It’s easy to be enamored with Karen Elson. She lives in Nashville with her two kids, Scarlett Teresa White and Henry Lee White (whom she, of course, shares with her ex, Jack White). She has cats, one of which is pestering her during our phone chat. She’s very British and very eloquent. By the time we hang up I’ve nearly forgotten that on the other line was Karen Elson the supermodel (she’s also a fine musician because, let’s face it, the woman’s a bloody unicorn).
Anyway, if you didn’t love Elson enough already, in addition to her work as an ambassador for Free The Children, she’s recently become involved with an organization called Many Hopes. Founded by Thomas Keown, an Irish journalist, the organization aims to create sustainable communities in Kenya by building schools and shelters and providing access to clean water.
In advance of tonight’s Many Hopes Gala in New York, the proceeds of which go to building a school in Kenya, I chat with Elson about the organization and the importance of giving back.
How did you first get involved with Many Hopes?
A couple years ago the model Jessica Stam invited me to a Many Hopes gala. I went out of curiosity and really admired what Thomas, the founder, was doing, so I stayed in touch with him. I’m already an ambassador for Save The Children, but I always felt like what Thomas was doing is really powerful.
What do you think sets this organization apart from others working in Kenya?
You know, there are so many organizations. I’m friends with the model Christy Turlington and I absolutely admire her organization Every Mother Counts and my friend the model Liya Kibede also has an incredible organization. To be honest, I don’t think in terms of what differentiates one from another. I have admiration for anybody trying to do anything proactive. But Thomas is so infectious – he has the Irish swagger. And the numbers are staggering; it’s 2.6 or 3 million children that are homeless in Kenya. That part of the world for girls particularly… there’s violence and rape and just a lack of human respect and human decency. What Thomas is trying to do is to provide an education and a safe haven. For a girl, one of the most powerful tools she can have is an education and to know that what’s happened to her in the past is wrong and that she can be an advocate for future generations.
What was your first impression of Kenya like?
I haven’t have the good fortune to go to Kenya with Thomas but I’ve been with Save The Children. It was so long ago – almost 20 years ago if you can imagine. It was a very different country than it is now. I don’t want to say Kenya’s a violent place – when I went there I was in Nairobi for a little while and then out in the middle of nowhere. Like in many countries in the world, I saw extreme poverty. Ultimately that’s always a tragedy to witness. And the people facing the worst injustices are women and girls. There’s a heaviness in the air that’s palpable. You recognize that the privileges and shelters we’re used to don’t really apply.
One thing that particularly moved me when reading about the organization was how young girls in Kenya shave their heads and wear ill-fitting clothes in order to desexualize themselves.
There’s a book I read called Half The Sky and it’s an incredible book. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do. It’s by Nicholas Kristof – he’s a New York Times columnist. It’s by him and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. Basically it’s about the injustices women face all over the world. Reading that about girls in Kenya who have to shave their heads to disguise themselves…. It’s so sad that in 2016, that alongside the modern world that we live in, there’s an absolute counter, where rape is still a tool of war and violence towards women is the norm and women not receiving an education is acceptable. My first trip with Free the Children was life changing – it’s like going from thinking the world’s flat to thinking that it’s round in terms of recognizing the depth and breadth of human suffering.
What was your own school experience like?
Oh god. I grew up in Northern England. It was kind of dreary, cold and damp. You know, as much as I want to say really positive things about my school experience, it was pretty brutal. I was bullied mercilessly.
No way. Really?
I was a pale, skinny redhead. I mean, for god sakes, yes, mercilessly so. It was like that until I moved to New York and found my people. I guess there’s some positive in there when I think about it. I definitely didn’t have hardships that most people experience; I had a roof over my head, I had food. I may have been bullied, but at the end of the day, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I kept my head down and avoided the bullies and eventually found my people. Ultimately my education was moving out of my hometown and living in New York in my late teens. That’s where I discovered the films and music I liked and really soaked it in. I have two children and the main priority for their father and I is that they get a great education. While I got a good education, I see the value in a great education.
So what are you wearing to the gala tonight?
This is so tragic, but guess what, I’m not going to the gala! And I’m hosting it. It’s a long story. But I really support Thomas – he’s just a force of nature. But the Irish… you know [laughs]. I’ve got a little Irish blood in me, so I’m on his side.