and miss Jenner go way, way back to the earliest days of her modeling career? L’Officiel USA Editor-in-Chief Joseph Akel spoke with the famed fashion photographer about how he first came to work with our newest cover girl, the relationship he and Kendall have formed over the years, and the future of modeling in the age of Instagram influencers. Check out Russell's drop-dead gorgeous photos of Kendall below, and, while you're there, read what he had to say.
JOSEPH AKEL: You and Kendall have worked closely together for a few years now. What’s the origin story there? What was your first impression of Kendall?
RUSSELL JAMES: I first met her when she was 17. Her mother had reached out, as mothers should, and said, “My daughter, she wants to be a model. All she wants to do is be a model, and I was thinking was: ‘who’s the right photographer who could give her the right opinions?’ and there was Russell James” She said she noticed that I work with a lot of people, but also Victoria’s Secret. The first meeting I had was with Kendall and Kris.
Kendall is a very quiet person in real life. I had never seen [Keeping Up with The Kardashians] so I had nothing to compare her to. She said, “I want to be a model,” and I said, “Well I want to be an astronaut, what credentials do you have to be a model?” I didn’t mean it in a negative way, I just wanted to see what she thought. She said “Well, do you think I could model?” and I said “Well, genetically, I think you absolutely could. You look absolutely fantastic, but there’s a lot more to it than that. You could do all the right things and still not be accepted as a model. It’s a very difficult industry; I advise you to be very careful about it. You are also in a very unique position where you already have a brand; whether you care to acknowledge it. It’s a lot harder to rebrand than it is to brand.”
So, what was my first impression of Kendall? It was, “sweet kid, unique circumstances in which she already has this enormous brand.” She didn’t say much to me, but she had 20 million followers at that time, which is astonishing. And she clearly had a true passion to be a model. She just said to me, “this is my dream.”
JA: Did you think that she was going to reach the level that she has? There’s no arguing that she’s now one of the biggest models of her generation. Were you able to see that possibility then?
RJ: You know, I meet people in my career where I think, “if everything goes perfectly, then they have a shot at the title,” as I call it. There are some girls who I know where they should have had a shot and they didn’t. I certainly looked at Kendall and thought, “well this could damn work.” All I could do at that time is to try and make sure to offer guidance and support because anyone bad move can rule someone out. It can disqualify you. So, my goal, my take on it, was to think how can I give her advice from what I know—because let’s say my advice necessarily isn’t the best advice—that would give her the best opportunity?
For example, discussing the relationship to her brand in our meeting, I said we have to take [her move to modeling] to an almost anonymous level. Kendall had said she loved doing philanthropic work, so I said let’s go do some projects based on that, we’ll take some pictures for pictures’ sake and not for any commercial concern. We went to Australia met with some aboriginal girls in the Outback. Kendall did a small Miss Vogue cover, which was an online-only young version of Vogue in Australia.
To Kendall’s credit, she never questioned a thing we did. She was like, “if this is what you say I should do, I’m going to do it.” We also started to talk about agents and the importance of getting the right one—there are only a few agents who can possibly sustain managing a “supermodel.” When I say a few, you can count them on one hand… actually, I can chop two of my fingers off and still count them on one hand. So, we decided it’s not about faking it. It’s about talking to one of these agents to see if they’d think about taking on Kendall. It’s not about walking in and saying, “Hey, I’m a famous person, take me and make me a model.” These agents understand fame is only going to go so far. To be a real model it takes a whole lot of other things to happen.
JA: Since this time, you’ve obviously gone on to collaborate with Kendall in many other publications. How have you seen her grow during that time, both as a model and in terms of her fame?
RJ: In the beginning, of course, we did a lot of shoots together. I told Kendall from the beginning, we’ll know that it’s working when other big-name photographers are calling and asking for you. In regard to how she’s handled her fame, I’ve watched her and, again, it’s unique. It’s hard to describe. If you measure it from a social perspective, she’s gone from 20 million to a hundred million followers, which is unbelievable. But also, her discipline as a model has grown. She’s developed a tremendous amount of discipline. I think she’s now found a brilliant balance where she’s really committed to being a model.
In the beginning, I’d say the issues I found with Kendall were unusual to any other model that I’ve worked with. One of the most critical points of any given model is the ability to connect with the camera, to literally connect with the camera and make it feel to the viewer that that person is looking at you. With Kendall, I couldn’t quite describe it in the first shoots, I was like, “Can you please do this,” “Can you please do that.” She was very present, but there was almost a delay. We discussed it afterward. I was like, “You know, I think, and this is a guess because you’ve grown up with cameras in your face your whole life, that you have almost a veneer. As soon as the camera’s out, where other people become more personal, you potentially do the opposite. You look but you’re just not willing to share yourself with the lens because you’ve safeguarded yourself.” It’s the opposite problem that I normally experience, and we had to talk about it and do a lot of work to talk about how you connect with the camera.
