A Model Act

Photo: Gruber/Fashion Wire Daily/AP/Wide World

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 soon – can’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 here – call 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 started – where 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 reality – or 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!”

A Model Act