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Lily: ‘It’s sort of weird when you get random people commenting on your photographs’

Until recently Lily Jean Harvey was just an ordinary teenager studying for her A-levels. Now she's following in Cara Delevingne's footsteps as the face of Topshop. She talks to Katrina Israel about backstage nerves and juggling school with the shoots

By Katrina Israel

Standing backstage at the Topshop Unique show last September, Lily Jean Harvey was overcome by a wave of fear. "I was like: 'This is the worst thing that's ever going to happen to me'," she laughs.

"I was so nervous."

The fact that Harvey (17) doesn't own a pair of heels and was embarking on her runway debut in three-inch pointed, pony-skin slingbacks didn't help.

But when it came to stepping out on to the catwalk - all big bouncing hair and 1980s-style little black dress - Harvey more than held her own. "I actually really liked it," she says, smiling.

Which is just as well, given that big things are beckoning. Seriously big things: in January it was announced that she was to follow in the footsteps of Cara Delevingne, Taylor Hill and Gigi Hadid as the face of Topshop's SS17 campaign. With her mahogany eyes (reminiscent of her idol, Cindy Crawford), bushy Brooke Shields brows and full lips, you can see why.

Today, sitting on a worn casting couch in a Bethnal Green studio, she's sporting a beige, oversized Unique Bambi jumper, ripped Topshop jeans and New Balance trainers. With the light fading and her doe-eyes still made-up from the shoot, it's easy to forget just how young she is - apart from the fact that her agent is sitting beside her as we chat.

She still lives at home in the Midlands town of Newark with her parents - Janey, a former writer and freelance educator, and Dom, a businessman - her 14-year-old younger sister, Nina, and their cat, Cora (named after the character in Downton Abbey), and juggles modelling with school by fitting in shoots at weekends or during half-term.

Her mother accompanied her on Topshop's campaign shoot in Los Angeles and Harvey is only too aware of the potential pitfalls of such rapid success so young.

When we meet, Paris Fashion Week is in full swing and everyone is talking about casting director James Scully's Instagram post lambasting the 'sadistic and cruel' treatment of models at the hand of Balenciaga casting directors Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes, alleging that 150 girls were told to wait for three hours in an unlit stairwell. The house apologised and dismissed the pair but the incident prompted a wave of concern. Harvey's agency, Viva, reposted Scully's post on its own Instagram account.

"I've never experienced anything like that," says Harvey. "But I have heard a lot of things about it, which is, you know" - she pauses, looking at her agent - "not great is it? It definitely exists and it's something that needs to be talked about."

She believes things are changing in the industry, particularly when it comes to body ideals. "My generation are much more accepting. There are beginning to be waves of body positivity and people are much more appreciative of unique features."

She cites curvaceous model Ashley Graham as someone she admires: "She's definitely doing good things in fashion… a lot of people look up to her."

Fashion has always interested Harvey and she considered studying fashion journalism. Acting was another passion; she auditioned for a drama school in Nottingham but missed out on the callback (she was in Japan on a school exchange).

In fact she never really considered modelling until she was scouted outside King's Cross St Pancras en route to a One Direction concert when she was 14. "I was like, 'Yeah, let's do it', and just sort of rode with it."

Her first shoot was for the 35th anniversary of i-D, lensed by the famous British photographer Alasdair McLellan. Miss Vogue - and plenty of others - soon followed.

She found out about the Topshop campaign right around the time of her first Unique show in September. Her mum took the call while she was at school; it was, she says, totally surreal.

It's clear 2017 will be a watershed year, as she comes to terms with an entirely alternative path - and her growing fame. "It is kind of overwhelming and it is sort of weird when you get random people commenting on your photos." she says of her escalating Instagram following.

"I was thinking of starting a private Instagram, but I think you just kind of have to get over it. Most of the people mean well. I don't think I consciously cultivate my Instagram."

How does she feel about peers who have made Instagram perfection a vocation? "I kind of respect their dedication, but it must be sort of draining."

As it turns out, Harvey prefers to live her life in reality: she reads magazines in print, shops in stores rather than online and paints as a hobby.

She's also a proud bookworm: "I'm currently reading Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald, which is apparently really closely linked to Tender is the Night, which is one of my favourite books, so it'll be interesting to compare the two." Her favourite London haunt is not a burger joint but Libreria bookshop off Brick Lane: "When I have free time I always visit." Still, it's not all weighty tomes for Harvey. Her favourite person to stalk on Instagram is American make-up student turned social-media star Eleanor Barnes (aka @snitchery): "I really like skincare but I think sometimes I overdo it because I'll be like, 'New products! New products!'… My mum is like, 'You don't need eye cream'."

She also enjoys decoding her dreams with the help of Google or her group of girlfriends, to whom she's clearly devoted.

She is single and says she is 'the mum' of the group. Does she mean she's the most sensible? "Not necessarily sensible but just like caring; the one who worries about everyone, so I'll say to my friends, 'Are you staying hydrated'?"

Politics is another passion: "I actually talk about politics quite a lot with my friends. I don't know if it's because we go to a grammar school so we're encouraged to be more aware of that kind of thing? There's almost pressure to." She pauses. "For example, if someone started talking about Mike Pence [the US Vice-President] and you didn't know who that was, then they'd be like, 'You don't know who that is? Whaat'!?"

She's currently studying for her A-levels in history, English literature, art and general studies.

Juggling it all with a fledgling modelling career can't be easy. How does she relax? "I don't think we are really encouraged to relax [at school], it's very full-on. Quite often when I come back after doing a shoot people are like, 'How was it?' and I'm like, 'Good, but kind of tiring', and people are like, 'How is it tiring'? … It's easy to underestimate how much work is in these things."

She has yet to hit the international runway circuit and has instead applied to study English literature at King's College next year, "but I might defer and take a year out for full-time modelling and just sort of see what happens."

For now, though, Lily Jean Harvey is just looking forward to seeing The Weeknd in concert.

The future is full of possibilities.

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