“I grew up in the Czech Republic, and when I became a teenager I really began to stand out. I was the tallest person in my school—long legs, long arms. People would point and laugh at me. I hid my legs, I didn’t wear short skirts, and I would walk behind friends so people wouldn’t look at my legs. I was just so insecure. When I came into modeling, it was the Brazilian era—you know, Gisele. So everybody thought I was Brazilian. I did Prada exclusively when I was 15, and the whole collection was made on me. Then I met Trudi Tapscott, who was casting at the time at Vogue. I met all the editors, and Grace [Coddington], and Phyllis [Posnick], and Tonne Goodman. And then I went to meet Anna [Wintour] in her office. Everyone was like, ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to say? What are you going to wear?’ I was like, I don’t know! I didn’t really understand all of it, and I think that was the beauty.
When I first started, people wanted to put a label on me—like, OK, you are that look. But I didn’t really want to be labeled, because I’m not just one thing. And I like tapping into all of that—it’s like a therapy, sometimes, when you get to play different characters. I did so many crazy things. I did a shoot with Steven Klein where I was in a cage, by myself, with crocodiles. I’ve been in swamps in Florida, I did the first photoshoot for Vogue [after 9/11] with Steven Klein and Grace, and I had to hold American flags on top of buildings by the edge with no harness, no protection. I’ve done some very creative stuff. And what I've learned that you have to be OK with not always being beautiful. Just getting out of that comfort zone, and being open to exploring new looks. I see it a lot, where people get insecure and they get stuck to their one look, and it’s almost like their blanket. As a model, it’s your job to be willing to try new looks. That I think is the difference between a model and a great model.
For me, beauty is a lot about the skin. Having great skin, that radiance, comes from taking care of yourself. I also think that being in sports—I was a professional gymnast from age six to 13—I’ve learned that nothing comes for free. Everything is about the effort you put in. So, I’m very disciplined with what I put on my skin. I’m all about good exfoliation, steamers. I love acupuncture, a good massage, and a good facial. I went to see Dr. Barbara Sturm for the first time, and she took the proteins from my blood and put it into a cream for me, which I thought was really beautiful. In New York, I used to also go to this Russian lady who I’ve known since I was 18. She knows my skin. Her name is Isabel Anton, and [her skincare philosophy] is kind of how I grew up. She makes her blueberry enzyme mixed with probiotics, she checks your back and behind your ears, she exfoliates, she really looks at your skin. And then I really want to get back into my dry brushing. It’s so good for circulation, cell life, and skin quality. I used to work with this Cuban lady in New York—she must have been in her 70s—and she was hardcore. She would dry brush you, she would massage you—she would give you bruises, but she really worked on the quality and the texture of your skin. I was dry brushing at home, but I kind of stopped. Now I feel like it’s a trend.
P50 Lotion from Biologique Recherche was such a big game changer for me because my skin tends to be dry and sensitive. It’s a purifier and exfoliator, so I do it every day, and it balances your pH. At first it’s pretty scary—I got all red, and I freaked out. I’ve learned that’s normal for your first time. You have to do it for a while until your pH gets balanced, and then you don’t get red anymore. Really, that just makes my skin so smooth, like a baby. I also like Barbara’s Hyaluronic Ampoules. Her formula is different from any other on the market—it has like two kinds of hyaluronic acid in it. I use that more at night—it’s not really to moisturize, it’s more of a vitamin to feed your skin. Oh, and I like a lot of sheet masks. I don’t have one today because I’ve used them, but I really like the Dr. Colbert one. I also like one from Sulwhasoo, the Ginseng Concentrated Mask.
I’m all about really keeping your skin nice and clean. I’ve been using the Biologique Recherche Cleansing Milk at night because it doesn’t strip your natural oils, and it’s really moisturizing and gentle. But then also at night, I use the Equal Beauty Cleansing Cloth because it’s got little bumps to take makeup off. Other times I just use Bioderma. And then I kind of switch it around. I do the Cleansing Milk if I feel like my skin is a little more irritated, but if I feel like I’m starting to break out, or the makeup didn’t react to my skin well, then I like to use the Exfoliating Cleanser from Cosmedix because it has tea tree oil. It’s balancing and anti-inflammatory, so it gets inflammation down and kills [acne] bacteria. For creams, now I’m using the Dr. Barbara Sturm Face Cream. It’s really nice, and it’s good to put foundation over.
