They looked at me and said, ‘Let’s cut your hair off.’ We went back to my apartment in Paris and just cut it all off. Two guys cutting my hair at the same time. Amber Valletta
ABOVE: AMBER VALLETTA IN NEW YORK, JULY 2013. STYLING LUDIVINE POIBLANC.
INTERVIEW: You grew up in Oklahoma, right?
AMBER VALLETTA: I grew up in Tulsa, then moved to Europe to model when I was 17. Big difference.
INTERVIEW: How did you get from Tulsa to Europe?
VALLETTA: I got discovered in Tulsa at a local agency. My mom had paid for modeling classes, and some scout came through and discovered me. They asked if I wanted to come to Europe for the summer to model. I didn’t even really know what that meant. I just wanted to go to Europe. So I went with another girl and her mom. Luckily, I had already traveled to Europe twice before I finally moved out at 17. In retrospect, I wish I had spent one more year at home. But my career was starting and people were calling and I kept getting pulled out of school to work anyway. It was like the call of the wild—I just couldn’t not go anymore.
INTERVIEW: What was your first really big job?
VALLETTA: It was an advertorial for Italian Vogue. I cried on set because I didn’t know what to do. That was two weeks after being in Milan for the very first time. I think I had one or two test shoots there. The other big break would have been a cover of French Elle with Hans Feurer. Then I cut my hair short and it basically changed everything overnight. I was about 18 when I cut my hair off—the little pixie haircut.
INTERVIEW: What prompted the new haircut?
VALLETTA: Nobody had short hair at the time. The waif thing hadn’t even started. I was working with a well-known hairdresser, Yannick d’Is, on a French beauty campaign and had a bob down to my chin. I was working all the time but I hadn’t done shows or real editorial work. So I said to him, “Let’s cut my hair off! He looked at me and was like [mock French accent], “Why? How old are you?” I told him I was 18 and his eyes almost popped out of his head. He was like, “Oh my god, I thought you were so much older because of your haircut!” So, not too long after that, I was on castings for the shows, and I bumped into him and Ward Stegerhoek—another big-time hairdresser—and they looked at me and said, “Let’s cut your hair off.” We went back to my apartment in Paris and just cut it all off. Two guys cutting my hair at the same time. And then literally overnight everything changed. I worked with Steven Meisel within a month and a half and I booked every show. Then I got a Vogue cover—my first Vogue—and that came out a few months later.
INTERVIEW: Was there anyone taking you under their wing at the time?
VALLETTA: My agent, Didier Fernandez—who’s been my agent since I was 18—has definitely been a mentor and a protector and a trusted friend. There have been a few people in the business: Paul Cavaco and Garren Defazio, both of whom I call “Papa.” Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel, for sure. Those guys were great mentors. Carla Bruni was the first girl to say hello to me at a shoot. And then Christy and Naomi and Linda all kind of shepherded us and were good to us. We’d all hang out and get into trouble and stuff like that.
INTERVIEW: It’s nice to know that all the models were running around together having a good time.
VALLETTA: We did! It was like a sorority. We got up to some serious shenanigans.
INTERVIEW: What was your family in Oklahoma’s reaction to your sudden fame?
VALLETTA: There were different reactions. One of my little brothers felt that I had left him. My mom was proud but very hands off. She didn’t really know enough about the industry, and she didn’t have the time to stop her life to go chaperone me. I think she trusted me and … Well, she was probably a little naïve. I think my dad was proud. My stepdad was definitely proud. I had weird reactions from other family. One of my half-sisters just couldn’t deal with it. I think she saw me as someone she had a hard time relating to. We’re super-close now, but I probably came home from Europe with weird opinions and attitudes and weird clothing. I probably looked so different to her, and I couldn’t show up for things she would have liked me to. My life picked up speed, and I couldn’t really stop the momentum.
INTERVIEW: If you hadn’t become a model, what do you think you would have done instead?
