By Julia Felsenthal published
Cara Delevingne lives in a quiet, hilly neighborhood of Los Angeles, in an unassuming midcentury house with a Beware of Dog sign on the gate. When she buzzes me through, there's loud barking and I'm momentarily scared. Then I descend into a lush backyard cocooned by ferns and palms, and two mutts, more cartoonish than ferocious, approach to nuzzle my knees.
Delevingne emerges from inside—leggy and androgynous in a Puma hoodie and loudly patterned men’s boxer briefs—and makes introductions: The big Pomeranian-husky is Leo; the small Chihuahua-terrier is Alfie. There are two others, currently absent, that belong to “my girlfriend,” Delevingne says, dropping the G word casually, though it’s still a couple of weeks before she and Ashley Benson (of Pretty Little Liars fame) will confirm their romantic status. The two met in the spring of 2018 on the set of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell: “We weren’t looking for it,” Delevingne tells me. “It was really just very authentic and natural.” I can’t help but feel that she may be doing some emotional transference when she describes Benson’s dogs as “fucking adorable” with the “fucking calmest dispositions. These two”—she gestures at her own pups—“are psychopaths” that have been punishing her for a recent absence by relieving themselves all over the house.
Would I like something to drink? Delevingne goes inside and brings me water in a red Solo cup, the kind indelibly associated with frat parties and beer pong. We perch by the pool on furniture covered in the same banana-leaf print that lines the walls of the Beverly Hills Hotel. In person, Delevingne is slight with impossibly delicate features and a way of never quite sitting still. She stretches out on a chaise lounge, basking in the sun. “I was on vacation. We just got back. I’m like, OK, this is a work day; I can’t lie by the pool.” She laughs.
I already know she’s been on vacation; little that Delevingne does escapes public scrutiny. The trip—to Tulum with Benson—was captured by paparazzi, written about on gossip websites. Welcome to the weird world of Cara Delevingne. It’s been 10 years since the London-born high schooler was signed to Storm Model Management (“kind of terrifying”) and in that decade she’s gone from the face that launched a thousand eye-brow pencils, to fashion’s least conventional supermodel, to social-media juggernaut (with more than 42 million Instagram followers), to tabloid party girl, to promising young actress, to Harvey Weinstein accuser, to outspoken advocate for causes near and dear to her heart (namely mental health, LGBTQ rights, and environmental awareness). Then there are the plot twists: a YA novel, Mirror, Mirror; a single with Pharrell. But that’s just her resume; Delevingne’s fame seems to have a life of its own. “So many people have said to me, ‘You’re 26? It seems like you’ve been around forever,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s horrendous.’”
Delevingne seems a little nervous. She’s been dealing with a stalker and is under something like house arrest; she can’t even walk her dogs without her security. It's sobering. I'm anticipating the face-pulling, tongue-wagging "Charlie Chaplin of the fashion world," as Karl Lagerfeld once described her. Instead I find someone serious, slightly reserved, and surprisingly earnest.
We begin to talk about acting. Delevingne first realized she loved it when she played a nurse in a school play at 14. In one scene, a fake bomb went off and she jumped from the stage. Twenty minutes later, taking her bows, she realized she’d broken her wrist. “Suddenly all this feeling came into my arm. I was like, This is the power of acting.” She’s always talked about her Hollywood ambitions, but several years ago, she began to pivot away from modeling. (She still works with brands like Puma and Dior, but on her own terms: "Creatively, I want to be involved as much as possible.") The road from fashion to movies is strewn with casualties, but Delevingne is proving an exception, winning roles—and winning over critics—as a high school dream girl in the YA dramedy Paper Towns (2015), a witchy supervillain in Suicide Squad (2016), an intergalactic cop in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), and an indie rocker in last spring's Her Smell. She's as magnetic on-screen as she is on the runway, adept at using those famous brows and flashing eyes to communicate subtle emotional shifts.
Her latest project is the Amazon series Carnival Row, premiering August 30. Equal parts Penny Dreadful, Lord of the Rings, and 2019 geopolitical nightmare, it's an ensemble drama set in a Victorian-ish, London-ish city where nativist politicians are stoking xenophobic rage over the arrival of refugees—all supernatural creatures—from distant war-torn lands. (If you’re picking up strong whiffs of Trump’s border policies, you’re on the right track.) Delevingne plays Vignette Stonemoss, a spunky fairy who rails against the emerging caste system. Orlando Bloom, her costar, tells me she was perfect for the part: “Vignette is this feisty, vibrant, strong, independent go-getter. ...All of Cara’s personal characteristics played beautifully into the role.”
