INTERVIEW: CELEBRATING 30 YEARS OF AMBER VALLETTA, MODEL, ACTRESS, ACTIVIST
words by LUCY BULLING • Fashion
From fronting 13 US Vogue covers during the era of the supermodel, to being the face of Saint Laurent’s Spring 2019 campaign (with an interlude in Hollywood in between), Amber Valletta has remained a beloved force in the industry for over 30 years.
Her beauty extends far beyond what you see in the magazines. As evident from our brief chat - she is honest, down-to-earth, and so very, very charming. Proven by my little interjection, it is easy to just sit back and listen to Amber share her story.
JVB: What is your secret to longevity? You have never disappeared!
Amber Valletta: I know - 30 years this year! I started when I was 15, that is more than half my life. That's 75% of my life - it’s crazy!
I think the secret is that I had a great agent in the beginning, who had amazing taste (Didier Fernandez). He taught me and instilled in me that it is better to sometimes say ‘no’ - that [some offers] were either too overexposed, or maybe they were just not the right team. ‘No’ is sometimes more powerful than ‘yes’. That was a huge lesson from the very beginning.
I always listened. I knew what I liked - in photography and style - I [knew I] always wanted to make art. Before I even started modelling I saw images from Italian Vogue with [models like] Linda...and I remember thinking: I want to take pictures like that! That's what I want to do!
My mother had an old book of Annie Leibovitz, and I would look at the images and I [just knew] I wanted to be seen in that light. I didn’t want to be the pretty girl-next-door, but the art.
My agent taught me early on who the good people were and how important it was to cultivate relationships; it was always about the long haul, not the short game. It was about making great choices - I mean obviously I haven’t always - but that message helped me so much.
I just pay attention. I don’t want to be everywhere, I don’t want to be at every event, and I want to have a lot of other things going on in my life. I mean, I will also just say I am really, really blessed with the caliber of people [I get to work with]. It's a collaboration and I can’t do it without them. They are every bit a part of my journey as I am theirs.
JVB: Are health and wellness important everyday considerations for you to remain at your best?
AV: It’s vital for me - I mean my physical health is completely linked to my mental, and without my mental health, my perception of life is not very good.
If I am doing all of the things I need to do to take care of myself: morning meditation, working out, eating well, finding ways to have fun that are not work or taking care of family - a hobby even. When I do all of those things, and keep it well balanced, then I feel very strong.
I am a self-reflective person, so if I am not feeling right I can feel it and see it very quickly. I know I kind of have to look [at myself] and adjust. I don’t do well with feeling uncomfortable for very long. Some pain I can tolerate, and some I cannot. And I hate leaving work feeling like I didn’t give my best or I am not jiving with people.
Really the basics for me are working out - my face and body are my vehicle and I have to maintain it.
JVB: My body is not my vehicle so I feel like I am basically abusing it!
AV: I did not always come to this, I have been really honest about my sobriety in the past. I’ll be sober 19 years.
In my early 20s I was reckless. I was having a lot of fun, but I was coping with depression and anxiety and just being immature. I didn’t know myself and I didn’t understand the industry - thank god I had good people, like my agent, around.
I was too afraid to ask people, what exactly their role was, what they did - I didn’t know what the people I was working with did. I think I used drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with that anxiety of not knowing what was around me.
I think to be so young also and having to be surrounded by these heavy hitters, its overwhelming for a young woman. So you turn to something to kind of get you through. For me it was always about fun - I loved it because it was fun - but [alcohol] helped me cope through the uncomfortable situations.
JVB: And endure situations...
AV: Exactly. When you’re working ten shows a day and socializing for work, you had to find a way to get through it. There was a part that was really fun - we loved to party - and I still love to party! But I just don’t do it with anything in my system.
JVB: How do you do it!?
AV: I don’t know - but I do it. Sometimes I drink a Redbull! That's my only vice. But I guess being sober gave me my life back and gave me insight into who I was as a person, and I feel no shame now. I have self-worth. I never go home and wonder [about] what I said - I don’t have the guilt or shame.
JVB: Which can be exhausting...
AV: Exactly, and who I was 20 years ago is not the same person I am today. Some of the things I said and did, I would never do today. I have more humility. Even if I am more self-confident, I feel like today I deserve the seat I am in. And that's why I work so hard on my mental health and wellness.
JVB: Have you always loved the spiritual ‘woo-woo’ thing?
AV: Yeah! My mum and Grandma were always into it. My grandma was drinking kombucha 20 years ago before anyone was doing it!
JVB: You grew up in Oklahoma - why did your mum have a book of Annie Leibovitz? How did that interest come in?
AV: She always loved photography, she was kind of young and cool - she did everything from protecting and stopping a nuclear power plant, to surviving cancer. Twice! Plus building her way up the corporate environment. I could literally tell you the images that I loved from that book - she finally gave me that book!
JVB: How did you get discovered?
AV: My mom had been told when I was little that I should start modelling, and I did always love the camera - I was always jumping in front of it and doing something goofy.
So my mother put me into a home town modelling school, but it’s not exactly what we are used to now. It was pretty funny, I mean you had to pay. [The owner] had some other models who had been to New York and it was at a time when [agency types] would go around the small towns and find new girls.
I was found by this modelling agency called Italy Models (which sounds so legitimate!). I was still in these classes that I was paying for - where they would make us do this ‘mannequin modelling’ and they would teach us how to do hair and makeup and take pictures, but my mum was such a snob about how [and who] took photos.
I [ended up going to] this casting where this guy said I was cute but I had funny ears [laughs]. But then a month later, they called me and said I could go to Italy! And with two weeks of testing, I never looked back! My first add was an advertorial for Italian Vogue.
JVB: And you still love what you’re doing, which is remarkable.
AV: I do, and even more so now that I have come back and [I am] really working again - I took [time] off to go act, [but] I have sort of put that down for a little while.
JVB: Is acting something you want to go back to?
AV: I don’t like the parts I have been given, but I would like to go back at some stage. I think.
JVB: You need the right thing to go back?
AV: And until I find the same caliber of film that I do in fashion, i just don’t want to do it.
JVB: And you learned that from your agent!
AV: I didn’t [say ‘no’] in the film industry like I did in modelling. Unfortunately, I listened to the wrong people in the film world. I never did that in modelling.
But I am a storyteller so I will continue to tell stories and I will continue to be in the arts. That is what I do; I’m not saying no, but just not right now.
JVB: Do you feel there is a certain arrogance from the film industry toward models?
AV: In the beginning, my manager literally told me I have to stop modelling, and I look back and realise that was so unfair. I didn’t need to stop doing both. I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of that.
Today, there just are not enough good parts for women. All of us are sick of playing the mistress or the pretty girl - and that’s what the industry is struggling with at the moment.
This is what we [women] are now all trying to create for each other - real stories that reflect who we are as women.
Hollywood is afraid of a beautiful woman! They used to not be, but for some reason I really do feel like they are afraid.
I wish I had been a little more ballsy in the film industry, and said I only want to do artsy or indie - I can laugh now that I am a cult classic horror film star.
A true beauty down to the core, it is no surprise Amber celebrates her 30th anniversary in the fashion industry. Pure, intelligent, and a woman who knows what she is worth and how to get it. Congratulations on a killer career XX JVB