VALLETTA: I thought of doing many things. I wanted to be an archeologist at one point, but I was a little kid. I wanted to be a social worker. I don’t think I really had any idea. I don’t even know what would have happened to me had I not become a model. I don’t know if I would have gotten out of Oklahoma. I was so young when things started happening for me and I realized I could make a living. After the first summer modeling, I came home with almost as much money as my mom made in a year—after being away for about two months. I just decided to give it a shot, and if it didn’t work, I was going to go to college.
Amber has the ability to transform beautifully into any role. Her charisma and timelessness make her such an inspiration. Jason Wu
INTERVIEW: Model-turned-actress isn’t a foreign concept, but how hard has that transition been?
VALLETTA: It was hard to be taken seriously. I needed to work on my acting chops. There are so few parts available that are good for women, you know? I’m not going to complain about it. I feel like I’ve gotten whatever was meant to come to me and I feel really blessed. I have a new show that starts filming in January called Legends, from Howard Gordon, the executive producer of Homeland and 24. So that’s pretty exciting. It’s a regular part. But yeah, I definitely think that being a model makes it more difficult to be taken seriously. And I understand. I don’t take it seriously sometimes. You can’t. [laughs]
INTERVIEW: It was hard not to notice in your filmography that early on in your acting career, you were in a TV movie about Def Leppard [Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story, 2001].
VALLETTA: I know. It’s hilarious! So many bad wigs.
INTERVIEW: Bad wigs sound delicious.
VALLETTA: It is kind of genius, actually.
INTERVIEW: And you were also a host on MTV’s House of Style in 1996.
VALLETTA: God, yeah. I don’t even want to go there.
INTERVIEW: Come on. That’s how a lot of America got its first taste of fashion. Do you have good memories of that show?
VALLETTA: I had a blast because I was with Shalom Harlow, my best friend in fashion, but it was not a good period for me, personally. So we’ll put it this way, I wasn’t always present for that, even though my body was there. If I could do a do-over, I would. But I’m grateful to have had the experience.
INTERVIEW: What was the scariest thing you’ve ever been asked to do on a photo shoot?
VALLETTA: Just recently they had me on the top of the new Freedom Tower, in a construction elevator that was on the outsideof the building. I hate heights.
INTERVIEW: Is there something you are a lot better at now than when you were younger?
VALLETTA: Letting go. Moving on. Not taking things so personally.
INTERVIEW: On Twitter you describe yourself as being a “hometown girl, occasional party crasher, hockey mama, fashion renegade.” Hockey mama?
VALLETTA: Oh yeah. I’m obsessed with hockey and my son’s a big player. I spend a lot of time driving to the ice rink and I’m a huge Los Angeles Kings fan. So, yeah, I’m a hockey mama—a cool hockey mama.
INTERVIEW: You Instagram pictures of your dogs a lot. How many dogs do you have?
VALLETTA: We have two. Two little rescue crazies! They’re mutts. One’s a beagle rat terrier; he looks like a beagle weenie-dog. The other one is a little chug; she’s half Chihuahua, half pug.
INTERVIEW: Did you always like modeling? Did you realize right away that modeling was something that you were good at?
VALLETTA: Yeah. I knew I liked art. I knew I liked photography. I remember seeing photos of Linda Evangelista in Italian Vogue as a teenager, and at the time I didn’t know who she was. There were two photos—one shot by Fabrizio Ferri and another one by Steven Meisel. I didn’t know who any of those people were. I think it was the first summer I was modeling, I saw these magazines sitting out and looked at them. I remember thinking, These are the kind of images I want to make. My mom had photography books back home, so I knew a little about photography, but when I saw those images, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know they were high fashion, I just knew I that wanted to make those kind of images.
INTERVIEW: And then you did.
VALLETTA: I guess storytelling’s always been in my blood. My mom said I was always dressing up and jumping in front of the camera and putting on plays. There must be a part of me that has to express that. If we were living in prehistoric clans, I’d probably be sitting by the campfire taking two stones and showing you how dinosaurs were chasing us. [laughs] I’d be the one finding a way to communicate and perform.
For more from our Model Issue, click here.