Nuevo Culture

Girl Interrupted: The Education of Kaia Gerber

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“For a long time, I thought my face and my body had more to say than I did, because that’s what people thought of me,” Kaia Gerber says. At only 19, Gerber is one of the most successful models in the world and so, to many, a highly controlled, highly burnished product sold to millions on Instagram and beyond. On the gorgeous early-spring day when she and I meet at the reservoir at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, which we are set to loop around, accompanied by Gerber’s enthusiastic rescue mix Milo, her manner is preternaturally poised, that of a remarkably tall and beautiful child who has learned early in life how to talk to adults. Who is Kaia Gerber, really? With a smile or a glance, a well-placed word or a keen observation, she will signal that she is thinking hard about that very question—and beginning to come up with some answers. “I always wanted to be good and easy, not to make trouble,” she says, “but when you do that, you sometimes end up losing your voice.”

Play It as It Lays
For Kaia (far left, in a Polo Ralph Lauren dress) and her brother, Presley (far right), the Malibu compound of their parents, Rande Gerber and Cindy Crawford (both center), has been a haven. “I’m not blind to the fact that we’ve been incredibly blessed,” she says.  In this story: hair, Lucas Wilson; makeup, Pati Dubroff. 
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

Gerber is aware that she has been lucky during a merciless year. She’s had her parents’ house in Malibu, for one thing. “We have a sort of compound with a garden, and a big lawn, and the beach that we could go to every day,” she says. “I’m not blind to the fact that we’ve been incredibly blessed.” Gerber and her brother, Presley, who is two years her senior, have grown up in the seemingly picture-perfect circumstances of Southern California royalty. Their parents are the entrepreneur Rande Gerber, who counts among his endeavors the Casamigos tequila brand, founded with good family friend George Clooney, and Cindy Crawford, one of the most iconic American supermodels of the past half century, whose likeness to her daughter has been a popular subject for clickbait listicles ever since Gerber began modeling. Still, emotionally speaking, Gerber’s last months have been ones of change and transition. “I was always so concentrated on work, and suddenly that was gone. And so for the first time, I could no longer focus on everything outside,” she says. “I was forced to go internal. Work was always a really easy excuse not to do that.”

La Piscine
Gerber flits and floats through her parents’ pool in Malibu.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

She was only 13 when she began modeling—shooting for Italian Vogue with Steven Meisel and posing alongside Presley for a CR Fashion Book portfolio by Bruce Weber. As her career kicked into high gear a couple of years later, Gerber transitioned to an online course load at Malibu High, the local public school she and her brother both attended, walking distance from Zuma Beach, where kids would tote surfboards to class, as if in a real-life version of a Beach Boys song. She became an instant runway sensation. “When Kaia started to model, she jumped right into it, loved it, and immediately wanted to do everything,” Crawford tells me by phone from Malibu. “I was very protective at first, and I traveled with her to fashion month. But Kaia has her head on straight.”

Family Ties
Gerber started modeling in her young teens. “I was very protective at first,” Crawford says. “But Kaia has her head on straight.” Gerber wears a Prada bandeau top, skirt, and shoes. Crawford wears a Ralph Lauren Collection shirt.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

Gerber is quick to insist that even as a young teen, she was the driving force behind her career. And yet extreme youth had its drawbacks. “My dad would call me when I’d be in Paris and be like, ‘Do you want to come home?’ At the time I thought I was fine, but now I look back to 16-year-old Kaia and I’m like, ‘Come home!’ ” She pauses, the gravel crunching underneath our feet, the eager Milo straining at his leash. (“Yeah, bud, I know! It’s really exciting,” she murmurs.) “And I found myself in situations where I was, like, I actually don’t have the life experience that I need to handle this.” When I ask her what she means, she thinks for a moment. “It could be something as small as knowing how to take the bus from the flight to the terminal,” she finally says. “Or, I remember, when I started traveling alone, in Paris, my driver had to check me into my hotel room—I couldn’t even do it on my own.” When I wonder if she is also talking about matters of emotional maturity, she pauses again. “You know, I was doing fashion month, but I was so young I had kissed, like, only one person. I had never had a high school sweetheart or anything. And so I tended to date older people because those were the people I was around. And I got put in situations where one day I’d wake up and be like, How did I get here? I have no idea what I’m doing, and I need help. And being able to ask for that help was amazing. That’s what real growing up means, not being afraid to ask.”

