‘It was my duty to give things back to teenagers because for me things were difficult growing up’
Cara Delevingne has dealt with confusion around her sexuality, parental drug addiction and sexual harassment. Here, the model and actress tells Meadhbh McGrath how she has channelled these themes into a teen novel.
Cara Delevingne begins our interview with a question of her own. “Where in Ireland are you from?” the supermodel demands, but I don’t have a chance to finish answering as she interrupts to tell me she’s playing an Irish character in her next screen role, a TV series for Amazon. “I have an Irish accent so I’m very excited,” she trills in her clipped London tones, before immediately launching into what sounds like a mad howaya Dublin accent, tinged with hints of a Carlow drawl.
“It’s not great, but it’s all right — I’m getting better at it slowly,” she warbles.
When I tentatively ask where her character is supposed to be from, she shoots back: “Where do you think it’s from? Where’s Saoirse Ronan from? I kind of based it on her, but I don’t know where that is. Oh God!” she hoots, her accent starting to slip, before I politely remind her our time is limited and we need to discuss her latest venture. “Oh, sorry, the book! That’s what I’m meant to be talking about …”
Yes, the book. It’s a bit of a surprising time for the 25-year-old to be turning her hand to literature — for the past two years, her focus has been on acting, and she has kept busy with starring roles in teen romance Paper Towns, superhero blockbuster Suicide Squad and Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic Valerian. Delevingne famously hates labels but is something of a quintessential ‘slashie’: she has been modelling since her school days, after being scouted by her classmate’s mother, Sarah Doukas, founder of the famed Storm modelling agency. She enjoyed a rapid rise to stardom, landing campaigns for luxury labels such as Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry, before stepping back from modelling in 2015 to pursue a career as an actress. She has dabbled in fashion design, working on capsule collections for DKNY and Mulberry, and in July she released her first single, I Feel Everything, from the soundtrack for Valerian.
It’s a lot to be getting on with, but in the background Delevingne has also been tapping away at her first novel. In her spare time, she says, she prefers reading non-fiction and psychology books, naming Malcolm Gladwell and Esther Perel as her favourite authors, but she wanted her own book to offer something for teenagers. The result, a product of 18 months’ work, is a young adult novel called Mirror Mirror, released earlier this month.
“Not only was it a creative endeavour, not only was it cathartic, but I felt it was a duty for me to give something back to teenagers because, as a teenager, for me things were kind of turbulent and it was difficult growing up — whether it was sexuality or identity and finding out who I was or mental health and all those sorts of things,” Delevingne explains.
“I wanted this book to be a gateway, a little window into what it’s like to be a teenager and what a roller coaster it is, and also to say it’s okay to not know who you are, to make mistakes, but that friendship and support are the things that can help you.”
Last week, as the scandal engulfing movie mogul Harvey Weinstein continued to grow, Delevingne added her voice to the mounting allegations of sexual misconduct, detailing her own experience of sexual harassment when she was starting out as an actress. In an Instagram post, she recounted a call from Weinstein where he quizzed her about her sexual history. She described meeting Weinstein and a director to discuss an upcoming film in a hotel lobby a year later, but was soon left alone with him: “He began to brag about all the actresses he had slept with and how he had made their careers and spoke about other inappropriate things of a sexual nature,” she recalled. She said she declined an invitation to his room, but his assistant said her car wouldn’t arrive for some time “and I should go to his room”.
“At that moment I felt very powerless and scared but didn’t want to act that way, hoping that I was wrong about the situation. In his room, she was relieved to find another woman and believed she was safe, only for Weinstein to ask them to kiss. She refused, and said she had to leave, but claimed that he stood in front of the door and tried to kiss her as she struggled to get out of the room.
Delevingne continued that she was given the part: “Since then I felt awful that I did the movie. I felt like I didn’t deserve the part. I was so hesitant about speaking out. I didn’t want to hurt his family. I felt guilty, as if I did something wrong.”
This kind of honesty is characteristic of Delevingne, and her decision to share the story is further example of how eager she is to leverage her position to help other women, especially teenagers. A key plotline in Mirror Mirror traces how men luxuriating in positions of authority abuse their power to take advantage of vulnerable young women, and how girls and women are affected by sexual assault and manipulation.
The novel follows Red, Leo and Rose, a group of teenagers in London, as they attempt to track down their missing friend and bandmate, Naomi. It’s an enjoyable read: it has all the excitement of a mystery thriller combined with the tender exploration of identity typical of a coming-of-age story, and it tackles weighty issues such as sexual assault, addiction and gang crime with a light touch.
Much of this, no doubt, is due in part to the work of Delevingne’s co-writer, Rowan Coleman, the best-selling author of 12 novels, including 2014 hit The Memory Book.
Books by celebrities are frequently treated with scorn, but Delevingne is open about the co-writing process. She met the Hertfordshire-based Coleman in person just a couple of times, and the pair spent months firing emails back and forth while Delevingne was filming in Canada.
“This is an idea I’ve had for a while, about teenagers and growing up in London and the mystery elements I grew up loving. I spoke to my agent a lot about these ideas and she said, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’” Delevingne recalls. “I sat down with a few different writers to see if they could bring something to the table because I wanted this to be a collaborative process. Not only is Rowan an incredible author but she makes everything come to life. If I had an idea, she’d say, ‘Why don’t you add this?’ We had this connection with each other where we just sparked off each other. It was wonderful.”
