At 21 she starred in Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines video wearing just a thong. She said it was empowering. Nearly a decade on, she's not so sure.
Emily Ratajkowski wants control. She wants control, she says, because there have been too many times in her life when she thought she had lots and claimed she had lots, but really she had very little.
Ratajkowski, 30, found fame as a model, her body primped, preened and positioned by other people in order to sell their clothes or sex up their music videos, most famously for the 2013 hit Blurred Lines. She gained wealth and power from being the object, the muse, a "good model". But her power was always dependent on other people finding her attractive, particularly men. She was a pin-up.
That is why she wanted to write a book. "You can have so much control in writing, you're choosing the words, you're the creator," she says. "That was the original reason I started. And now I'm about to publish and know that things are going to be perceived differently by every person who reads it. You have to let go."
My Body is a collection of essays — part memoir, part analysis of sexual politics, modelling, gender and feminism. She wrote it over the past two years from her apartment in Manhattan, where she lives with husband Sebastian Bear-McClard, a film producer, and their 8-month-old son, Sylvester Apollo. In the first chapter she describes how, as a 21-year-old model living in Los Angeles, she was hired to appear in Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and TI's music video. "I hate these blurred lines / I know you want it / I know you want it," sang Thicke, wearing a suit and tie, while Ratajkowski danced around him, naked save for a skin-coloured thong and trainers.
The song spent weeks at No 1, the video went viral and Ratajkowski became a name. In interviews she was asked to defend the song's video and controversial lyrics, neither of which she wrote. She was determined in her argument: her nudity was her choice. She was empowered. But in the book, for the first time, she gives a full account of what happened on set, accusing Thicke of groping her during filming: "Suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt the coolness and foreignness of a stranger's hands cupping my bare breasts from behind. I instinctively moved away, looking back at Robin Thicke … I may have even smiled, embarrassed and desperate to minimise the situation. I tried to shake off the shock. No one, not one of us, said anything. We were working for him, after all."
When we speak on a video call, Ratajkowski from her exposed-brick apartment in New York, me from London, she is reserved, careful. I can feel every one of the 3,500 miles between us. She has spent the past few years trying to regain the control she had to concede in order to become a success — buying images of herself, wrestling with laws around picture ownership, writing the essays that form her book. How she understands her body and the power it has brought her has changed almost entirely in that time.
"It's so easy to google me or look at my Instagram and see the ways in which I've had power and I've succeeded," she says. "But I wanted to write about the less-obvious, shrouded experiences that do make me feel like I'm just a body." She says she is nervous about the book coming out. She doesn't want the nuance of her story to be lost, particularly in the coverage of her accusation against Thicke. It was a music video that made her career, but also one she resented being constantly associated with: it was a shoot where she felt secure in her nakedness, but was also exploited for it; where she says she had fun, but was also groped against her will.
"At that point in my career, photoshoots for me were either a test shoot with a photographer who was usually, like, kinda a creepy dude, or just doing e-commerce where you're, like, back, side, front, and it's just about the dimensions of your body, you're a coat hanger," she says. "And it was so much fun to come to a set where there were all these cool women, a female director, and they were asking me if I felt comfortable and if I liked my outfit and my hair. I felt really respected. I think the word 'empowered' gets thrown around a lot, so I'm hesitant, but I definitely felt like I was having fun and in control. All of that is still true. But also this thing did happen on the day, which reminded me of where my position was — as a hired model."
Afterwards, she writes, "I felt like I was spinning and out of control. I hadn't chosen this life and I was unsure of how I'd ended up living it and what it meant about who I would become."
She was cast in a number of big-budget movies — as a hot young mistress in Gone Girl, a hot insecure girl in I Feel Pretty, a hot "Emily Ratajkowski" in Entourage — her Instagram following sky-rocketed (she now has nearly 30 million followers) and she created a line of very small bikinis. Worth an estimated $8 million, she has been the face of fashion brands such as DKNY and Nasty Gal, graced the covers of Vogue and Sports Illustrated, appeared on catwalks for Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, and hung out with celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham.
