Standard Spirits

Butt Modeling and Social Anxiety with Anti-Model Carlotta Kohl

If you’re a music fan, there’s a decent chance you know Carlotta Kohl’s butt. Yes, Miss Kohl had the rare, surreal experience of being the source of an unlikely (mostly-Internet fueled) stir, when St. Vincent revealed that it was Kohl’s backside gracing the cover of her new record Masseducation.

Over in our world, we’ve known about Carlotta for a minute: first as a subject in Ryan McGinley’s road trip photos, and later, as a member of the loosely affiliated girl gang orbiting around the photographer Petra Collins.

We wanted to know more about the young artist and photographic muse, which we did over drinks on the day after Halloween at narcbar at The Standard, East Village. Kohl was decidedly hungover from a night out with her girlfriends and a bottle of tequila, so we had a little hair of the dog, and she gradually opened up about her life, creative pursuits, and social anxiety.
THE STANDARD: Where does your name come from? 
CARLOTTA KOHL: It’s Italian. There are two stories. There’s a character in Vertigo, the Hitchcock movie, and that might have sparked an interest in my parents. She’s the blonde woman who haunts James Stewart, she has the blonde swirl in hair. And then, there’s this beautiful garden in Italy, Villa Carlotta, by Lake Cuomo. 
What’s the worst job you’ve had in New York? 
I worked at this perfume store and I thought it was going to be really chill, and it was not chill at all. We were tested on the perfumes every day, and they all smelled similar. I would come home so nauseous and reeking of perfume, and I would have to study flashcards at night. That was pretty rough, but now I can tell what’s in certain perfumes.  
What do you like about living in NYC? 
I feel like in the city you can be part of something or you can be anonymous. You can always reinvent yourself. 
We read in an interview that your Mom was a model for Helmut Newton. How did that come about?  
It’s really crazy. When she was sixteen, her family was on vacation in Italy, and she was discovered by the late David Hamilton, who shot her for a swimsuit campaign. She moved to Paris and her career took off. She worked with really great photographers. I think modeling was different back then. 
How so? 
There weren’t so many models. She was a model before the supermodel era. There was real artistry to fashion photography. It was more creative. It’s less free now. 
How much did she tell you about her experiences? 
She came from an unfortunate family life, so she saw it as a ticket out of her situation. She was serious but not obsessed with it in the way that girls are now. She would be invited to dinners with Yves Saint Laurent, and she’d be like, “I’m going to stay in and read my book.” There’s this story she told me where went to a fitting with Yves Saint Laurent, and this guy in pasty white makeup and crazy hair asked to take a polaroid of her. Later she found it was Andy Warhol. I think to be surrounded by those people was a little more interesting. 
Have you seen the polaroid? 
No! I’ve never seen it. She worked with Helmut Newton a lot, even after my brother and I were born. They bonded over reading, poetry, and music. He wasn’t interested in the perfect girl. He liked real women. He liked showing scars.
Does the fashion world feel really different now? 
It’s much more calculated. Everything is planned out with mood boards. It’s less whimsical, less about thinking on your feet. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. People are scared to take risks. I sound really pessimistic. I’ve also worked on shoots where it is more free, but that’s rare. 
You went on one of those Ryan McGinley road trips. What was that experience like?
It’s definitely not set up. He’d pick a location, tell us to get naked or run around, and he captures the moments that are interesting to him. It’s more spontaneous. It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s hiking naked. It’s so intense, but it’s exhilarating. It was a really an amazing experience. I had never traveled through the South, or even been on a road trip, so it was cool to see that part of America. It was nice because I went to school with one of the other models, and Petra happened to be one of the other models. We instantly bonded. If there were different people, I don’t know if it would have been such a great trip. 
It looks wild. 
He likes “magic hour,” so you’d have to get up at the crack of dawn. It would be cold and wet, and then we’d have to roll down a hill. It was naked boot camp. There were a lot of crazy situations. I have battle wounds from it. I remember there was this zip line. Putting on a harness, naked, suspended in the air, is not the greatest. That was insane. I lost all feeling in my legs. I had to run through fireworks. The craziest was when we were setting off fireworks from boogie boards in the water and there was a thunder and lightning storm, and I was like, “I don’t know if we should be in the water.” 
You said before we started that you’re socially awkward. That seems surprising given that you move in what seems like pretty high pressure social circles. How do you do it? 
I suffer in silence? [Laughs.] It’s hard because I have to go to a lot of things and meet a lot of people, and it gets nerve-wracking. I’ve had anxiety since I was ten, but I guess the more you do, the less scary it gets. I’ve had moments where I’ve been a homebody for a couple months, and then I’ve had to be social, and it’s rough. One time someone thought I was the wall and they leaned against me. I have a lot friends who deal with the same thing. I think everyone has social anxiety. Why else do you drink? 
What photographer that you’ve worked with has impressed you the most? 
I worked with this woman Jody Rogac. I was super impressed. I know when people are trying to talk to me and get these candid moments. With her, it felt so easy and relaxed. It didn’t even feel like she was taking photographs of me. I feel like she peered into my soul. She’s the calmest photographer I’ve ever worked with. 
How were you introduced to St. Vincent?
We met at a dinner and we hit it off. I think she realized that I’m really weird and she likes that. She always tells me how strange I am. 
She described you as her research assistant. Why does a rock star need a research assistant?  
I do research for her film projects. I’m helping her with references. That comes really easy to me. I’ve seen so many films. I love cruising the web and I love Tumblr. 
How did the record cover image come about?
It’s funny how I ended up being the cover of her album. I didn’t know. I mean, we spoke later on, and I was like, “It’s fine, but I didn’t know it was going to happen.” We were just doing promo stuff and I was just serving as…limbs…and I guess they really liked that photo. This is after we established a friendship. 
Were you surprised at the reaction? 
Yeah, I was fine with it. That’s a totally different world, being a singer, a musician. I knew she was really popular, but I didn’t realize she had such crazy fans who would be like, “Who’s ass is it?” I didn’t realize that could be, like, an article. 
Why do you think she chose that image, and what do you think it says?
Until recently, everyone thought that the "ass" belonged to her. I think that sort of speaks volumes. Annie is a complex person and she's dealing with complex themes in her work. Artists aren't just artists anymore. When she leaves the stage, it isn't over for her. Her personal life is being documented and dissected and we assume we know these celebrities inside and out. What we see may not be the whole truth. We see a backside in a leopard leotard and pink tights, and we think we know all the facts. 
What do you like about working with St. Vincent? 
I feel like it’s not even work. We’re good friends. It’s more like helping my friend out with a project she’s doing. It’s collaborative. 
From your vantage point, do you think the times we’re in are different? For better or worse?
No one’s in charge anymore—you’re in charge of your own reach. Your voice is not going to be edited or mediated as much. It’s bittersweet, I guess. I go to castings where you sign your name and write how many followers you have. There’s good and bad things about it, where you become a commodity. People are seeing how marketable you are. There’s no separation between business and self-expression and it’s gross. 


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