Gerber is palpably guarded talking about all this and is hard-pressed to go into further specifics, and who could blame her? The last couple of years have seen the public interest in her and her family roar to a crescendo. In the fall of 2019, soon after she turned 18, it was reported that she was dating Pete Davidson, the then-26-year-old, heavily tattooed Saturday Night Live comedian and actor who has gained a reputation as a troubled lothario. If you’re inclined to believe the gossip sites, Davidson reportedly entered treatment around the time he and Gerber broke up. Presley, too, attracted increasing tabloid attention after he was arrested for a DUI at the end of 2018, and later got a face tattoo under his eye that read, misunderstood. “So many people have difficult teen years with their kids, and we thought we’d kind of skated through that period,” Crawford tells me. “And a little later, it hit us in ways we didn’t necessarily expect. But you just have to let your kids fly and be there to pick them up if they fall. My husband, who has a great perspective, always tells me, ‘Cindy, this too shall pass.’ ”

Paw Patrol
Clad in a prettily printed slip dress by Marc Jacobs, Gerber plays with Layla and Milo, her new puppies. Ariel Gordon Jewelry necklace.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

“One thing I learned is that I have to let go of my need to be a straight-A student across every aspect of my life,” Gerber says. She waits patiently for a panting Milo to finish a round of sniffs with a nervous Chihuahua named Kyle (“Hi, Kyle! Look, Milo, he’s just like you!”) and then continues. “Once I realized that I am going to mess up, I learned to be more forgiving of myself.” Journaling every day has helped, as have therapy, meditation, yoga, and breath work. She’s also trying to create a space of openness with people in her life. “So many conversations I used to have were so surface level, and I just don’t believe in that anymore. Now I’m more, like, ‘Hey, nice to meet you; what’s your deepest fear?’ ” She laughs. “I’m a trusting person. There were moments I’d be going through a hard time, and people would ask me how I was, and I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m good.’ Now it’s more, like, maybe the person I’m talking to is also having a bad day, and we can talk about it. If we close ourselves off, a lot of things get buried.”

One Word: Plastics
“She just has a way of subconsciously entertaining the entire room,” says the singer and model Charlotte Lawrence (far right), a close friend of Gerber’s. Another friend, Luka Sabbat, is at far left. Comme des Garçons coat and skirt.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

Since September, Gerber has been dating Jacob Elordi, the 23-year-old heartthrob and star of HBO’s edgy teen drama Euphoria; and though she has gestured at the relationship only briefly and obliquely, posting a very few mentions of Elordi on her Instagram, the paparazzi have been relentless in documenting the couple, whether en route to the gym or grabbing a smoothie. (“Kaia, are you engaged to Jacob?” a photographer can be heard yelling in one video, in which Gerber is seen leaving the West Hollywood members’ club the San Vicente Bungalows, attempting to cover her face as she walks grimly to her waiting car. She looks like a dignified gazelle.) I ask her if her desire to open up has to do with her new relationship. “Being able to be with someone I trust, where we don’t want anything from each other, having a safe, steady relationship like that, has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of love and what it feels like to love without conditions,” she says. “Lust is touching other people or wanting them, but love is really seeing someone.” She now splits her time between her parents’ place in Malibu and Elordi’s house in the Hollywood Hills.

We take a turn, and the Hollywood sign, which overlooks the reservoir, is suddenly revealed; a flock of birds rises over the water in unison, a perfect formation against the blue sky. “I started so young that people weren’t expecting me to have an opinion about things, and I was fine with that, because I didn’t feel comfortable enough in who I was,” Gerber says. “But when I got a little older, I started to wait for someone, especially in interviews, to ask me something other than ‘What are three items in your purse?’ I was like, ‘You’re not asking Adam Driver that, right?’ I was waiting to be invited to speak. Eventually I invited myself. And that was a really freeing feeling.”

One way in which Gerber has been able to express herself recently is through her Instagram book club, an endeavor she began in early lockdown. She had always loved to read, and when she moved to New York after high school, she began to see it as a way to further her education, visiting bookstores almost daily and asking friends for recommendations. (College had been a dream of hers—“I was one of those kids in preschool who thought they’d go to Columbia one day”—but she’s not worried about missing out. “I can always go,” she tells me. “I have no problem with being a 50-year-old in college.”) Her literary whisperers range from Lena Dunham to the writer and Freud-family scion Jonah Freud, who, she tells me excitedly, is about to open a bookstore in London. “I would bring books backstage to shows,” she says, “and some people would act surprised, which I always found interesting. I was like, ‘Why is it crazy to believe that I’m a reader?’ ” Since last spring, she has been hosting book discussions on Instagram Live, where she is joined each time by a guest. These have included the writer Jia Tolentino, the novelist Raven Leilani, the Normal People actor Daisy Edgar-Jones, and more. In a recent piece, the New York Times identified Gerber as part of a wave of “fresh-faced mega-influencers using Instagram to share literary life with millions of eyeballs”—efforts that have been bolstering book sales. Gerber’s topics have ranged from sexual trauma to LGBTQ sexuality and the ennui of modern life. The writer Lauren Oyler, whose novel, Fake Accounts, answers to the last category, tells me that she was surprised but pleased when Gerber was recently photographed with it. “There’s a strain of thought that says it’s terrible that books have seemingly become accessories in a kind of Instagram-­inflected way,” she says. “But I think it’s great for beautiful people with charmed lives to be exposed to what is sort of a difficult, ultimately pretty depressing novel, because there isn’t a lot of that perspective in mainstream American culture right now.”

