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Emily Ratajkowski Grabs the Narrative

With her new book of essays, the model and actor reflects on the experience of gaining fame and creating an image in the age of digital celebrity. It has, unsurprisingly, been a process. “People have said to me, the book is really brave”, she says. “I’m like, is that the word you would use? Because I could think of a lot of other words. Maybe a little stupid”.

Emily Ratajkowski’s body has sold burgers. It’s sold perfume that smells of the ylang-ylang tree with notes of sandalwood and ambrette seed. It’s sold a range of hair products and at least one “innovative lifestyle beauty brand”. It’s sold a few lines of intimates and untold numbers of swimsuits. It’s sold inexpensive clothes and mid-range clothes and luxury clothes. It’s sold pants when it wasn’t even trying to, when it was just walking down the street. The thing that her body will not be selling, though, is her book. She’ll sell My Body with her name.

The model decided how her essay collection would be packaged. She insisted in her proposal that it should be called My Body and the jacket should only bear text. Her publisher, Metropolitan, went for it, which, though those things are often out of an author’s hands, was probably smart thinking. This is a person who understands how things will look.

“All of these are stories about my body in different ways”, Ratajkowski said of the collection on a Zoom call about a month before its November 9 release. “How it’s perceived, how I’ve used it, how it’s been used, what access it’s granted me, how it’s also made me at times feel like I’m nothing more than a body. I knew that a lot of people would roll their eyes at the title and think like, Oh, Emily Ratajkowski, wrote a book called My Body. Like whatever. My name is sort of synonymous with an image of my body and the Instagrams and ‘Blurred Lines’ and whatever else. And I liked using the real associations that people have in a conceptual way so that it would inform the book once they started it. Thinking about their preconceived ideas about me and using that as a tool in the experience of reading it”.

It’s good business for models to be aware of how they appear, but few have interrogated the political implications of their body for them and for those who consume it in the form of a book. There’s the essay “Transactions”, an exacting ledger of what gets exchanged when a person is paid simply for attending an event. There’s the prescient “Britney/Toxic”, on the type of young female friendship that’s contingent on some boys woven in with what Britney Spears meant to her as she was getting into modeling. (Spears meant power, mainly. “In my mind there were presidents and there was Britney Spears”, she told me).

Ratajkowski started modeling at 14. She was an only child born to “bohemian” parents, living outside San Diego, when her mother signed the paperwork. She kept doing the job over the years, impelled forward in the industry not necessarily by passion for the work, but by the money that she made and the freedoms it afforded her. Her big break was the 2013 video for Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, the inescapable song of the summer that year, one that straddled the line between louche and sleaze. The video made her instantly recognizable, and her opportunities accelerated. She was cast in movies. She got paid to make appearances and peddle bigger and better products. Every time, she was picked to execute someone else’s vision.

So besides how things look, control, creative or otherwise, is something Ratajkowski has devoted her 10,000 hours thinking about. In the last year, she’s turned 30 and entered a new phase of her career and life. In March, she gave birth to a son, Sly, who she had with her husband, Safdie brothers favorite producer Sebastian Bear-McClard. She’s signed onto fewer movies, but launched a swimwear brand, Inamorata, in 2017, vertically integrating her modeling into her own brand, and it’s been humming along ever since, even expanding to clothing. And then there is My Body, which undergirds it all—especially “Buying Myself Back”, an essay about trading her image back and forth, which doesn’t seem like it will ever have a happy ending, or any ending at all, considering that the story we’re about to get into has only continued on in real life outside the book of essays. The story and its real-life afterword are an ouroboros of reflection and ownership, a kind of nonbiodegradable hazardous byproduct of living now as a model in an era when image, or more precisely the ownership of image, is everything. It is part of Ratajkowski’s life. We can but try to keep up.

Last year, Ratajkowski published “Buying Myself Back” in New York magazine, an essay that recounts three moments where she lost control of her photos. She has paid huge sums of money to regain a version of ownership of those images, hence the title of the piece. In one instance, Richard Prince included her in a show at Gagosian gallery in New York, for which he blew up Instagram posts on large canvases, alongside a comment he had left there. A Gagosian employee bought the one Prince did of Ratajkowski, so she got a different portrait of herself, paying for half the over $80,000 price tag. Her boyfriend at the time paid for the other half, and she also received a small study of the work. (Artnet later reported that Ratajkowski and her then boyfriend commissioned the portrait. Asked to clarify, a rep for Ratajkowski told Vanity Fair, “She bought a Prince piece for $80,000, the cost of which she split with her boyfriend”).

