When Amber Valletta was 15 years old, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, her mother entered her for modelling classes. The result was the teenage Valletta standing on a box in her local shopping mall, practising the deathless art of mannequin-modelling. “I did that,” nods Valletta a little ruefully, sitting in a large caramel-coloured sweatshirt in the study of her LA home. “Lord knows, people saw me popping and locking…”
We can at least say that it worked. Nearly 35 years later, Valletta is one of the greatest supermodels. Her sculptural beauty, offset by piercing grey-green eyes, has made her the face of countless campaigns, from Calvin Klein, Prada and Versace in the ’90s to Saint Laurent, Mugler and Stella McCartney today. As an actress, she has starred in films like Hitch and the TV series Revenge, while she was one of the first in her industry to speak up about climate change – in 2021 she became sustainability ambassador for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She is also about to launch a third clothing collaboration with the label Karl Lagerfeld, consulting on both environmental impact and design. “I am certainly not someone who likes to sit in the same thing,” says Valletta, who turned 49 this week. “I believe change is good.”
Smart, serious and poised, Valletta isn’t one to get lost in fashion-speak effusions. Beneath the façade, though, you sense the fun. It’s in the faces she pulls – a kind of “oh boy” nod, or shake of the head, accompanied by a vast grin – which she cracks when she’s asked if it was her idea to enrol her for those modelling classes (no); whether she has ever been typecast as a model (yes – “It drives me crazy! I don’t like being pigeonholed”); and whether she’s relieved to have broken out before the age of social media. The models of her generation – friends such as Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow – “would have had millions and millions of followers’’, had it existed back then, “because we were on every cover, every campaign internationally”. She is still doing pretty well on Instagram, with more than 700,000 followers, but she’s clearly not sad not to have more.
“I think social media should come with a warning label, like cigarettes, to be honest, and it should be limited to people above the age of 18 or 21,” she says. Twitter is “obnoxious”, Instagram “super-boring” and “I’m not even on TikTok – I don’t even know what to do on TikTok!”
Having got her first Vogue cover aged 18, she has developed a more reasoned attitude to celebrity. “I think that when you have fame quite young, or maybe at any age, you have to determine what it means to you,” she says. “I’ve always felt that it was a powerful sword, so to speak, and I had to wield it with grace and responsibility. I didn’t really come from a lot, so I knew that I was really blessed to have this opportunity.” (Fame can be quite fraught also; Valletta has been sober since 1999 and released a video about her battle with addiction in 2014 to help others struggling with those issues.)
Valletta has a son, Auden, 22, with former husband Chip McCaw, but is now in a relationship with French hairstylist Teddy Charles. She is, unsurprisingly, quite private, but happy to dwell on domestic details. A sports fan, she was pleased France made it to the World Cup final, mostly for Charles’s sake: “He’s kind of sociopathic about it, you know?” she beams. She looks positively concerned when asked if the athleisure she has on is her favourite clothing. “No,” she answers. “I’m gonna go to the gym, that’s why I’m in sweats!” Her personal style is more a blazer and a pair of Levi’s; she wears a lot of vintage. “A little classic. A little rock ’n’ roll, a little boyish, a little sexy at times – that’s kind of, maybe, my vibe. ”
Her current focus, the environment, is hardly a new concern. When she was a child, her mother fought for five years to stop a nuclear power plant being built on Native American land; later, in her early 20s, Valletta studied environmental politics. “That was before we were talking about any connection to the fashion industry or even mass industry,” she recalls. “There was talk about the ozone, and that was about it.”
Fast-forward to now, and the topic is on everybody’s lips, but has enough actually been done? “No,” she replies. “People aren’t really open about what they are doing because they’re afraid they’re not doing enough. And so they make these funny reports and you’re like, ‘Huh? What did you just say?’ You don’t really feel the clear-cut truth of what is going on.”
Recent work has seen her doing less acting. “I want to be free to work on all my other projects,” she tells me, “but – Scorsese, I’m here! Pedro [Almodóvar], I’m here!” As for modelling, she walked for Stella McCartney last season, and she still enjoys it – “certain jobs, I get the buzz”.
“I’ve known and worked with Amber for a very long time,” says McCartney. “What I admire about her is that we are so aligned in our values and outlook, which is why I have always loved working with her since day one – she is a true change agent.” Hun Kim, design director of Karl Lagerfeld, agrees. “She really brings life into the clothes,” he says. “Karl always thought highly of her, not only as a model but as a person.”
There has been much talk in the past decade of how Valletta’s generation has kept working, gaining big campaigns in their 40s and beyond. Asked if this was what she ever expected, though, she gives a decidedly “meh” shrug. “When you’re young, you don’t actually see things ending, right? So, for me, it’s always been, do I want to continue to work? And in what capacity?” Ultimately, she says, “I feel like when you’re really good at your job, it transcends time. And that’s not about modelling – I mean any job.” And, with that, she’s off to the gym to do arms, and core, she smiles. “Always core.”