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Home Life Weekend

Helena: Why ex-supermodel Christensen is now firmly focused on her new role behind the camera

The Danish beauty talks to Bairbre Power about going behind the lens, the power of Instagram, and snapping U2

Sitting in the cool environs of London's St Martin's Lane Hotel, Helena Christensen stands out like a beacon in the darkened bar area. The Danish supermodel still has it. It's a decade since she stepped away from the runway to pursue other interests such as photography, and her gift with the camera has in turn led to her working as an ambassador with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Helena is just back from Ukraine when we meet. Meeting displaced older people had a profound effect on her. Sitting with the Designers at Debenhams family, including John Rocha, Henry Holland, Ben de Lisi, Sadie Frost and Aliza Reger, she holds the room in the palm of her hand as she describes the refugees' plight, and her photographs tell a powerful story.

The 48-year-old, who was born in Copenhagen on Christmas Day in 1968, has been a regular visitor to Ireland since modelling in Ali Hewson's show for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children at the Point in Dublin in 1993.

Good pals with Bono and Ali, she holidays with them in France, and Helena's face lights up when I enquire if she has plans to visit Ireland soon.

"I always have plans in my head about visiting Ireland," she explains, and this summer that dreaming should happen because of a certain concert tour.

"I will definitely try and go to see U2 play very soon," Helena says. "I am actually going to see them in several different places and to take photographs of them. I just photographed them the other day in Washington Square Park. They are in fine form and working hard."

Frank DeCaro, of The New York Times, described Helena, along with Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer, as "the magnificent seven" back in 1996, but she has moved skilfully from being in front of the camera to behind the lens, and after photographing around the world, Ireland is now on her radar.

"I would like to go to Cork again," says Helena with great enthusiasm, recounting how she "took the train down to a poetry reading in Liss Ard". "That was amazing and one of those experiences that stayed with me," she says. "I always want to go back down there - it is so beautiful."

The adventure to Liss Ard, near Skibbereen in west Cork, for a three-day poetry event was a colourful one, with Helena travelling with R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyer and Australian actress Toni Collette.

A former Miss Universe Denmark and Victoria's Secret Angel, Helena started modelling aged nine. She now has many strings to her bow, from acting to being creative director of Nylon magazine. And then there was her vintage clothing collection, sold at her Mum's store, the Yo-Yo Second Hand shop, in Christianshavn.

Based in Manhattan, Helena lives with her son, Mingus Reedus (18), whose father, actor Norman Reedus (of Walking Dead fame) she dated for five years. In recent years, she has dated Paul Banks, of the band Interpol, and has homes in Manhattan and the Catskills, where she takes lots of photographs and posts them online.

"I love walking," Helena says. "If I can walk anywhere, that's what I will be doing."

In her spare time, she loves reading and watching movies. Her favourite things include "leafing through books and re-organising my drawers". It's very boring, but I really enjoy that," she admits. "I like really like tidying up and re-organising things. I guess it's just my way of meditating".

The conversation swings around to fashion, and Helena says she loves colour and print, as well as the history of the industry. She mixes high-street buys with vintage and loves browsing in second-hand stores where you might find an old dress "that some young girl 100 years ago lived in and loved, and that makes it very special".

She looks in incredible shape, and I enquire if she drinks lots of water and avoids alcohol.

"No, I'm not good at drinking water and I love wine, but I do work out," she replies. "I box and have for many years. It's a very good, intense, hard workout, and I love food."

Helena jokes with her friends when I ask if she is a decent cook.

"I have a few dishes that I make, like stews and Moroccan chicken, and my son always compliments me on my Tilapia stew," she tells me.

"I live a very low-key life. I still have the same car I had when I was 19. I just like things to be basically simple. I grew up in Denmark, being in nature, and I'm grateful for that. I don't really have goals per se. Whatever happens, happens organically."

In terms of social media, Helena acknowledges that the "level of fame, or whatever it was, was absolutely enough". "I wouldn't have wanted it to be any more," she says. "I never wanted that part of it. It was just an incredible way to grow up and to be a young girl travelling the world, experiencing different cultures.

"That part (of modelling) for me was absolutely the best. When interviews started to be done and everyone wanted to know what we were thinking and doing, that started getting on my nerves, and I was like 'I wish that part wasn't there'."

Helena admits that social media would have definitely added to that "pressure, aggravation or frustration" she felt.

But with picture-driven sites like Instagram, she "absolutely can see the benefits and beautiful things about the way you can connect with people over visuals and share important things in your life". "There are sides to it that make sense and feel wonderful, but there are other sides to it that to me just don't feel right," she says.

Helena's Instagram account has 134,000 followers, and her posts include pictures of her adorable dog, Lamu, an Australian sheepdog with one blue eye and one brown.

She shares photographs of her modelling days, pictures of herself and Mingus taken by Marino Testino when he was a youngster and images from her recent Designers by Debenhams shoot with Max Abadian.

There are also portraits she did of Bono and The Edge from their 1997 Popmart tour.

With access all areas, she describes that experience as "an incredible gig," which was "intense in a very energetic way."

On occasions, Helena would move from shooting below the stage to within the show's giant rotating lemon.

"Being with the boys inside as it lifted off over the audience, hearing the roars from below and yet feeling the concentrated silence within the tiny space as the band got mentally ready for the show was mind-blowingly awesome," she admits.

"As the lemon opened up and they descended onto the stage, I was stuck inside for a while afterwards with a technician. We'd grab a beer and chit chat, floating in the lemon between the crowd and the sky. Pretty surreal that was."

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