For John Casablancas, an Italian restaurant in Stockholm was Schwab's Drug Store, and a high school girl checking coats was Lana Turner. "You know, you could be a model," said Casablancas, the founder of Elite Model Management and the firm's chairman of the board, to the tall 17-year-old with long brown hair and piercing blue-green eyes who checked his coat one evening in 1973.
"Yes, sure I could," said the girl, who had learned English in school.
At the time, Lena Maria Kansbod had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, but modeling hadn't even crossed her mind. If she was beautiful, she says, then Casablancas was the first to inform her of it.
"I wore glasses and had two chipped teeth," she said recently in the dining room of the Prince de Galles hotel in Paris. "There were lots of girls prettier than I." Well, maybe—it was Sweden, after all. But Casablancas persisted, and eventually he spoke to Kansbod's father, Sten, a no-nonsense engineer.
February 7, 1989
"John wanted me to come to Paris and give it a try," she says. "My father thought I'd end up in a harem in Arabia." Where she did end up, after Sten was finally persuaded to turn her loose "with a red suitcase and a return ticket," was on the cover of Elle, Europe's leading fashion magazine, just a few months after she got to Paris. "I just don't have many of those desperate-model stories," says Kansbod.
"It came very easy for Lena," says Monique Pillard, president of Elite. "She was a natural."
Kansbod had moved to New York by 1976, the year she answered a call from SI swimsuit editor Jule Campbell to participate in a five-day shoot in Hawaii. "Lena was vivacious, a blithe spirit, a joy to work with," says Campbell. "The best thing about her was that she was nice to the other women. You don't always see that."
On the cover of the 1977 bathing suit issue, Kansbod lounges on an orange beach chair beside the cover billing ZOWIE, IT'S MAUI! "People seem to remember it," she says, "but I don't think it has anything to do with me. It was more the 'zowie' thing. What I remember is that the beach chair I was sitting on kept breaking. I was too heavy, I guess."
She laughs and her face reddens, as it often does. At 32, Kansbod is married to Philippe Paillette, a French business executive, and is the mother of Josephine, a two-year-old blonde—who, Kansbod says, "looks more Swedish than I do"—but she remains a beguiling mixture of child and adult. "That's what gave her her fame," says Pillard. "She had a timeless quality. She was very sexy, with the pouty lips and all that, but there was something childlike about her too."
Kansbod laughs that off, yet she can't really explain, without seeming immodest, why modeling came so easily to her. "I don't know, maybe they took me for an American," she says, throwing up her hands. 'Everyone likes American girls, you know." She laughs and her face reddens again.
After Maui, Kansbod moved easily into the Mademoiselle and Vogue world of high-fashion modeling and gained her greatest fame during the four years (1979 through '83) that she was the featured model for Revlon's Natural Wonder campaign. One photo in particular, snapped by fashion photographer Arthur Elgort, captured her essence: She kneels on a beach in a cream-colored silk shirt, her skin shimmering, looking both wise and innocent and, as Revlon desired, both natural and wonderful. "Arthur always said I was a very good 'lounging model,' " says Kansbod, "which was a nice way of saying I looked better when sitting down. The Revlon ads were perfect for me because I was a lousy runway model. I absolutely couldn't walk in high heels."
Actually, she didn't walk much anywhere. She dashed from job to job and from New York to Paris and back again, working and partying with equal intensity, burning the candle at both ends. "Work all day, go out and party, get in at 5 a.m., get up the next day and do the same thing," says Kansbod, sounding weary at the memory. "I never messed up too badly, like some of the other girls, but I wish I would've put on the brakes a little more often." It affected her work slightly, she believes—"Frankly, I was a real bitch to work with at times," she says—but she was always in demand.
Finally, about five years ago, Kansbod did take her foot off the accelerator. She had bought a farm in rural Bucks County, Pa., and she began to spend a lot of time there with Philippe, then her boyfriend, whom she had met in New York. In 1986 they married and moved to Parmain, a small village about 25 miles northwest of Paris from which Philippe could manage his sealing compounds factory.
"It was not easy for me at first," says Kansbod. "Sure, I wanted out of the crazy modeling world, but here I was in the country, with a teeny baby and a 12-year-old son [Luduvic, from Philippe's previous marriage] to take care of. I wanted to be Miss Perfect Housewife—you know, singing all day while I ran the vacuum cleaner—and it frustrated me when it wasn't perfect.
What she wants now is a "compromise life-style," one in which she can spend a lot of time "rolling around on the floor with my daughter" and model on a part-time basis. To that end she has been making calls, enduring the go-sees, getting out the word that the Natural Wonder Girl would like to be naturally wonderful again. "I don't want the cat-and-dog race," says Kansbod, tapping ashes off her cigarette, "but what I miss is the teamwork, the new experiences, the excitement, the ambience of modeling. I have to face the fact that I liked it in front of the camera.
"Obviously, I can't do what I did before. I'm too old now. In the modeling world they are always looking for the new name, the new face, the new look. I'm not new. I'd have to do advertising for computers or something like that.
"But that's fine. That's what I want. I'm putting out my tentacles. Listen, you tell them that Lena Kansbod is back!" She laughs, and, once again, her face gets red.