Kaia Gerber on Acting, Modeling, Mental Health and Her Book Club
Kaia Gerber swears she’s a small-town girl at heart. Sure, the town happens to be Malibu, the fertile ground that also brought us the Hadids. “When I say it’s a small town, people laugh,” Gerber says, “but it really did feel like that. Same kids from preschool till you graduate. So it really expanded my world by an infinite amount.”
“It,” if you somehow don’t know by now, is modeling, which served as a kind of turbo exchange program for Gerber, rocketing her onto runways in all the major fashion capitals. It’s a far cry from her reality today, which is a pure portrait of domestic bliss. Ensconced in an oversize beige sweater, a dog by her side, she’s cocooned in her L.A. living room. Her supermodel mother, Cindy Crawford, is downstairs watching TV. Imagine the Cleavers, if they all happened to be stunningly beautiful.
I tell her I interviewed Crawford years ago at a restaurant and still think about the collective aftershock when she walked in. “Yeah, the sea parts,” Gerber says knowingly. “Especially when I started modeling, everyone would be like, ‘Oh my God, your mom is so iconic,’ and I’d be like, ‘She’s my mom.’ ”
Despite their strong resemblance, Gerber’s aura feels a little quieter, more like a peaceful ripple. Perhaps that’s because lately, she’s been taking it easy—exploring new sides of herself, with acting roles in two hotly anticipated projects, a book club, and a whole lot of self-reflection. Thomas Wolfe titled a novel after the idea that you can’t go home again, but Gerber seems to be proving that wrong—returning both in the geographic sense, and to herself. She tells me that when she first came into the crosshairs of model-off-duty style, “I put a lot of effort into it. Then I realized I want to be comfortable. If you’ve seen me anytime in the last two years, I’m most likely wearing sweatpants, because my priority is just somewhere else now.” You get the feeling she’s not just talking about fashion: “I’ve gone back to who I am at my core.”
ELLE You grew up modeling. What was that like?
KAIA GERBER I’m only 21, and I feel like I’ve lived a whole life already. Having the opportunity to travel taught me so much from such a young age. I got this really amazing education. I have this catalog of images that has recorded my growing up. You’re growing, and you’re changing: your body, what you like, your taste. Being surrounded by so many creatives shaped my taste. I’m very much an observer, and I retain a lot.
ELLE There’s this sense of, “Models are all out to get each other. People are tripping each other on the catwalk,” because that’s what you see in pop culture, but it seems like you have a lot of friends in that world.
KG I fell into the trap of believing that. Especially at that time, I was really shy. I kept to myself, and I was nervous. You’re coming from high school girls who are so scary, and so I assumed that that would be the culture. I got lucky meeting incredible people from all over the world who took me under their wing. I felt so much comfort in having this family away from my own family.
ELLE Was there advice your mom gave you starting out that stuck with you?
KG Be on time. Take the time to learn people’s names, and be nice to everyone. If you’re not grateful and happy to be there, there’s someone who would be. Even when I was really tired, or wanted to go home, or felt lonely, I would remind myself how lucky I was. Another thing she told me is, “I wish I had written more down,” because you think you’re going to remember these amazing moments forever, and one day, it’s hard to even know what shoot that was, where it happened, and when. And so I wrote it down; I journaled.
ELLE You’re a face of Celine. What has it been like working with [Celine artistic director] Hedi Slimane?
KG I’ve been aware of him for so long. When I was in high school and he was at Saint Laurent, he would hang out around Malibu and street-cast people from my school. Getting to work with him has been a dream. He’s everything that you’d hope he would be, but oftentimes people aren’t. He takes the time to get to know you. He has a way of turning you into the best version of yourself.
For so long, I felt like as a model, I was playing these different characters, which was really cool, and I still like doing that. But I think now, because I get to do that in acting and that’s my primary focus, I appreciate when I feel seen by someone as me, the person. I wasn’t ready for that when I was first modeling, because I didn’t feel fully formed. Now I feel more myself.