At first Ratajkowski stuck by her argument, telling journalists that "female sexuality and sexiness, no matter how conditioned it may be by a patriarchal ideal, can be incredibly empowering for a woman". But as the years went by her opinions around that video, and her empowerment, changed. "In my early 20s, it had never occurred to me that the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place. Those men were the ones in control," she writes. "Facing the reality of the dynamics at play would have meant admitting how limited my power really was."
It has been a gradual change in understanding, she says. "It started with feelings. Or, for lack of a better term, feeling triggered in my body. My friends would tell me something that had happened to them on a date or I would meet a young actress and she would tell me something and I would feel it in my body. An anxiety, a tension. It felt really incongruent with what I preached, which was that I was this example of somebody who had succeeded by commodifying my image and my body and sexuality. But I didn't feel that way, emotionally. Especially in relation to my work — how I felt with modelling and with Hollywood and the process of auditioning and going on shoots. I didn't enjoy it. And it seemed glaringly obvious that if I was so powerful and felt so great about how I had succeeded, then why was I unhappy, sometimes more than unhappy — anxious — about going to work?"
Ratajkowski was born in Westminster, London, where her mother, an English professor, was on secondment from the California State University to the University of London. Her father, an artist and school teacher, is of Polish-Catholic and Irish descent — she spent childhood summers in Bantry, Co Cork, where they own an old farmhouse. Emily's maternal grandfather, Ely D Balgley, was a piano prodigy and chemist, born to a Jewish family on the Poland-Russia border, now Belarus, before emigrating to New York.
When Emily, an only child, was 5, the Ratajkowskis moved back to California permanently. They lived in San Diego, in a bohemian house built by her dad, covered in ivy and filled with paintings — "a magical organism". Ratajkowski was a beautiful child, like her mother, often stopped in the street and told that she should model.
"I was not raised in any religion, and talk of God was not a part of my childhood," she writes. "I've never prayed much but I do remember that as a young girl I prayed for beauty. Beauty was a way for me to be special. When I was special, I felt my parents' love for me the most."
She started modelling at 13 — "I'm ready," she told her parents. Her father pinned up her first "comp" card, with her test shots and dimensions, in his classroom. Another photo was put up in their kitchen, so visitors were greeted by her "pouty lips, bare legs, and teased hair" when they walked in. Her mother often told her about how boys looked at her in the street: "I'll never forget the look on his face as you walked past him!"
Did her parents' pride in her beauty make her feel uncomfortable, I ask. "No," she says. "They were just being supportive of a thing that the world rewards. But it wasn't just my parents, it was in everything. At school, the hot girls were the popular girls. In culture, there were all kinds of men who represented different types of power — musicians, presidents — but it felt very clear to me that the most powerful women were the most sexually attractive. Modelling seemed like a way of being special and powerful."
Alongside encouragement came caution. Ratajkowski was told by relatives, including her father, to be careful of her body and the clothes she wore. At 13 she was sent home in tears from a school dance for wearing an outfit that was "too sexy". She hadn't realised that was how she looked. "It was complicated for me," she says. "In many ways having my midriff show at school felt like defiance. Like nobody was going to tell me how to dress. That is definitely what my mom felt. 'My daughter shouldn't be ashamed of her body, it should be celebrated and maybe she should even try to work it and see what she can get out of life by exploring that opportunity.' But I got so many mixed signals. I had boys at school letting me know they thought I was hot, while also feeling deeply ashamed because I was making adults feel uncomfortable."
She thrived off the money and freedom her career brought her, skipping high-school classes to attend photoshoots in LA. At 1.73m she didn't have the height to be a catwalk model, so was sent off to pose for bikini and commercial fashion shoots. Many of the jobs she was given look, with hindsight, incredibly unsettling. At 16 she posed topless, back to camera, for a surf magazine's "Taste of the Month". Modelling agents labelled her the "sexy one". After a year studying art at the University of California, Los Angeles she dropped out. Too many of her friends were living in their parents' homes, struggling with student debt, unemployed after the economic crash, and modelling seemed like a good "temporary" solution.