When she and her boyfriend broke up, she bought his half of the painting, plus an extra $10,000 for the study. She hadn’t wanted to pay for the smaller piece since it was a gift, but as she describes in the essay, some of her own photos were part of the enormous celebrity iCloud hack at the time, literalizing the loss of her image to a devastating degree, and providing an unfortunate reminder that her ex had his own photos of her. She lost the will to fight. It was easier to pay. In the same essay, she wrote about a paparazzi suing her for posting to Instagram an image he took of her walking with a bouquet of flowers over her face. This is a copyright no-no. Ratajkowski has been entangled in a lawsuit ever since. This will be important to know later.

In April, after she gave birth to her son, Ratajkowski made an NFT of herself smiling in front of the Prince portrait of her original Instagram post.

“I was just honestly high off of postpartum hormones and spinning out of control. Everybody was talking about NFTs and I had my first glass of wine post-pregnancy and was like, ‘This makes me think about…'” she said with a goofy lisp, bringing her pointer finger to her temple. It made her think about the essay she wrote, about the conceptual art that she never volunteered for, about ownership, about women, about OnlyFans, about revenge porn and the iCloud hacking and how hard it is to protect an image, especially—especially—if your image is a valuable asset on which you’ve built your livelihood. Her face. Her body.

And so she made the NFT and sold it at Christie’s in May for $140,000 before fees. It was something like a win. But then: “I actually just got off the phone with my lawyer before this call and I’ve spent a very serious amount of what the NFT went [for] fighting the paparazzi who sued me for the image I write about in ‘Buying Myself Back’. So it’s a never-ending cycle”.

It occurs to me as we’re talking, but not for the first time, that it can feel absolutely nuts for someone like Ratajkowski to want to put something as revealing as a book of essays into the world, to give up more of how she thinks and risk being taken, bit by bit, out of context. She beats me to it, saying: “The media has looked for stories from whatever, like me walking the dog, and so here I am sort of offering a platter of the most personal and vulnerable narratives. People have said to me, the book is really brave and I’m like, is that the word you would use? Because I could think of a lot of other words. Maybe a little stupid”.

It’s already happened, though, with the essay she titled, ‘Blurred Lines’. The Sunday Times aggregated quotes from the piece in October, and sites spun it out across the internet, something she very much did not want or enjoy. A quick recap: Ratajkowski starred in the music video alongside two other young models and musicians Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. The popularity was almost immediate as was the controversy. Weird, huh, that in one version the nearly naked women are dancing around fully clothed men, said some. Weird, huh, how the lyrics were things like, “You know you want it”, and “I hate these blurred lines”.

Looking back now, the song and video felt like they were created in a lab to enrage second-wave feminists and garden-variety conservatives alike, baiting what we would now call “the discourse”. At the time, Ratajkowski, who was the standout in the video for both her clowning and her body, defended the project in interviews. She didn’t see it as misogynistic; it was doing something with misogyny.

Ratajkowski recalls those interviews in the introduction of the book, and wrote that she feels “a tenderness toward my younger self. My defensiveness and defiance are palpable to me now. What I wrote and preached then reflected what I believed at the time, but it missed a much more complicated picture”.

The essay is a descent into that complication. Which is why it especially frustrated Ratajkowski when details from the piece appeared online. If you only read these, you’d think that the book’s big reveal is that a tipsy Thicke had allegedly groped Ratajkowski’s breast on set, which the video’s director, Diane Martel, corroborated to The Sunday Times. The conversation online flattened predictably into variation of the headline, EMILY RATAJKOWSKI ALLEGES ROBIN THICKE FONDLED HER BREASTS ON THE SET OF ‘BLURRED LINES’ MUSIC VIDEO. (Thicke has not yet responded to requests for comment on the story).

It’s not at all unusual when a published story gets dismantled and sold for parts on today’s internet, so it probably wasn’t a surprise when this part of the essay fueled a news cycle for a few days. The fact that it happened early, without her consent, and that readers couldn’t actually read what was on the page even if they wanted to? That she wasn’t prepared for.

“It feels worse”, she said, worse than having photos of her distributed against her will. “I think partly because I’m not as used to it, which is, you know, whatever. But also because I chose this medium to capture nuance, to say multiple things at one time”.

She didn’t even want to write about ‘Blurred Lines’ in the first place, but it eventually felt unavoidable. It would be a missed opportunity to talk about exactly what she wanted to talk about with My Body. Like how your idea of power and who has it can change, and then a memory gets reframed. Like how sometimes you get to do something you really want to do—like write a book of essays—in part because of a day of work that you signed up for many, many years ago, where someone did something he wasn’t supposed to do because he could, and that can be hard to reconcile.

