On set in Paris, a blonde bombshell glamorously clad in Chanel, sporting a fresh Oribe Canales crop is giving a steely face to the camera…Elena Statheros is a young model booked day-in and day-out by every leading European magazine. She is living the dream. Yes, she is, but little does anyone know that it is a far (far) cry from where she was just a year prior. In fact, if you looked at Elena just before she was sent to Paris by Eileen Ford (owner of Ford Models), you might not recognize her at all. You would see a girl with waist-length hair, clothes from the Goodwill bins, and not enough money in her pocket to buy a burger. What you might recognize in both versions of Elena, though, is her assured attitude, quick wit, and deep presence.
While the transformation from impoverished girl to European supermodel was only skin deep (a quick cut and dusting of powder was really all it took), Elena had something much more crucial than a rare beauty…she had character. And, each of her many facets has an endless depth, she is a mile wide and a mile deep–a by-product of how much hard life she has lived.
She is my mother, the photographer for this magazine, and a homeless advocate. She shares her endlessly interesting experiences as all of those things here.
JJ: What is your earliest memory of wanting to become a model, was it always a dream for you? ESD: My mother thought I could become a model and planted the first seeds. I started looking at magazines and I really loved the idea that I could be a model. It was something that deeply resonated with me.
I had no connections and we were very poor. There was nothing about my life that spelled the possibility of ever becoming a model. But it was a dream my mom put on my heart that I ended up living.
JJ: As a person with no connections, how did you become a Ford Model?
ESD: I was raised in deep poverty and we moved around a lot, transient. We were a very unstable family and my mother was incapable of staying in any city for more than six months to a year. Before I dropped out in the 8th grade, I had already lived in 12 different cities. I did not go to school very much, so by the time we moved to Los Angeles I was sick of moving.
In L.A. my older brother got a job at a pizza parlor in a very fancy part of town– Century City. He came home the first night to our one bedroom, cockroach infested apartment that my mom, sister, two brothers and I shared on Hollywood Boulevard. He said that the pizza parlor let him eat all he wanted for free on his shift.
That made me go: “WHAT!” All I wanted at the time was money for food, so I told him he had to get me a job there. He said there was no way they’d hire me because I was too young and in school. I said we will lie about my age and that I wasn’t really going to school anyway. So he got me a job. I was 14 but we said I was 16.
I was discovered at the pizza parlor by Eileen Ford, the owner of Ford Models.
JJ: So what came after getting ‘discovered’?
ESD: The people Eileen was with told me to come to the Hotel Bel Air the next day for a casting call. My brother and I took the bus there. As you can imagine, I had never ever been anywhere like that. I had the wrong clothes and I was dirty. She must have really wanted me for me because it certainly wasn’t for my style.
She asked me, “Will your parents let you go to Paris?” I didn’t even know where Paris was, but I said yes. I said, “Why can’t I go to New York if you’re in New York?” She told me that I’d never work in New York until I built my portfolio first. She bought me my airfare and I moved to Paris. I didn’t even know enough to be scared of moving so far away.
JJ: What’s the first job you did when you landed in Paris?
ESD: Eileen set me up with a French agency named Paris Planning. The first job I booked was with André Rau, a very famous photographer, for German Cosmopolitan. I had waist length hair and they cut it all off. After that, I worked nearly every single day for 12 months, which was the beginning of a long and successful 15 year career as an international model.
When I lived in Paris, people didn’t speak English as commonly as they do now. French was exclusively spoken, which I didn’t speak. I felt a little bit isolated and I wasn’t good at making friends because I didn’t grow up having them (due to constant moves). So I didn’t talk a lot, but I got booked a ton because I was very professional. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t drink, and I did not go to one party or bar. I always had this innate sense that I would be safe if I stayed away from people.
JJ: Did you have a favorite part of modeling?
ESD: I loved the transformation of it. From working with these amazing makeup artists, hairdressers, and stylists, I really grew and evolved. I traveled all through Africa and Europe and different islands–in a year I did not stop traveling. The change was very external because I physically grew into this fashion model, but it was also very internal at the same time. I became well-known and visible, but also on the inside a part of me stayed very invisible and to myself.
JJ: In a good way or bad way?
ESD: In the way that I knew would be smart and help me stay safe.
JJ: Fast forward 30 years, what do you think you learned from working with all the famous photographers?
ESD: The more famous the photographer, the less ego they had. The photographers who were less famous were the hardest on the girls. That was interesting. My favorite photographers were André Rau, Marco Glaviano, Sante D’Orazio, Alec Chatelain, Matthew Rolston and Barry McKinley.
JJ: What do you think made modeling, and culture as a whole, so special in the 80’s and 90’s?
ESD: What made it special was the aspiration for beauty in myriad ways. It was an aspiration for beauty, but it was beauty through glamor, beauty through being a bit odd, too. The range of the models was incredible, the beauty was more than just skin deep. This was before fillers, lip plumpers, photoshop. These were the truest, most natural beauties. Everybody looks alike now.
All of the great models that I knew and loved like Shalom Harlow, Kristen McMenamy, Kristy Hume, Kara Young, even though they’re in their 40s and 50s, they still get hired because the industry doesn’t have replacements for them. Truth and beauty will always withstand the test of time.
JJ: Before you started photographing for The Magazine, you did photos for your non-profit I Am Waters. How did you decide to turn to the homeless as your subjects?
ESD: The things and people that I love are what I love to photograph. I love the homeless (because of how I was raised) and it's hard to explain, but whenever I am with a person, I feel them in a different way than what my eyes see. With the homeless, there is a spirit in each individual that is so unique and different. My ultimate goal is to take a picture that captures the way that I feel them. Depicting what I sense is the essence of who they are.
Why I enjoy photography and love The Magazine is that I understand the spirit of what you’re trying to convey in each spread. It's that spirit or look that I try to capture. I never feel like, ‘oh I am shooting Julia again’ because you really inhabit every character. Every spread is so different, you become such a different person that I feel like I am shooting different people. I try to connect to the spirit that you manifest through the hair, makeup, and clothes. For a moment that character I am photographing in that spread really exists and I am trying to capture them.
JJ: What is your dream for your life?
ESD: After being born on the very bottom, then being blessed with being raised to the top. My dream now is to donate the second half of my life back to God, however He decides to use the rest of my time here.