BY ARIEL LEVY
It's hard to imagine the high collars and Dr. Zhivago-style
coats of autumn on a day like this; it's so muggy the air conditioner
at Kate's Joint on Avenue B is having difficulty keeping the customers
cool. But Shalom Harlow whose career has been equally hot
recently, with three films due out sooncan't wait to pull
her sweaters out. Already, she is anticipating the change of season
with a cold-weather breakfast: a big, steaming bowl of oatmeal.
"My favorite New York memory is that blizzard in '96," she says.
"I get chills thinking about it. It's my favorite time herecall
me crazy. I'm from Canada, and it's very cold up there."
Harlow grew up in a hippie community an hour outside Toronto, but
she was plucked from bucolic bohemia at 16 when she was discovered
by a talent scout at a Cure concert. Now, home is the East Village,
where Harlow has just bought her first apartment after a decade
in hotels and short-term rentals. "At first, I enjoyed living out
of a bag and having just a few meager belongings," she says. "I
romanticized the whole thing. But after years of doing it, I felt
the need to settle down. It's really one of those life-initiation
processes, becoming a home-owner. To be able to do this at my age
is such a blessing."
Indeed, at 27, Harlow has become many things that few people her
age are: an elder statesman of her profession, for instance. "I
feel wise in that world," she says of her modeling career as she
slips an American Spirit Light between her lips. "It feels good
to have a total handle on that part of my life, but it feels good
to be excited and bushy-tailed in another." The other part is acting.
"I don't really separate the two fields," Harlow continues. "Both
are about taking something that's going on in here"she taps
her long fingers against her breastbone"and projecting it
out. In fashion, the clothes are like the script."
Harlow recently wrapped performances in three dramas: small parts
alongside Cruise and Cruz in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky
and with Val Kilmer in The Salton Sea, plus a major role
(co-starring with David Arquette) in Michael Almereyda's Happy
Here and Now. "She's central to the story," says Almereyda,
whose previous project was the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. "She's
a very good listener, and that's an aspect of acting that's very
difficult. She has a soulfulness and an attentiveness that have
nothing to do with presenting herself as a model." Despite the perky
title, Happy Here and Now is a cyberspace crime thriller
in which Harlow's character mysteriously disappears.
"I'm so happy here and now about it," Harlow says, with
a campy grin. To date, Harlow's spent most of her screen time sending
herself up, playing ditsy models in comedies like In & Out
and Head Over Heels. "People think if you're a model then
you must take yourself way too seriously, and that was a way to
say, 'Uh, you got the wrong honey!' " she explains. "But it was
also nice for somebody to not need me to make fun of myself. My
character in Happy Here and Now is a loner, someone who's
searching for life answers and deep truths."
"She's a trouper," says Billy Hopkins, a casting director. "She's
had to start from scratch as an actress, and she waits on the couch
like everyone else, with no attitude. They judge you ten times as
harshly if you're a model -- even though producers are always like,
'Get me the most beautiful woman in the world!' But Shalom is really
going to surprise people."
Drama, she says, is what drew her to fashion in the first place.
"When John Galliano just really used to go for it, that was so much
fun. At the very first show that I did for him, somehow I'd gotten
mixed messages and someone told me that I'd been released. I was
so sad, but I went home, and then I got this manic message from
my agent, like, The show startedwhere are you? So I rushed
over and they slammed some makeup on me and threw me in a dress
and John handed me a parasol and said, 'You're dying of malaria,'
and pushed me onto the stage. I love that heightened realityor
unreality I suppose is what it is."
When she's not spinning parasols on the runway, Harlow says, she
likes to dress way down. "I don't want to be selling clothes to
people as I walk down Broadway. Clothes should just be like a beautiful
setting for a jewel: They should offset you."
Sitting in the sunshine in floppy Mephisto sandals, faded blue
cords, and a pinstriped shirt, Harlow does look almost normal. Beautiful
and lean, of course, but not in the jarring, inhuman way that one
associates with the species supermodel. "It's always really refreshing
when you meet a guy and he's interested in you and doesn't know
really who you are," she says. So it was with her current boyfriend,
an actor she declines to name. "He had no idea who I was," she says,
laughing. "Clueless. That's the way I like them." After more than
a year together, she says, they are "very much in love" and happy
to have landed in New York at the same time.
"In the beginning, New York and I had kind of a love-hate relationship,"
she says. "It seemed so abrasive compared to Europe. But the transformation
here in recent years is really something. I don't think I would
have seen as much change if I'd lived in any other city in the world."
There's still the occasional urban peril, but Harlow doesn't fret.
"I'll protect you," she says, throwing her fist into the air in
a cartoonish flying position. "I'm Supermodel!"
From the August 27, 2001 issue of New York Magazine.
Photo: Gruber/Fashion Wire Daily/AP Wide World