All In Good Fun
Gerber wears a Bottega Veneta fringed dress and boots. Van Cleef & Arpels earrings. Comme des Garçons coat. Alexander McQueen dress and boots.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

Recently Gerber has also begun educating herself about contemporary politics. Last summer, she attended Black Lives Matter protests, and for her book club she has chosen readings that explore the complexities of race in America, such as Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play, which was a Broadway sensation, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. “In the past, I stayed away from getting political because I didn’t want to speak about things I wasn’t knowledgeable about. But this year, I really had an opportunity to learn,” she says. While she has always been suspicious of the term influencer, she tells me, she’s started to see visibility as a kind of gift. “Kaia wants to better herself through reading and through being part of a community,” says the designer Stella McCartney. “And she wraps all of those responsibilities up in a way that still makes young girls want to be like her. I think the thing about Kaia is she understands her privilege, the access to influence through her platforms, and her voice as a young woman. She doesn’t shy away from that responsibility, but embraces it.” Harris, who has become friends with Gerber, appreciates her desire to expand her grasp of the world around her. “People are so quick to be cynical, which means that they’re more comfortable with Kaia just remaining static, in the position of the wealthy white girl of pedigree. But when I met her, I saw someone so curious and excited about learning, about not always looking like the smartest person in the room, about complicating her understanding of her own socioeconomic and racial positioning,” he tells me. “She’s decided to be an autodidact in public, and it’s really admirable because when you do that, you risk potential failure.” Gerber is in no way interested in seeming perfect. “I want moms to be happy that their daughters look up to me, but being a real role model means also being a real human,” she says, her young face serious.

Triple Threat
Left: Gerber wears a Versace dress, tights, and shoes. Tom Ford earring. Center: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress, necklace, and boots. Right: Stella McCartney jumpsuit and boots.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

She is also pursuing new professional challenges. On the day I meet with Gerber, the mega-producer Ryan Murphy has just announced on Instagram that he has cast her for a role in his anthology series American Horror Story. (In a comment on Murphy’s post, Gerber wrote, “If I’m dreaming this don’t wake me up.”) “I wanted to be an actress really bad when I was growing up,” Gerber tells me. “I was into musical theater. My poor family, they had to come to so many productions. They came to five shows of The Wizard of Oz where I only played a tree, bless their hearts.” (Crawford says that Gerber, in fact, played the lead in a fifth-grade production of Beauty and the Beast, one performance of which was attended by a supportive George Clooney.) When I ask her about Murphy’s show, Gerber admits that she’s “terrified. But so excited too. It’s a new chapter. And I can still do modeling, which I love.” I ask her if Elordi has provided her with any advice. “He’s a great person for me to go to because he’s gone to drama school and has years of experience that I don’t have. So I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m definitely going to be using you as a resource,’ ” she says, laughing. For his part, Murphy takes pains to note that Gerber’s connections had nothing to do with his decision to cast her. “She had one of the best auditions I’ve ever seen,” he says flatly when I speak to him on the phone. “I was so surprised that she didn’t call in any favors. You could tell that she’d just worked really hard and really got in the trenches. She wanted a challenge.” He goes on, “Not only is she a great actress, but she has star appeal, and you can’t buy that. She has a combination of strength and vulnerability that people are really drawn to. She’s an empath.”

Joy Division
The model is all pearly whites in a sculptural jacket, a dazzlingly embellished minidress and pants, and leather boots, all by Louis Vuitton. Anita Ko earring.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

A couple of hours later, I meet Gerber again at the Bourgeois Pig, a casual coffee shop that serves pub food in Los Angeles’s Franklin Village neighborhood. This time we are joined by Presley, who is, indeed, heavily tattooed, his hair freshly dyed platinum, and as soft-spoken and thoughtful as his sister. (While he too modeled in his youth, he took to it less than Kaia and is now designing a streetwear brand.) He has driven in from Malibu, where he lives in his parents’ guesthouse with his girlfriend, Sydney Brooke, and his two cats, one of them a sphynx named Mr. Beaglesworth. “Have you ever felt a sphynx before?” Kaia asks me. “It’s the weirdest…it’s just, like, skin with a little fuzz. It’s like a baby’s head, almost, or a prepubescent….”

