Photographs by Terry Richardson
Which came first, I ask Charlotte Free, the attitude or the superhero surname? “It’s my real name!” she laughs. “All my family are crazy Frees. It’s something I take a lot of pride in. Since I was a tiny kid, people were always saying, ‘You’re a free spirit.’ I couldn’t think of a better word to define me.”
Charlotte Free has bright pink hair and unshaven armpits. Not so strange for a teenager making electronic music, staying out all night clubbing and playing video games; slightly more unusual for the supermodel of the moment, walking for Vivienne Westwood and Chanel, shooting for Vogue, V and Wonderland. There’s even a Fuck Yeah Charlotte Free Tumblr fan page, where teenage girls (and probably grown women) around the world lust over her “yeah, so what?” style.
And Free is for real. There’s no crack styling team behind her punky hairdo. “I’ve had pink hair since I was 15,” she says in her sleepy Californian accent. So is it a punk statement? “It wasn’t really about that. Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted rainbow hair.”
Free, now 19, grew up in the suburbs of LA, and you get a sense of a bohemian, rather laissez-faire upbringing. She describes her family as “working people” who are highly intelligent and creative. Her teens were spent going out dancing to electronic music, getting into trouble and “being wild”. Did her parents mind? “My parents met while they were out. They’ve always been heavily involved in the music community, so it was kind of inevitable that I would inherit that.”
A year and a half ago, a photographer spotted her in an arcade playing video games – a story that could come straight from a Lana Del Rey song. He took her to the IMG offices in New York and said, “This girl with pink hair is going to be a model.” They signed her straight away.
But the fashion industry isn’t about being free. Models are clothes horses, pummelled into shape to suit the whims of bookers, designers, make-up artists and hair stylists. I ask Free if she thinks she can survive. “I’m strong, and I’ve become stronger. I’ve turned down jobs because they’ve told me to bleach my hair. I shouldn’t have to. If they don’t like me, they can find another blond, blue-eyed girl – there’s thousands of them.” So she really won’t lose her pink hair? “I might stop dyeing it because it’s in pretty poor condition. I may go blond again, but it will be because I want to.”
Free knows that women’s hair is a battleground, and she’s fighting for control on all fronts. The photographer Terry Richardson recently posted some photos on his website: close-ups of Free, pink-lipsticked, tongue out, arms in the air and armpits defiantly unshaven. It’s a powerful image. Is it a feminist statement? “Absolutely!” Free says, shocked that I would wonder. “It’s an equal rights thing. It’s ridiculous that women have to shave their armpits and legs every day. I don’t have time. I think it’s asinine that men have this standard that women should be perfectly shaven.” But how can she keep it up in fashion? “I only shave them once in a blue moon for a really big job. I like to keep my body hair. It’s a symbol of how I’m not going to conform to something that’s so ridiculous.”
Free insists she won’t compromise her beliefs. “I’m not scared of anyone. I stand up for other girls in the industry. If I see someone taking pictures backstage, I’ll grab their camera, expose their film or delete all the photos. If you’re taking photos of 16-year-old girls naked, you will not get away with it. It’s paedophilic.”
But if the fashion industry gets sick of her attitude, does she has a plan B? “I don’t know. I love science and I’ve always wanted to study botany, but before modelling I had nothing. I had no money, I wasn’t doing anything. Even so, I’ve always told myself I would go back to that if it meant being able to stand my ground. Nothing is worth changing who I am, or doing something I don’t feel I should do.
What makes a good model?
Someone who can be themself.
What have you eaten today?
I haven’t eaten yet because I haven’t had a chance. I’m going to pig out this afternoon. I eat a lot of pizza and fast food, I don’t weigh myself and I don’t diet. I don’t think my weight matters.
What is the worst thing anybody has said to you?
Vice magazine posted that I had only a week or two left because I looked so thin that I would die. I got in touch with the writer on Facebook and told them personally that was a wrong thing to do.
Who is your favourite designer?
I love Vivienne Westwood. She’s original and a good person.
• Interview by Becky Barnicoat