Lily Cole: “It’s very hard to have ideals and fully live up to them. But that doesn’t mean ideals aren’t important.”

In 2010, Lily Cole received two invitations in the space of a week. One was to take part in a fashion show – the sort of high-profile catwalk parade that had helped make the then 22-year-old one of the most famous models in the world, with a multi-million pound fortune to match. The other was to visit a Burmese refugee camp. It was, by her own estimation, “a definitive fork in my path”.

A decade on, Cole has chronicled her journey down that second track in a new book, Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in a Changing World. Part manifesto, part personal dispatch from the frontline of environmental and social activism, it’s an impressively wide-ranging audit of the planet’s most pressing challenges – most notably the ‘mass extinction threat’ of climate change – that also offers an inventory of potential solutions, from conscious consumerism and ‘eco-feminism’ to geo-engineering and biodynamic farming.

As Cole sees it, we are currently living through the best of times, and the worst of times. “In terms of our huge advances in healthcare, and the social and political progress we’ve made, today is the best time to be alive for most of humanity,” she says – citing Martin Luther King’s assertion that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. “At the same time, we are facing the biggest crisis that humanity, or any species, has had to face. It’s an existential threat to our very existence. And that’s not a melodramatic thing to say – that’s a factual thing to say, when you listen to the scientists and look at the data. So there is an interesting contradiction to being alive at this time.”

For Cole, optimism is a “a choice, not a given – it’s an ideal I strive towards, even though I can get very upset or depressed, or feel like things are too difficult”. Life, she admits, has chipped away at the edges of her youthful idealism, not least through the occasionally bruising experience of Impossible, the social enterprise she founded in 2013. Expanding on her Cambridge University thesis – in which she attempted to “redefine utopia and debunk what we consider impossible” – Cole had ambitious plans to create an alternative to money based, effectively, on a ‘currency of kindness’. 

Devoting all her energies to the venture left her feeling burnt out and unwell. “I had put as much time and money into Impossible as I could afford, and it had nearly bankrupted me,” she writes in the book. “I felt the project was failing, and therefore I was failing.” (Today, Impossible has been retooled as a successful business incubator supporting a range of sustainable and ethical projects, and Lily has recovered much of her old fight.)

She was born in Devon in 1987, the daughter of Patience Owen, an artist and poet from the Welsh valleys (the irony of a girl from a long line of coal mining stock waging a one-woman war against fossil fuels isn’t lost on her) and Christopher Cole, a local fisherman. Her parents split up when she was seven weeks old, after which she and her sister Elvie were raised by their mother in London. Life wasn’t always easy: money was tight, her mum wasn’t in the best of health, and at school her striking red hair made her a target for bullies.

Aged 14, she was approached in the street by a modelling scout, going on to become the youngest British model to grace the cover of Vogue, and combining her A-levels with ad campaigns and runway shows for the likes of Chanel, Versace, Gaultier and Louis Vuitton. By her own admission, she was a material girl who embraced the fairytale. But fashion – an industry she describes as “the epicentre of consumerism” – also gave her “an unexpected gift: an education in capitalism”. For that reason, she’s in no hurry to disown her catwalk days.

“I feel grateful for the opportunities and insights it gave me, and happy with the way I tried to navigate it,” she says. “I wouldn’t undo that. I might undo particular decisions within that whole chapter of my life, but going into that world, I wouldn’t undo.”

What about her achievements as a model? Is that still a source of pride? “I don’t regularly look at Vogue covers,” she says. “But I probably do feel a sort of pride that some – not all – of the work I did was quite artistic, and I worked with some really amazing photographers and designers.”

At the height of her fame, by which time she’d already parlayed her modelling success into a Hollywood acting career, Cole embarked on a history of art degree at the University of Cambridge. It was far from a typical student life (most undergrads don’t get snapped by the paparazzi as they head to lectures) – one, she says, that involved “a kind of mental gymnastics. I made a couple of really good friends, and got to meet lots of interesting professors and hear lots of interesting ideas. [But] I already had quite a full life: I was already working, I had a relationship, lots of friends. There was a lot to try and manage outside of Cambridge, so I probably saw Cambridge quite differently to most students. It was a place to study, as opposed to a social experience.”