I never want to look makeup-y, and I’ve learned the older you get, the less you need on your skin. That doesn’t mean I don’t like makeup—I do like makeup, and I’m not afraid to do a look for the right occasion. I use the Sulwhasoo cushion all around my face, or for contouring. I like that it’s spongy—it’s a different application. And it has their cream in it, so it’s very moisturizing. For concealer, I either use Chanel or RMS if I have any redness underneath my eyes. I love the Chanel bronzer because it’s creamy—you can use it with your finger, kind of giving yourself a nice color. It’s a great texture and not so orangey. You can also kind of contour your face with it a little. It doesn’t look like makeup, it looks like skin.
You know which mascaras I really like? My friend who always has amazing lashes turned me on to four Lancome ones. You do the white, which is primer, and then the vibrating one, and then there’s a defining one and a volumizing one. You have to buy them separately, but they are really great. Your lashes look full, but still natural. For cheeks, I love creamy formulas if I’m not going to do too much powder and just want to look really fresh and pinky-peachy. And then when it comes to highlighters, I like creamy ones during the day, and at night, powder. Powder is a little bit stronger and more reflective, but I think it’s too strong in the day. If you can’t tell already, I don’t like mixing creams and powders. I feel like it gets a little funky. If you’re going to do creamy, you have to do creamy, and if you’re going to do powder, you have to do powder.
If I do my own makeup and I don’t have a lot of time, lipstick is the way to go. Hot red, orange, pink—it’s all about a bright, matte, velvety lip. The Nars lip pencil in Yu or Rikugian. The Baby Doll Kiss and Blush in No. 6 from YSL is good because it’s multipurpose. Also Charlotte Tilbury has really good colors, and Pat McGrath has really good pigmented ones. If I’m in the mood for it, I’ll smudge black on my eyeline while squeezing my eyes, and then add lots of mascara. It’s not like smoky-smoky with powder shadows, it’s really just the pencil. Or you can use something creamy, like these little rosy Charlotte Tilbury ones in the pot. You just need a little bit.
My fragrance depends on what I’m in the mood for. For evening, I like that masculine feminine smell—something smoky, sexy, with a hint of jasmine. During the day or summer I like something fresh—could be refreshing or citrusy. I do like Frederic Malle, the Carnal Flower. That one is beautiful. And actually, I created my own perfume—it’s just sold in Europe. It was inspired by Bohemia and my upbringing. It’s white and gold, and it smells mysterious. I don’t want to smell like everyone else, so I actually like things that you can mix together. I don’t like when people are able to say, ‘Oh she’s wearing so-and-so.’ I like people to come to me and think, ‘What is that?’ That’s sexy.
If I do my own hair, it’s slicked back or air-dried and messy. I don’t know how to blow dry or curl it. I know the technique, and I can direct others, but I cannot do it myself. I don’t always wash my hair, if I don’t have to. I really love this product, with apple cider vinegar. So in between washes, this is good to put on—it’s like a shampoo-conditioner treatment. I try to do a lot of nice serums and leave-in conditioners in my hair—especially when I put it back. Because I color my hair, it gets damaged a lot. I’m still exploring and trying different products, but I have Olaplex, and I try to use that a lot—I leave it in my hair. For shampoo and conditioner, I use Kerastase. I like the Oribe Dry Texturizing Spray because I don’t dry my hair or curl it, so I feel like that really gives you that textured and messy look. And then Elnett—that’s such a classic, great hairspray. What I like about it is that you can brush it out, but it works to hold things—it’s not so stiff, but it works. I wear a lot of slicked-back hair, so I need something that’s going to make my hair shiny. I use this Oribe Airstyle, and then Kiehl’s has this gel that I like and use, too, if I want a bit more shine. Like I said, it’s slick or it’s messy air-dried.”
—as told to ITG
Karolina Kurkova photographed by Tom Newton in New York on September 12, 2018.