Delevingne calls the show “the first [thing] I’ve done where I’m really full-blown acting.” The role was taxing; fairies fly, which meant she had to master wirework. And learning the stunts was nonnegotiable: “If I hadn’t done them, I wouldn’t have been able to get there emotionally. Physicality to me is a very important way of expressing emotions.” That’s true in life too. When she struggles to process her feelings, she’ll turn on Fiona Apple or Lauryn Hill “and throw myself around and cry. They scream and you just feel it.” She grabs her neck and moans. “Just that raw female ahhhh!”
Delevingne comes from an upper-crust London family, with the posh accent to prove it. Her dad, Charles, is a successful real estate developer; her maternal grandfather, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, was a publishing magnate; her grandmother, Janie Sheffield, was Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting. “I hope people never think I’m complaining,” Delevingne says when I ask about the tougher aspects of her childhood. “I had an incredible upbringing. I went to amazing schools. We were able to go on holiday.” But behind the scenes, there were big problems. Her mother, Pandora, struggled with heroin addiction. Delevingne, who now identifies as queer (prior to Benson, she dated the musician St. Vincent), spent years denying her attraction to women because she “didn’t want to feel different, even though from an early age I always felt I didn’t belong.” And her family, which includes two older sisters and an older half-brother, didn’t have the language to talk about any of it. Young Cara took on a caregiving role with her mom. “I was a nurturing child and wanted to make sure everyone was OK. It didn’t feel wrong. But looking back, I’m like, Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have been put in that position.” She trails off before clarifying: “But I wasn’t put in it; it just happened.”
Then, at 15, “everything I hadn’t dealt with bubbled up to the surface.” Delevingne had a mental breakdown: “I had no coping skills. Instead of being able to breathe or take a moment, I tried to smash my head into a tree to knock myself out.” Meds got her through but numbed her. Her career provided an outlet. “Work to me was such an escape. I don’t like using it that way anymore. I want to use it as a platform, where I’m not just running from my problems.” This comes up again when I ask about Karl Lagerfeld. The late Chanel creative director was one of Delevingne’s champions—a “best friend, father, grandfather, fairy godmother, like Peter Pan.” (Along with others in his circle, including Kate Moss, Alessandro Michele, and Takashi Murakami, she is taking part in “A Tribute to Karl: The White Shirt Project”—designing white shirts that will be sold to benefit French charity Sauver la Vie, which funds medical research.) She questions why he felt the need to keep working to the bitter end. “The fashion industry breeds this thing of never being good enough. Was he happy? Did he feel proud?”
Hollywood has brought its own pitfalls. Delevingne seems hesitant to dwell on her star turn in Valerian, perhaps because its director, Luc Besson, has since become embroiled in a sexual-misconduct scandal. She was one of the cascade of women to lodge allegations against Harvey Weinstein, describing on Instagram an incident in which he lured her up to a hotel room and tried to kiss her. When other women came forward, “I was like, Oh my God, that means I was abused? I don’t think he’ll ever be able to repay what he’s done.”
These days, Delevingne is embracing the proverbial “balance.” She drinks celery juice. She spends time alone, which used to be tough. Her family is closer now: “It’s taken time to grow apart, get some boundaries, and come back together.” She’s no teetotaler but is conscious of her inherited addiction risk—“We’re all addicted to something,” she says, indicating her phone—and tries to avoid “habitual things. I shouldn’t do the same thing every day, apart from breathing and eating.” And meditating: She does that every morning. Her hobbies are extreme. She loves rock climbing, sky diving, racing cars, doing escape rooms. Delevingne is “an instigator,” says her Suicide Squad costar Margot Robbie. “You talk to her on a Wednesday night and she’s like, ‘I’m going mud wrestling. Wanna come?’ I was like, ‘No, mate, I have to be at the office at 6 a.m.’ Then I saw pictures. It looked really fun. Lesson learned: Never say no when Cara invites you somewhere.” Delevingne tells me her craziest recent experience was filming a segment with adventurer Bear Grylls for an episode of NBC’s Running Wild with Bear Grylls, for which she cut open and ate a dead rat—“really not nice”—to prove herself. “Bear gave me his knife, so I was like, Yeah!”