“Like a boy when he starts getting a mustache,” Presley agrees, and the siblings laugh. “Kaia came out of the womb a genius,” Presley adds. (“Stop!” she giggles.) “She can memorize things off the bat, plus her handwriting…. Half the time I can’t even read my own handwriting. I’d come home and be like, ‘Damn, I took notes for an hour and I can’t even read this!’  ”

“If you look at our notes, you’d know everything you need to know about our personalities,” Kaia says. “I’d go home and rewrite all of my notes and color-coordinate them.” She nibbles at a fried pickle from a platter she is sharing with her brother. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this,” she says to him, “but my controlling side has calmed down a lot as I’ve grown up.”

A bit later, we are joined by a longtime friend, Charlotte Lawrence, a 20-year-old singer and occasional model. Lithe and blonde, Lawrence is a live wire, clearly the kind of pal who’d goad you into sneaking out the window to party after your parents are asleep, and in her presence Kaia becomes immediately more relaxed.

In Her Atmosphere
Surrounded by her friends (from near right) Travis Jackson, Charlotte Lawrence, and Luka Sabbat, Gerber wears an Alexander McQueen dress and boots.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

“We have lots of matching tattoos,” Lawrence tells me. “Like, we got one after going to Greece together with my family; it was the best trip ever. A tattoo of Eros. And we both have mermaid tattoos and tattoos of a glass of wine.”

“We also have tattoos of each other’s boobs,” Kaia says, showing me a small line drawing of a woman’s bare torso on her inner arm. “It’s a realistic rendering.”

“And I have a K on my finger,” Lawrence says. “Presley gave it to me!”

“Oh, yeah, I remember that,” Presley says, smiling.

“In September we tried being roommates for three weeks,” Lawrence reveals. “But on the day I moved into the house, I broke up with my boyfriend, so I was like, ‘I want to cry and party and then cry some more.’ Meanwhile, Kaia was falling in love and was like, ‘I want to just be with my boyfriend and be happy.’  ”

“It was probably the most grown-up thing we ever did,” Kaia says. “We were like, ‘We love each other; let’s part ways.’ We’ll probably still live together at some point.”

“When we’re single and old,” Lawrence says. “I want the house to be a sanctuary for her. I’m always, like, if anything is ever happening, if you guys ever have a fight, just come here.” Kaia laughs.

Leap Of Faith
Surface-level friendships have long lost their appeal to Gerber. “Now I’m more, like, ‘Hey, nice to meet you; what’s your deepest fear?’ ” she says, laughing. Left: Dolce & Gabbana top. Right: Chanel blouse and shorts.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

The girls bid farewell to Presley, and we walk over to a nearby bookstore that also offers some records and a wide selection of lightly spiritual paraphernalia—astrology guides, incense, soaps in the shape of crystals. Morrissey’s Viva Hate plays in the background, and the girls chat about their recent vintage finds, purchased from an Instagram account whose name they good-naturedly resist revealing to me, for fear that I would “blow it up.” “You haven’t commented on my shirt yet!” Lawrence says, showing Gerber her circa-1993 baby tee, emblazoned with the legend superpornstar. “It’s cute!” Gerber says. “I just got Jacob a shirt from there, too. It says, get high on jesus, and it has a Bible and a cross coming out of it.”

Lawrence begins to pick candles from a shelf, sniffing them. “KeeKee, do you want some witchy stuff?” she asks. “We could do a whole moon ritual, with tarot cards.”

“Oh, these smell so nice,” Gerber says of the candle. “It smells just like my dog, not in a bad way. He smells good!”

Laid Bare
Dolce & Gabbana top and leggings.
Photographed by Colin Dodgson, Vogue, June/July 2021

“This one is called Death,” Lawrence says, mystified.

“A nice, relaxing smell,” Gerber says. “The smell of death in the air.”

The two turn to look at the books on display. “They have a really good curation here,” Gerber says. “Ooh, I love Eve Babitz!” She picks up a Kathy Acker book. “Did you ever read Blood and Guts in High School?” she asks Lawrence.

On a shelf, I notice Touching From a Distance, a memoir by Deborah Curtis, the widow of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, and show the book to Gerber and Lawrence. “It’s good. It’s depressing,” I say.

“It’s depressing?” both exclaim in unison, reaching eagerly for the volume, two fun-loving young women who love to read sad books.

Gerber picks up Michael Shurt­leff’s Audition, the classic guide for actors. “This is a great one,” she says. “When I started getting back into acting, I read it. It has tips as simple as ‘Don’t look the auditors in the eye’ to things like, ‘How to get into the mind of a character.’ ”

“I always thought you were meant to be an actor,” Lawrence says. “She just has a way of subconsciously entertaining the entire room,” she tells me.

“That’s not true,” Gerber says. “No way.”

“It is!” Lawrence says. She looks over at Gerber affectionately. “Everyone’s eyes are always on her.” 

The Vogue June/July issue is here, featuring Kaia Gerber SUBSCRIBE NOW