Emily Ratajkowski thinks I have nice breasts. OK, maybe this is a good time for context.
Ratajkowski and I are sitting at the Whitney Biennial in the Meatpacking District of New York City. I’m trying to commiserate with her about being big-breasted — I have to wear sports bras to work, push-up anything is absurd, etc. Which is how the 26-year-old came to comment on my breasts. (Should this never happen to you, let me say that it feels a little like Mozart telling you that you’re not half bad with a harpsichord.)
Ratajkowski, I would learn, is as comfortable talking art and politics as she is about breasts and sexuality, and maybe most comfortable of all talking about the place where all of the above intersect. (“Is this a wall of vaginas?” we ask each other, approaching a large installation studded with fleshy, pale pink discs. It’s not, but boy, sure looks like it.)
As you may have surmised, the woman from the “Blurred Lines” video isn’t shy. “It really bothers me that people are so offended by breasts,” she says, as a white-haired woman, clearly eavesdropping, shoots us a punishing look. Ratajkowski is dressed like the world’s most conservative rock star — flared forest-green velvet pants and a black double-breasted jacket with her hair tucked into the back. Stevie Nicks in a boardroom. And she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about the double, triple, and quadruple takes going on around her. “That’s when I realized how fucked our culture is,” she continues. “When we see breasts, we don’t think of beauty and femininity. We think of vulgar, oversexualized images.”
But enough about boobies. We came to the Whitney to talk art. Ratajkowski chose this museum because she has friends (plural) whose pieces are featured in the exhibition and she’s been meaning to see them. She’s something of an expert: Her father is an artist, she’s an artist, and she has an impressive and eclectic collection in her Los Angeles Arts District loft, including works by Henry Taylor and Torey Thornton and a prized bronze chess set that her father made for her. We take the elevator up, and she starts schooling me: I am going to love this museum. Have I heard about how politically charged this show is? Do I know about the painting of Emmett Till? Do I know about the controversy? About Hannah Black’s letter?? No? That’s OK. She’ll walk me through it. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that she is the daughter of a former art teacher and a retired English professor.
When she speaks, Ratajkowski has this slow, smooth, SoCal lilt in her voice that kind of washes over you and lowers your blood pressure. It’s a voice that says, I know what I look like, but let’s not harp on that. Let’s just be two humans walking through a museum together.
If you’re one of the nearly half billion people who have seen the Robin Thicke video from 2013, that’s likely how you first heard of Ratajkowski. Or maybe you saw her as the young seductress in Gone Girl. Or in the Sports Illustrated 50th anniversary swimsuit issue. Or you follow her on Instagram — where you’re just as likely to see her in an endless Boomerang loop of bikini-clad booty-shaking as you are to see her brandishing a “Fuck Paul Ryan” pin. Or maybe, just maybe, you know her for her carefully penned pieces on sexuality as a form of empowerment. Or her campaign appearances for Bernie Sanders.
Or her activism in support of Planned Parenthood. If you had asked me before we met, I would have assumed she would rather be known for this. But to be honest, Ratajkowski seems perfectly happy in both worlds. “I want girls to see that you can be whatever you want. Be as specific as you want. You can like this thing and that thing, and you don’t have to feel like the world won’t understand you,” she says.
Ratajkowski is a good role model for that kind of message. I’m astounded at how many things capture her sincere interest. She loves the theater. She’s currently reading Uta Hagen and Roxane Gay. She studied art at UCLA before pursuing modeling. She wants to write essays. She wants to direct. She ponders faith and spirituality and other things that would be very easy not to ponder if you lived her life. She thinks about health care and worries about the scant Planned Parenthood clinics in Texas. I ask her what she wants her obituary to say. “Hopefully, it will say a lot of things.”
(Here’s a good time to say this. Are people surprised that a woman as beautiful as Ratajkowski can also read — and so well! — and be interested in art and participate in politics? Of course. It seems to be the narrative that always follows her. Ratajkowski has been fighting the stereotype of the dumb model from the beginning of her career. It frustrates her. Of course it does. But can you imagine what kind of brush we’d paint her with if she complained that her beauty was a curse? I’m rolling my eyes just thinking about it.)
We stop in front of the painting of Emmett Till, a thickly painted abstract piece depicting the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 — at his open-casket funeral. The controversy here is that it was painted by a white woman, Ratajkowski explains to me. “I don’t like the idea that people have to have a license to talk about issues,” she muses. “But I’m not sure how I would feel about a male painting a rape, you know what I mean? It’s a weird, tricky thing.”