And how she’s handled the fame, to me, has been incredible. I’ve seen her put under intense pressure, I’ve seen her criticized like, “oh, you’re a model because you’re a famous person.” It’s actually the opposite. Her fame was one of the greatest things she’s had to overcome. She got all of her castings as a completely anonymous person. She just went as “K” or “Kenny” with no makeup. She basically got picked to do shows by big designers who didn’t know they were hiring “Kendall Jenner.”
JA: How do you think social media has changed the modeling industry?
RJ: Well, I don’t just think social media has changed the modeling industry, I think it has changed every aspect of the world. But, it’s changed modeling from a couple of points of view. There’s this word “influencer” which everyone hears, and it’s overused. People say, “I’m going to hire an influencer instead of a model.” I’m like, well, interestingly models have a big following because they’re the ultimate influencers. Not only are they influencing, but they’re also representing.
I’ve seen the big agencies really scrambling to interpret and understand the importance of social media, and I’d say the biggest question they’re riding is if they should take a person as a model because they have a big following, and then make them a model, or do they need to start with a model? My opinion is it starts with being a model, and then you develop the social voice. Then [social media] may become your biggest revenue stream and your biggest voice, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It’s got to start with the real thing: the model.
JA: If you could put into words what the special something is that makes a “top model,” what would that be? Are you able to articulate what that something special is, and how you know when a model has it? Is there a universal quality across the board that all of these models possess?
RJ: To be a complete cliché, I do think the “it factor” is everything. I also think it’s a gut call you have to make. For me, when I first met Kendall, that quality hit. Conversely, sometimes I’m taking photos of someone and I think they’re interesting, but when I meet them it can sometimes be like, “oh no, I don’t actually like this person very much.” Then, sometimes you meet someone you’re absolutely drawn to. It can be their features, because they’re just the most absolutely beautiful person in that category of person, or sometimes they’re unlike any person you’ve ever seen before. In this industry, I often hear a girl say, “You could be the next Cindy Crawford.” No, there’s already been a Cindy. The amazing thing about every supermodel is that there is no one to compare them to. I can’t tell you who’s the likes of Kendall.
All of the supermodels, all of the models that sort of rule, while I think they have their unique qualities, you really know it when you’re in their presence of it. That is universal. As a photographer, it’s about interpreting that on a camera. And that can be hard. There are also times where you find someone that’s so magnetic and charismatic and you can’t find a way to translate that through photography. Those people can go on to have amazing TV careers or film careers, but in the modeling world, it has to translate in photography, primarily.
JA: Is there one aspect of the modeling industry that you’ve seen change? Do you feel like it’s an exciting time to be a model now?
RJ: It’s a really exciting time to be a model, and it’s a really exciting time to be a photographer. The question of diversity has been an interesting one because that’s where the big momentum has been gained. It’s not like the people weren’t out there before, it’s what’s become commercially acceptable. Before, if you shot a lot of diverse people for a magazine story, you wouldn’t know which ones they’d publish. I think now the choice of what to publish is very different. Suddenly, the door is wide open. It’s an incredible time. There’s still a hell of a long way to go, though, and a lot of room for interpretation around what “diverse” means to different people. To me, we’re seeing what was previously considered extremities of the industry as part of the norm. I think it’s going to get broader and wider.
JA: Give us a sense of the upcoming projects you have in the year ahead.
RJ: Obviously, I’ve been working on a lot of photography projects. I can’t say much, but I just finished shooting a campaign for the brand FILA in the mountains. I’ve been shooting Vogue covers. I’ve been involved with this fragrance brand founded on the basis of using raw ingredients. As I travel the world, I’ve met these people with incredible raw ingredients living in remote communities, mostly people in different cultures like aboriginal people and Native American people, and I’ve been able to introduce those ingredients into the fashion industry. I clearly know nothing about fragrance, I just was able to connect the dots, which is something I love to do.
I’m currently involved with Hugh Jackman’s arena tour that’s just about to go through the US, to places like Madison Square Garden and the Rose Bowl. In that show, I have a small segment where I film in the Outback of Australia. Part of that includes aboriginal performances that I feel incredibly proud to see blasted out every night in front of an audience of 15,000 people.
I also have fine art exhibitions. This year I did Rock Angels Limited Edition. The exhibition was put together and opened in Berlin last month. I’m anticipating it back in the U.S. next year. It’s been fun to see Angels on tour.
JA: So, you’re going nonstop, my friend?
RJ: It may sound like it, but I’m sitting comfortably on my porch while doing this interview, so not that nonstop.
MAKEUP: MARY PHILLIPS
HAIR: TEDDY CHARLES (THE WALL GROUP)
MANICURE: LILYANN NGUYEN
PRODUCTION: FRANKIE PRODUCTIONS LA
DIGITAL TECHNICIAN: DANIEL GOLDWASSER
PHOTO ASSISTANTS: AARON LIPPMAN, GREGORY BROUILLETTE, BUMMY KOEPENICK
STYLIST ASSISTANTS: BIN X. NGUYEN AND MARK SALDANA
LOCATION: SMASHBOX STUDIOS LA
RETOUCHING: GRIFFIN EDITIONS
CATERING: LOVE CATERING