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ELLE What’s it been like letting your personality shine through more?
KG I mean, it’s scary. People were like, “How do you deal with rejection in modeling?” and I was like, “Honestly, you don’t take it personally,” because it’s so subjective, and they weren’t rejecting anything about me as a person. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt at times, but it was easier to take. It can be scary to show yourself, because it opens you up for criticism and for people to not agree with you and not like you, but I think I just came into myself more. I was like, “No, I do have a point of view, and I have things to say.” You accept that not everyone is going to agree with that, but I don’t need that anymore.
ELLE How has your personal style evolved since you entered the public eye?
KG I remember the first time being like, “Oh, people care what I’m wearing.” That wasn’t how I felt growing up. In Malibu, people didn’t wear shoes to school.
ELLE And now there are Instagram accounts that chronicle everything you’re wearing.
KG And I was like, “What?” My job is a job where you go and change out of your clothes. So I’m like, “Why do I have to put on jeans to take them off again?”
KG I was a fan of Emma because I saw Shiva Baby, and I was like, “No one has ever done anything like this. It’s so funny, and sad, and real, and touching.” She has such a strong point of view, and I just, immediately, was like, “What else is she going to do?” Same with Rachel. I just thought she was so good in that, and funny, and real. I’ve always loved her stand-up. Same with Ayo. I was a fan of her stand-up. I’m such a comedy nerd.
ELLE That’s not something people necessarily would associate with you.
KG I go to comedy clubs all the time. It’s my favorite thing to do. I was intimidated getting to work with Rachel and Ayo, but they were so welcoming. I feel so honored that I got to be a part of that movie because I think it’s really special. I think it’s going to shock people in a good way.
ELLE You mentioned letting people see more of the real you. Do you think this is going to change the way that people see you?
KG I think so. When you see me looking angry on a runway, you wouldn’t assume there’s much of a sense of humor in there. My character is nothing like me as a person at all, but I do think people will respond well to the jokes that are being made. It’s very of its time and very meta.
I think also a lot of queer stories and films can be really sad, and a lot of the [real-life] stories unfortunately are really sad. But to bring light to a situation and be able to find humor in it, that’s why I love comedy. It helps me laugh about things that sometimes are really difficult and hard to laugh at. While it’s dealing with heavy topics, it also has a humor about it.
ELLE The concept is “lesbian Fight Club.”
KG We’re throwing punches. We got to do stunt training, which was very cool. I think people are like, “Oh, cute. A little girly fight club.” No, it’s a real fight club.
ELLE You also have an upcoming Apple TV+ series, Mrs. American Pie, with Laura Dern and Kristen Wiig. And Carol Burnett makes an appearance.
KG I have no idea what I’m doing there. It’s ridiculous. Carol Burnett made me understand comedy in such a different way. I never would’ve dreamed that I’d get to work with her. I still can’t believe it happened.
ELLE Is there a literary heroine you’d want to play onscreen?
KG Patti Smith, with Just Kids, fully changed my life. And Joan Didion. I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I watched her documentary a million times. She has this quote that really resonated with me, about wanting to know where the pain is. I found that—not running away from your feelings—through her.
ELLE You started a book club on Instagram Live during the pandemic.
KG When people come up to me and tell me that they follow my book club, it’s the highest compliment. I didn’t think people were going to respond the way that they have. People are like, “You got me into reading again,” and I’m like, “If I can give the world one gift, that could be it.” It’s on hiatus, but definitely not done.
ELLE Would you ever want to write a memoir?
KG Yeah. I have collections of different essays and things that I’ve written. They’re not super narrative-based and mostly about feelings, but I was looking through them the other day, and I was just like, “I don’t know what I want to do with these, but I’m just grateful that I have them.” I would love to do a column or something one day to just share my brain, but it also can be quite intimidating because I know how tough the literary world is, and I’m scared of it.