Ratajkowski is almost too good of a listener, asking me questions about my upbringing, my family, my experiences. Have I seen Moonlight yet? Where in the city do I live? Her response to all of my answers is generally “That’s awesome,” but you can sense that she’s truly homing in and remembering every last detail. It is awesome, and she really means that. I’m hoping that she can teach me what makes art good. “I just really don’t believe in that. Whatever a person’s opinions are, they’re valid,” she says. We stop in front of an abstract caricature of three nude women dancing. “I really don’t love this…” She points out the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, where there are rigid stripes of lemon yellow and cerulean. “See how these colors aren’t blended? It’s so ugly. That’s something that my dad would always do. Look at the paintings within the paintings. I can’t do that with this one.”
Our tour of the museum is quick, but we see everything she wanted to hunt down, and I discover that we have similar taste in art. (Except for Pop Art, which I love, and that idea mostly just seems to amuse her. “Andy Warhol already did it,” she teases. “What else is there?”) I can tell by the way she’s taking in the experience — a sweet, content smile on her face, her eyes scanning every painting we pass — that she loves being in this building. “It’s so great, right? I’m mad at your New York friends for not taking you here sooner.”
She’s going to walk through the exhibition again now with her boyfriend, musician Jeff Magid, and maybe try to see the New Museum before she leaves for Miami tomorrow (for her Allure shoot). Then to the Cannes Film Festival. Then to Italy to film a thriller with Aaron Paul. With our last few minutes together, I ask Ratajkowski an odd favor. “I’d really like you to draw something for me,” I say. And she does the most unexpected thing: “Totally!” We settle in on a large cement bench in the center of the museum. I hand her my Moleskine and a Bic ballpoint.
“You’re moving so much,” she says, squinting at me. It’s not until she says this that I realize she’s drawing me. “It’s very poetic. You’re writing a profile on me, and I’m drawing you. Is it weird to be drawn?” (Yes. It is weird to be drawn. It’s even weirder to be drawn by a world-famous model.) She’s better at being looked at than I am. She tells me the first time she knew there was an “other” gaze was when a family friend saw her walking through the mall. The following night, this same family friend (who’d had one too many glasses of wine) told her and her mother — scandalized — that men were looking at her. “To me, any expression that is empowered and is your own as a woman is feminist. If a woman decides to dress sexy, it doesn’t mean she’s not a feminist. [We] should be doing things for ourselves. If that is the woman’s choice, and it makes her feel good, then that’s great. Good for her.”
I ask whether her perception of sexuality is maybe a patriarchal symptom — pushing back on her definition of feminism, knowing that she deals with this delicate balance a lot. Perhaps boobs are sexy because a man decided they were sexy, and so we haul them out to impress. But she doesn’t bat an eye — these two things are not related. “I found my sexuality and my identity. I found empowerment through that,” she says. Not in spite of it.
So yes. Ratajkowski is better at being looked at (she is a model, after all), but she’s also just better at seeing, and that’s where she gets that conquer-the-world itch that is so evidently brewing right under the surface. “My father taught me how to see. We don’t really look at things,” she says, presumably taking in my every pore and errant eyebrow hair as she sketches my face. “Especially now with the Internet and our phones. To look at something and take it in and really understand…it’s a huge gift.”
It’s a gift she’s not afraid to use — it’s a part of her persona. It’s evident in the way she spots mistakes in the paintings, in how she can find images within those images, in the way she writes, in the way she intently listens to my maybe-not-so-fascinating stories. “This doesn’t look like you; you’re much prettier than this,” she says apologetically, handing my notebook back.
It is, admittedly, a little crude. I look about 50 years older (and, somewhat curiously, I’m missing an eye), but you can tell that she knows how to draw. The shadows and angles are carefully considered. In her defense, I put her on the spot. I tell her I’m going to hang it in my office. (Though I still haven’t decided whether that last part is true.) We ride the elevator back down to the lobby, discussing a mutual friend and making plans for the three of us to get together for drinks one day. “I’m going to do a better [portrait] the next time we meet up,” she says. It’s the kind of thing you brush off. Emily Ratajkowski doesn’t actually intend to hang out with me. “Let’s get drinks sometime” is a thing you say to be polite, to end a conversation. She gives me a hug in the lobby. It’s time to go our separate ways.
On my way out of the museum, I text our mutual friend to let him know that we’re all going to go out for drinks soon and hahaha. “I’m sure she actually means it,” he writes back. And I think maybe she did. Ratajkowski is a curious, inquisitive person, the kind of person who engages with the world, with art, with new friends. And besides, we are, after all, sworn together in the Sisterhood of Nice Breasts.
Emily Ratajkowski transforms into Italian movie star Sophia Loren and discusses what the actress means to her.