As she went to more castings — told where to turn up and when, told to strip down, turn around, pout, turn around again — she began to "dissociate" from her body. She felt like a "mannequin". "There is this sense of your body is not yours, it's ours," she says. "In this contract, you've given it up to be used how we see fit. You aren't allowed to have control over it. If you're not willing to do what the client wants you to do with your body, then there's somebody else who will be. You're not special."
Can models, by definition, be anything other than objects? "I don't know how that would happen. You're being used for the way you look. There should certainly be a more respectful attitude to the 'tool' that this industry is using — which is young, usually very young, women's bodies."
Ratajkowski believes it is impossible to be unaffected by an industry in which you get rejected from a job because of the way you look. In her book she admits to insecurities, wishing at times for a smaller nose and longer legs. "My awareness of the things I don't like about myself, physically, has actually protected me, because it pre-empts other people saying mean things about me," she says. "I know what they are going to say. Every woman has this feeling that if only this thing was a little bit more this way, physically, my life would be better. I want people to be, like, 'Oh wow, if she's insecure too, what does that mean?' "
There are moments in the book that have echoes of Jeffrey Epstein's parties involving rich men and younger women. When Ratajkowski moved to Los Angeles at 19, she was invited to fancy restaurants by a club promoter whose job, it seems, was to herd attractive women into flashy events. That summer the promoter took her and about 14 other young models on a free luxury trip to Coachella. They were expected to be good-time party girls, put up in a villa with a group of rich, older men who wanted to be tantalised.
"I was not at all shocked by [the Jeffrey Epstein] story," Ratajkowski says. "I witnessed so much of that in different forms. Right before Covid I went to some new nightclub and it was really empty. All of a sudden 10 — I would guess if they weren't underage then barely of age — models arrive with one guy. I was, like, oh right, the same thing is still happening. Beautiful girls being out at a club and rich men paying indirectly to have them there."
Is that exploitation? "The ways that I experienced it, it was. A lot of my experiences with Coachella, or whatever, the transaction wasn't defined. The terms of agreement weren't named. I found out later that they invited girls who couldn't afford food or a nice meal out to these fancy dinners in LA. That was a motivator for them to come. And that's manipulation."
Later in her career, the Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, widely known as Jho Low, paid her $25,000 to go to the Super Bowl with him. She was unsure of why she was there, how long she had to stay and who her agent had to check with at the end of the night to find out whether she could leave. "I was on the clock," she says.
According to Ratajkowski, a Victoria's Secret model was at the same party that night, pretending to drink shots with Low, chucking the alcohol over her shoulder as she tipped her head back and dancing "against his crotch". The model isn't named in Ratajkowski's book but is thought to be Miranda Kerr. Years later Kerr handed over a diamond necklace given to her by Low, worth $1.8 million, to the US Government after he was exposed in a money-laundering scandal. He is now an international fugitive. (In 2017 Kerr — who is not accused of any wrongdoing — married Evan Spiegel, the co-founder of Snapchat.)
Writing about some of her recollections gave Ratajkowski physical anxiety. "You do have to completely immerse yourself in the memories and I think that … yeah, I'm almost reremembering," she trails off.
As a 20-year-old she travelled to the photographer Jonathan Leder's home, where she posed nude and in underwear for a series of photographs. "Most of what came next was a blur except for the feeling," she writes. "I don't remember kissing, but I do remember his fingers suddenly being inside of me … and it really, really hurt." Leder later said that her allegations were "too tawdry and childish to respond to", that they were "false and salacious". He went on to publish the photographs in a book titled Emily Ratajkowski — which sold out multiple times — she says without her consent; the publishers maintained they had every legal right to do so.
"I wrote to organise my thoughts and to forgive myself for the ways that I felt I had allowed certain things to happen, because that's how I viewed those situations," she says. "Almost so I could read them back and make my opinions. I was interested in reality-checking through writing. Naming what had happened with Owen was particularly healing," she says.