ELLE I’m curious about your thoughts on books as accessories. There was an interesting article in T: The New York Times Style Magazine about a book stylist for celebrities.
KG Oh, this is not a thing. This is not a thing.
ELLE Oh, it’s a thing.
KG It’s like a stylist, but for books? They’re not necessarily reading them, is that correct?
ELLE They are carrying them. They can read them. It helps get the author’s name out there, but it’s also a weird thing to see it as this consumer product.
KG Getting people to read, no matter how you do it, is very cool. But how can you promote something that you don’t fully understand? I would never tell people to read a book that I’ve never read. I’ve had people be like, “Do you really read the books you carry?” I was like, “Would I be carrying a book that I haven’t read?” I always have a book, because in the job that I’m in, you wait around a lot. I cannot be on my phone. Social media makes me anxious when I spend a lot of time on it, so that’s why I escape into books.
ELLE You were at home with family during COVID. Did that period of slowing down cause you to reflect more?
KG Honestly, it came at a time when I really needed it, and it was a really difficult time in the world, but I really had reached a point where I just felt like I was falling out of love with it, and I didn’t know that you could ask for a break. I was forced to stop, and I realized how badly I needed one. When you’re being told what to do every day, you don’t have time to sit and reflect. But I had gone through so many changes and had so many massive things happen to me over the years that I was modeling. I had four or five years of processing to do. I felt so lucky that I got to be with my family because I’d spent so much time away from them, and I realized I had so much guilt about missing birthdays and things. I had been traveling since I was a teenager, and so I got to develop an adult relationship with my family.
ELLE Now that you’re back in the world, and you’re on these sets, how are you protecting your mental health?
KG I developed so much deeper relationships in my life, and also a connection to myself. When you’re forced to sit with yourself, all of a sudden, you’re aware of all the stuff you haven’t dealt with. There wasn’t communication happening between me and myself, and I felt out of body sometimes. Once I developed that, I was like, “This isn’t something I want to give up.” My personal life and my mental health are not something I’m willing to sacrifice for my job ever again. Right now, I’m getting to work at home, which is a beautiful thing, and not traveling all the time. I come home, and I’m with my dog. I have friends, and I’m cooking dinner. I see my therapist, and I see my family.
ELLE In modeling and also in the celebrity world in general, there’s a lot of conversation lately about people having an easier time getting into the industry because of a family member. Do people sometimes make assumptions about how you got here?
KG I won’t deny the privilege that I have. Even if it’s just the fact that I have a really great source of information and someone to give me great advice, that alone I feel very fortunate for. My mom always joked, “If I could call and book a Chanel campaign, it would be for me and not you.” But I also have met amazing people through my mom whom I now get to work with.
With acting, it’s so different. No artist is going to sacrifice their vision for someone’s kid. That just isn’t how art is made, and what I’m interested in is art. Also, no one wants to work with someone who’s annoying, and not easy to work with, and not kind. Yes, nepotism is prevalent, but I think if it actually was what people make it out to be, we’d see even more of it.
ELLE You’ve posted about the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and you attended Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. How do you decide what to speak up about, and what you want to share?
KG What I’ve learned is, the most important thing is to understand it. Do your research; know what you’re speaking out about. Don’t just repost, because the spread of misinformation is becoming a huge problem and can do more harm than good. I think for a long time, people were afraid to speak out about things because people weren’t going to react well, but silence speaks so loudly now.
When I see people with a platform not using it the way that they could, it makes me upset. I don’t expect everyone to have the same opinions about things, but I think that there’s so much good that can be done with this platform. So many people spend so much time complaining about fame. But you can also do something so incredible with it. I’ve seen firsthand that actually, you can make a difference. You can change people’s lives, and to not take that opportunity would be silly and make none of it worth it for me.
HAIR BY TEDDY CHARLES; MAKEUP BY FRANK B AT HOME AGENCY; PRODUCED BY LOLA PRODUCTION.
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of ELLE.