At first glance, Delevingne’s background may seem idyllic, far too comfortable to provide any inspiration for a gritty young adult story. Behind the scenes, however, things were not as glossy as they looked.
“I grew up with a very privileged background,” Delevingne admits. The daughter of Charles, a property developer, and Pandora, a former socialite, she was raised in the wealthy London neighbourhood of Belgravia with two older sisters, Chloe (32), a charity campaigner who maintains a low profile, and Poppy (31), also a model.
Her mother had struggled with an addiction to heroin and prescription medications before Cara was born and relapsed when Cara was just six years old. At her worst, Pandora would leave the family home for long periods at a time, and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“It shapes the childhood of every kid whose parent has an addiction,” Cara said in 2015. “You grow up too quickly because you’re parenting your parents.”
The publishers are keen to emphasise that Mirror Mirror is not autobiographical but it’s difficult not to identify some similarities in the story and the lead character being forced to take on a parental role amidst her mother’s struggles with alcoholism.
Delevingne pinpoints the moment a child realises their parents are not the superhumans they grew up believing in, but instead real, flawed human beings, as the most difficult part of growing up.
“It is that thing of being a kid and thinking that your parents are always right: they teach you everything and what they tell you is the way it is, but then that’s actually not correct. Sometimes your parents are wrong and they do make mistakes, and knowing that and finding that out is one of the most shocking things in the world,” she says.
Delevingne has previously spoken about falling into depression aged 15 when she discovered her mother’s addiction. She began to self-harm, and credits the hours spent drumming with her band and writing poetry with helping her recovery.
“All of the experiences that I’ve had inspired this book, in a way,” she says. “It’s not a complete depiction of reality, but it’s definitely inspired by that. I find myself in each of the characters — there’s a hint of me in there.”
There indeed seems to be a hint of her in the narrator, Red, an outwardly shy 15-year-old and the drummer in the band. She is gay, a matter that is dealt with in an interesting way: 10 years ago, it would have likely taken up the whole plot of the book, but now it’s merely one thread in the story as Red navigates her parents’ and peers’ differing responses to her sexuality.
Delevingne’s own sexual orientation has been the subject of much tabloid fascination. She has described first falling in love with a woman at 20 and has since had relationships with both men and women, including the American musician Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, whom she dated for roughly 18 months until last year. In 2015, she told US Vogue: “I think that being in love with my girlfriend is a big part of why I’m feeling so happy with who I am these days. And for those words to come out of my mouth is actually a miracle.”
“I think it’s incredible that young kids now are so open,” she says today. “I’ll have 15-year-olds tell me, ‘I don’t know if I like boys or girls.’ If I was able to even perceive that concept of not knowing, I would have been so happy. I was like, ‘No, no, I like boys!’ because that’s what I was meant to do; that’s just ingrained, so it’s an amazing thing to be able to have that [openness] now.”
Delevingne often asks me to clarify my questions, a habit I initially worry is a sign of her reluctance to stray too far off-topic. But after cautiously elucidating one of my questions, Delevingne apologises profusely and it becomes clear she is just carefully considering each of her answers and doesn’t want to deliver a rehearsed soundbite.
This authenticity is a large part of the appeal for her teenage audience — Delevingne has 40.6m followers on Instagram and young people regularly send her messages about their struggles with mental health, sexuality and family troubles. “I definitely have a connection with teenagers. That’s my crowd — that’s my people,” she says.
Mirror Mirror is also the rare novel that understands how social media works and how important it is in young people’s lives in both positive and negative ways. “There are definitely different pressures [for teenagers] now. The fact that it’s changed so much from when I was 15 is crazy. There’s so much social media, and I didn’t necessarily grow up with social media,” she says.
“It’s a blessing and a curse. They’re able to express themselves and connect in so many ways, which I definitely wasn’t, because I felt a lot more alone. But is that too much? Where is that boundary? Is it real or is it fake?
“I have boundaries, of course. I’m not going to take a picture of myself on the toilet! I think there is a sense of having to be real and keeping that side on your social media, but you’re also selling yourself. It’s not who you are, social media is not a complete reflection of yourself — it’s the way you want to be perceived at that time.”
Next up for Delevingne is filming the aforementioned Amazon show, Carnival Row, a hard-boiled detective series set in a neo-Victorian fantasy world, co-starring Orlando Bloom as a police inspector. “I’m playing a fairy called Vignette Stonemoss, and I’m a badass, so that’s pretty cool,” she says.
Early next year sees the release of Life in a Year, a teen drama in which Delevingne stars as a cancer patient making the most of her last days with boyfriend Jaden Smith. It was the role for which she shaved all her hair off (a look she’s letting grow out naturally but has just swapped the icy-blonde shade for a chocolate brown).
She is keen to keep catering to her teenage fans with more books, as Mirror Mirror has given her a taste for writing. “Definitely I’m going to keep writing — I still have many ideas for things I want to do, whether they’re books or other projects. I think, though, these four kids in this book, there’s still a lot to be said for them.”