“I have no fun at all,” model of the minute Sophie Dahl says squeakily, her eye wandering off just so. “But,” she adds a little too quickly, “I’m not lying at home every night with curlers in my hair reading a book.” Perhaps she means that she’s gone from being fabulous and famous in her homeland to being rather ignominiously ignored since coming to New York last fall. “In England, it all happened so quickly. It was quite difficult coming here and doing the whole rigmarole of go-sees and castings …” Her voice trails off in subdued horror.
That rigmarole is coming to an end as New York finally catches up to London. After some six months of lying low (despite a gauntlet of “Welcome to New York, Sophie!” parties speckled with British accents), she is suddenly everywhere a 22-year-old girl with a penchant for celebrity could want to be: in the March issue of W (with a future cover-try already in the can), in the April Jane, and on the cover of the February Italian Vogue shot by Steven Meisel (they’ve photographed another one that will be out in April). And the fashion gossip says several cosmetics companies are calling.
Despite the obvious payoff, her initial decision to come to New York was pretty casual. “I woke up one morning,” she says brightly, “and decided. I just sort of put my house on the market, shoved everything into storage, and packed. I arrived here and thought, Ohmigod, what am I going to do?”
Not that it bothered her for long. Dahl has earned her nonchalance. In September 1996, she became London’s overnight sensation, and she hasn’t tired of telling the tale. “I was smoking and crying in front of a shop after fighting with my mother,” she recalls, “and I saw this woman getting out of a cab in a Philip Treacy hat and see-through trousers.” That woman was Isabella Blow, then a Vogue stylist and now fashion director of London’s Sunday Times. The 18-year-old Dahl helped Blow with her bags, and Blow suggested she become a model. “And I thought, Ooh, great idea.”
Blow recalls their meeting in even sunnier terms: “She saw my feet and hat, and I saw these bosoms. Immediately I thought of La Dolce Vita. I have never seen bosoms like that in my life. I just wanted a piece of her. She looked delicious.” Blow introduced Dahl to Sarah Doukas at the Storm agency (who discovered the wafer waif Kate Moss), and within weeks, Dahl was being shot for Vanity Fair, Visionaire, and Vogue and representing Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, and Karl Lagerfeld.
Perhaps one reason she came to New York is for a bit of a fresh start. In England, she’s become too well known for her size and her larger-than-life appeal – at six feet tall, a size 12 with a 38DD bust, she’s like a friendly giant striding into the teetering fashion world and kicking it around. Though her size decreased dramatically a year and a half ago, she still literally totters down the street, her imposing frame propped up on three-inch heels.
Marilyn Monroe is often used as a comparison, but the effect of Dahl’s voluptuous womanliness is more akin to Mae West’s. Dahl is all bravado and cheeky sweetness revved up with more femininity than seems strictly decent. She’s twice the woman most models can be. So it’s fitting that she’s been discovered twice over.
The second discovery came late last year, here in New York, when Sophie was doing what Sophie does best – dancing at a fabulous party. Photographer Steven Meisel recalls that “there were a lot of other models there, but she stood out. She was striking, classically beautiful.” Although she had posed for other photographers (Ellen von Unwerth, David LaChapelle, Norman Watson, Nick Knight, Herb Ritts, and David Bailey), the John Galliano party in November was the first time Meisel had ever seen her. He called the next week and shot her shortly afterward for the cover of Italian Vogue.
Lucy Sykes, fashion editor of Allure, sums up Dahl’s appeal: “She’s not the normal model of no tits and no hips: She’s a vulgar pinup girl who’s managed to crack the market. Sophie is taken seriously as Sophie. She’s not a model; she’s a personality. But she wears clothes beautifully.” She wears no clothes at all quite well, too, as Ritts’s 1999 Pirelli calendar (not to mention the Knight and Von Unwerth shoots) attests. “She is very good at stripping off,” Blow says, “but I think that’s just because no one has any clothes for her.”
Clothed, she has gotten a few small film roles because of her distinctive look, most notably in the upcoming The Prime Gig with Vince Vaughn. But she dismisses her acting roles so far as “sexy secretaries and psychotics” and admits she could use some lessons.
Just before she left England last fall, however, she starred in a production of Romeo and Juliet for Radio 3, a curious medium for someone famous for her looks. Her performance was praised by critics, and she was approached to take her Juliet to the stage. She refused, happily aware of her limitations.
“Anyone who has visions of Juliet being a peroxide blonde with large bosoms is barking slightly up the wrong tree,” she says. “My voice is right for the radio, but the rest of me doesn’t really work.”
What does work for her is the Dahl family tree, which is a curious hybrid of literary fame and movie-star glamour. If the name is familiar, it is because her grandmother, the Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, was married to Roald Dahl, the world-famous children’s-book writer (the J. K. Rowling of his day). On the other side of the tree is actor Stanley Holloway, best known in America as Audrey Hepburn’s dad in the film version of My Fair Lady.
With the acting genes already on display, the writing genes must inevitably emerge. So a novel is mentioned. It will be autobiographical – “Aren’t all first novels?” – because her childhood sounds as though it had far more excitement than any photo shoot might offer. Dahl lived on an ashram in India for a while and attended ten different schools around the world before she was 13.
She’s still struggling with the lead character. Should she be a model? “If she is,” Dahl says firmly, “that isn’t going to be a huge part of the story. I have very mixed feelings about being a model.”