Owen, her teenage boyfriend, first "forced himself" on her when she was 14. He was 16 at the time and later had sex with her when she was too drunk to refuse.
"I wish someone had explained to me that I owed him nothing," she writes. "Why did my 15-year-old self not scream at the tops of her lungs? Who had taught me not to scream? I hated myself … I didn't tell anyone what had happened that weekend with Owen. This is what you do. This is the beginning of how you forget."
"That was nonconsensual sex," she says today. "I was so young. I hadn't even had sex before. So many young women I know, their first early sexual experiences border on nonconsensual." It is familiar. Many of my fiercely feminist friends — women in their 20s and 30s — suffered traumatic sexual experiences that they were able to talk about only years later. Admitting that they are a victim removes the agency, independence and power they have fought hard to attain. They remain silent because of, not despite, their feminism.
"These were the experiences I didn't want to look at," she says, "because they made me feel out of control of my own life and I was afraid of acknowledging that. I didn't sit down to write a list of the traumatic events in my life. At all. But there were experiences that I had a lot of shame around and there is this validation that comes with people reading it and recognising your experience as being real and it existing."
Ratajkowski recently had her first child, Sylvester, who is now rolling on his tummy and trying to form words. Motherhood made her realise her "distrust" of medical professionals — gynaecologists, midwives, doctors. "I think it's related to my experience with using my body as a model," she says, "because of the way that I've experienced people in positions of authority who have dealt with my body on sets, who cared about their own ego rather than my wellbeing."
Pregnancy and childbirth also forced her to capitulate. "As somebody who is always searching for control, all of a sudden I was completely out of control of my body. Every day you have something else happening and you don't know what's going on. I was especially nervous about childbirth, but I knew that the only way to have a successful birth and for my body to be able to open up was to just surrender to it. That was a transforming experience for me."
She has also turned her hand to art dealing — by way of revenge. In 2014 the artist Richard Prince printed one of her Instagram posts on a canvas and sold it for $90,000. As a response, Ratajkowski bought another of his artworks of her in the same series, hung it on her wall and photographed herself standing in front of it.
She made the resultant image into a non-fungible token (NFT), a digital file that was sold through the auction house Christie's. Titled Buying Myself Back: A Model for Redistribution, it sold for $175,000 after fees in May. Each time it is resold in the future, Ratajkowski will receive a cut. Christie's said the NFT "reinstates Ratajkowski's agency over her own image by allowing her access to its monetary and symbolic value, which she and other women in similar professions have too often been deprived of".
Politically active, Ratajkowski has campaigned for Bernie Sanders (with the hashtag #HotGirlsForBernie), marched for Black Lives Matter and was arrested while protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. How does she define her feminism now? "I don't define feminism. I don't have an answer to that. I used to love to answer that question and now I actually don't know, I am really confused. I would like to try and figure that out. Of course, I still define myself as a feminist. I'm interested in female equality and liberation and thinking about the ways that we haven't gotten there yet."
She no longer subscribes to "choice feminism" — the belief that any individual actions or decisions a woman takes are inherently feminist — which she aligned herself with in the years after the Blurred Lines video. "I think that came out of defiance and a feeling of, I don't want to have to be told what to do, if I want to get naked or wear something sexy, that's a feminist act because I've made that choice. I just don't feel that way now because those choices are informed by the system we are functioning within. We have to acknowledge the power structures and dynamics at play before we call things liberation."
So here we are, both as unresolved as each other, in a right old tangle about empowerment and nudity and control and sex and what it all means. Ratajkowski's body has given her the career that has allowed her to write about how her body has been exploited in that career. "I would never tell a young woman not to model because I have had the success and the financial success to be able to buy myself time to write this book," she says. "And I have the ability to have this book be talked about in a way that an unknown writer wouldn't — and that's power. And that came through commodifying my image and my body."
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski is on sale now.
© The Times of London