In writing it, she took measures to protect herself from the problem of the big headline extraction. She padded the work with a ton of background, context, descriptions of who she was at that time (just dropped out of college to pursue modeling because it was finally paying the bills), what jobs she was getting then (ecommerce jobs, mainly), what jobs she wasn’t getting (Victoria’s Secret, Sports Illustrated), how she negotiated her rate for the project (by playing hardball, it sounds like). At one point, she declined to publish the piece as an excerpt, as she had done with “Buying Myself Back”, preferring her readers to encounter it entirely in its context. That way, maybe, they wouldn’t misunderstand her.

“It’s been a little strange to have even people who are well-meaning come up to me and say, I’m so glad you spoke out about Robin Thicke'”, she said. “And it’s like, well, no, I didn’t speak out. And that’s not at all the message behind this. It wasn’t about ‘I need to tell my story of sexual assault’ because that’s just not even how I see it”.

“The part that not a lot of people are focusing on is that I really was enjoying myself”, Ratajkowski said. “Actually I was having a really great day on that set. Also this other thing happened and that says something about the world we live in. Both things exist at the same time”.

So, yes, writing about one’s most vulnerable moments within a ravenous internet might be, as she joked, “stupid”. And then as soon as she voices the point she presents the counterpoint. In writing, there’s control, the kind that’s never available to her as a model or an actor or an influencer. In choosing words, building structure, deciding if what she means is really what she means, she gets to feel in control. “I can’t help but return to it”, she said.

As her friend and early reader Lena Dunham puts it to me in an email, “People know what Emily looks like. They have a sense of her based on limited snippets of social media access, and they think they understand her because of her street style. But she’s actually in many ways been obscured by her own image, something she discusses in the book with a lot of skill. And so this is actually Emily becoming a known quantity, but also making it clearer that she’s an unknown quantity”.

“We literally haven’t had one of her before”, Dunham added. “I mean, I’m pretty sure she’s the first global supermodel to write a Marxist leaning book of feminist theory… but if someone can name another one for me I’ll be psyched”.

Despite the complications therein, the ‘Blurred Lines’ video was undeniably her launchpad, and it did to Ratajkowski what launchpads have done to many beauties in the music and film industry—that is, flattened and amplified. She landed those Sports Illustrated shoots and also a role in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, then later in the EDM-bildungsroman We Are Your Friends. In movies, she was the hot girl for whom husbands strayed from wives, whom boyfriends lost to new boyfriends.

You can easily see a person for whom this is true wanting to explain their whole selves and analyze their own rare position in the culture, to be the call that’s coming from inside the house (which she’s done fairly successfully in interview bursts and news-generating posts on social media). But you can just as easily see a person like this wanting to run. To move to the woods, or do what Ye does these days and wear a mask and try to live post-identity.

Ratajkowski seems to be aiming for a middle way. Before My Body is officially released in the world, she has to promote it, and she must watch again as someone else takes the process of her writing a book and puts her in a context of their choosing. It’s something she admits makes her uncomfortable as much as it excites her. The discomfort she staves off by focusing on having written something that she’s proud of. The excitement she fosters with a lot of focus.

“What I’ve been leaning towards recently, and this is evolving because I’m sort of in the midst of it right now, is that it’s very exciting and flattering to be able to have people want to talk about the book one way or another”, she said. “I’m somebody who, you know, when I’ve done press cycles in the past, I’ve been talking about perfume or hair care, and it’s so nice to be talking about real ideas that I’m super interested in”.

“I think ultimately in the end, like accepting that you can’t control everything”, she said. “That’s where I am with this”.

Dunham helped here too, especially by getting her to a place to worry less about being taken out of context, which may be inevitable. “I wanted her to get comfortable with the idea of being willfully misinterpreted but at the same time for her to know that though those voices can come fast and thick, they’re a smaller contingent than the people her book will matter deeply too”.

And she has the tools of refusal and insistence now on this side of success. I asked to meet her in person because the job of telling a small story of a person can be much easier to do when you’re in the room with them. Her team very kindly told me that it wouldn’t be possible; her schedule was too tight. This is a fine excuse, and a believable one. Busy person is busy.

So Zoom it was. The frame that met me comprised unadorned white brick walls, a small white chest of drawers with black handles, and Emily too. She was dressed in a sweater the color of ambivalent clouds. Remove her face and the Zoom would do an excellent impression of the gray scale. There was so little of her that she allowed to be considered. I had to laugh.

I asked her after all of this, if there’s a future in which she no longer models. “I now have a son and I live in New York City and I want to have a certain type of lifestyle and it’s pretty hard to turn away the opportunities that come with modeling”, she said. “Where I am in my career is that I do as many things as I can that I have control over. That doesn’t mean everything, but it does feel like a different type of modeling than a lot of the modeling I write about in the book where I really did feel like a quote, unquote mannequin”.

“My position has changed and also what I’m willing to do has changed. I’ve started to just draw lines in the sand and it feels really good”.

Source : vanityfair.com