She brings a similarly gung ho attitude to sex, or at least to talking about it. In interviews, she laughs about getting busy on air-planes and confesses she finds it easier to give pleasure than to receive it. When she and Benson were recently photographed carrying home a box containing a piece of erotic furniture, they single-handedly introduced “sex bench” into the American vernacular. (Delevingne rolls her eyes: “Definitely not on purpose.”) But she’s proud of her sex positivity. “I’m not just talking about sex for sex. I’m talking about experience, whether it’s abuse or confusion, positive or negative.” She winces remembering her repressed introduction to the topic at 14. “My mom decided to tell me that Father Christmas wasn’t real. And in the same conversation, she said, ‘By the way, let’s talk about the birds and the bees.’ I was like, ‘This timing is terrible.’”
It’s time for me to go, but first I ask to use the bathroom. In Delevingne’s powder room, the wallpaper is the same jungly banana-leaf print as the fabric on the chairs outside, but the toilet is something else: hand-painted, seat and all, in Mexican Talavera-style florals, like a little functional sculpture. It is by far the coolest toilet I’ve ever had the pleasure of peeing in, but it’s not necessarily the coolest one in Delevingne’s very extra toilet repertoire. That honor might go to the side-by-side pair she installed in her London house so her friends can “pee and talk.” That, she says, “is my favorite thing in the world.”
The next time I see Delevingne, she’s in New York City at the Trevor Project’s fundraising gala, where she’s about to receive the Hero Award for supporting the organization’s mission to stop LGBTQ youth suicide. Her blond hair slicked back, she is dressed, fittingly, as a futuristic superhero, in a white Balmain maillot and belted blazer with sheer, floor-grazing sleeves.
Delevingne mentioned the award at our first meeting. “My dad’s coming,” she said, her throat clotted with emotion. “This is a really big deal for me. I never thought I’d be awarded something for being part of this community.” Charles Delevingne, wearing a salmon-colored jacket, is indeed in attendance. So is Benson: In the days since our interview, the pair has made their relationship Instagram official (soon, rumors are swirling about an engagement), and they enter the cavernous Cipriani Wall Street ballroom arm in arm.
At her table, Delevingne picks at her salad and scoops up avocado from Benson’s plate with bits of breadstick. She’s palpably nervous, and I soon get why. In L.A., she told me the thing that freaks her out most isn’t leaping from planes or eating dead rodents; it’s performing her own music in public. “There’s nothing to hide behind,” she said. “The words come out.” Yes, this model turned actress turned novelist turned singer is also a songwriter. In 2017, she collaborated with Pharrell on a single called “I Feel Everything” for the Valerian soundtrack, which Delevingne described as “lighter, nicer, and less scary,” portending future darker offerings. “There’s still a lot that needs to come out,” she acknowledged. She’s finishing a home recording studio where she may soon lay down her own tracks. Who does she sound like? “No one, I hope.” Who does she listen to? “I’m so obsessed with Billie Eilish. I just can’t.”
Tonight isn’t the night she’ll debut that music, but she’s going to sing, and that’s nerve-racking enough. After her speech and a moving ode to Benson—“She’s one of the people who helped me love myself when I needed it most”—Delevingne invites on stage guitarist Will Heard, a friend from London. As he tunes up, Delevingne bops around, flapping her arms like a gangly swan, cracking jokes: “It’s worth the wait...like my coming out!” They make one false start, then the pair launches into angelic harmony. Like most things she tries, Delevingne has a knack for this. She’s got pipes. And a willingness to put herself out there in this room full of strangers. Does she ever get intimidated? I asked back in L.A. “I think at this point,” Delevingne replied, “being intimidated is a waste of time.”
This article originally appears in the September 2019 issue of Marie Claire.
Photographer: Thomas Whiteside / Fashion Editor: J. Errico / Hair: Mara Roszak at Starworks Artists / Makeup: Kate Synnott at The Wall Group / Manicure: Thuy Nguyen for Dior at Starworks Artists / Production: Joy Asbury Productions
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