She graduated in 2011 with a double first – still a relative scarcity, even among the brightest brains of Oxbridge. Despite this, and her subsequent years spent as a writer, activist, filmmaker, philanthropist and entrepreneur, the shadow of her former career still lingers: when she was made a ‘creative partner’ of the Brontë Society a few years ago, author Nick Holland resigned in protest at the appointment of a ‘supermodel’. Is she worried people might bring the same prejudices to Who Cares Wins? “We’ll see when it comes out,” she says. “I’m sure [the stigma] exists. People have ill-informed opinions about everything, but I don’t think one should pay that much attention to them.”

One advantage of her fame is the ability to plug into a super-celebrity network of experts and influencers, hence Who Cares Wins featuring interviews with David Attenborough, Paul and Stella McCartney and the late Stephen Hawking, among others. “The book loosely charts my own experiences, exploring these topics, but I tried to bring in other voices and leaders in their fields,” she explains. “There are very well-known names, and also lesser known names. I wouldn’t say one is more important than the other. It doesn’t matter how famous someone is.”

While the book is filled with rigorous science and data, Cole approaches her subject with a poet’s ear: “We are made of carbon,” she writes. “We breathe it, burn it and dream of other carbon beings.” It’s also a global book, the writing of which took her from Ghana to India to San Francisco, via 10 days with the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana and a four-day trip up the Amazon. Here, she is alert to the charge of hypocrisy arising from her “jet-setting international career”.

“Travel is probably the personal contradiction I’ve struggled most with,” she admits. “I think I just naturally had a traveller’s spirit as a child. We couldn’t afford to go very far as a family, but I always yearned to travel the world, and as soon as I got the chance to do that through my work, I gobbled it up. I feel like I’ve learned so much through being aware of different cultures and belief systems. At the same time, the pace at which we’re travelling is part of the problem. My answer to that has been travelling a lot less.”

It’s hard not to be a hypocrite, living in this day and age, if you care about these issues. But it’s important to accept those contradictions, and that it’s a journey of trial and error and learning.

Lily Cole

More generally, as someone who enjoys many of the comforts of modern capitalism (with a particular weakness for “hot baths and crisps”) in the book she at pains to list her failures – her struggle to give up her mobile phone, an abortive attempt to travel by train home from Stockholm, where she’d watched Greta Thunberg speak, that ends with her sobbing on an aeroplane – and forces herself to ask the question: how much hypocrisy is too much hypocrisy?

“I try to be an honest person, and write in an honest way,” she says. “It’s hard not to be a hypocrite, living in this day and age, if you care about these issues. But it’s important to accept those contradictions, and that it’s a journey of trial and error and learning. Hypocrisy is a real thing, but at the same time it’s often used as an argument to silence people. It’s very hard to have ideals and fully live up to them, but that doesn’t mean ideals aren’t really important, because ideals will take us closer to solving these problems.”

Having seen her bank account shrink, and given away or sold many of her possessions, Cole describes herself as being on “a journey towards simplicity”. “Having very little as a child, I had this voracious appetite for stuff,” she explains. “Then, when I had access to stuff, at some point I guess I internally changed, and realised I actually appreciate minimalism and just being more mindful.”

So she subscribes to the old saw that money doesn’t buy happiness? “Oh, a hundred per cent,” she says. “I mean, you have to have the caveat that poverty is really miserable. We can’t romanticise poverty. But there are studies around that show there’s a threshold at which financial wealth tends to not make people happier. It definitely makes you happier if you’re poor – you don’t want to be struggling for survival, struggling to feed your family, doing a million jobs.

“But it’s equally misguided to think that money will make you happy. Because of course true happiness comes from many other factors, including relationships and experiences and your mental health and the way you eat and exercise… There are so many other ways to focus on what a good life might look like.”

In Who Cares Wins, Cole suggests she can “only be a good citizen, mother, sister, daughter, friend or partner if I can first find peace in happiness in myself”. How, at 32, is that working out for her?

“Again, it’s a bit like optimism – it’s an aspiration, not a given,” she reflects. “I wouldn’t say I wake up every day of my life peaceful and happy, but I’ve worked on understanding the tools that help me be more peaceful and happy.”

Has motherhood – she has a four-year-old daughter, Wylde, with partner Kwame Ferreira – contributed towards that? “On balance, it’s definitely made me happier,” she says. “If I tune into my daughter and spend time with her, it makes it much easier to be present, and I can find real joy in the simple things with her. Certainly in moments it can be stressful and challenging, but she’s a joy to be around.”

When Wylde was born, she and Ferreira drew up a “contract” on a Post-It Note, promising to divide their parenting labour 50-50. Has the contract been honoured? “Most certainly,” she says. “He’s looking after my daughter now so I can do this call with you. It was a joke, obviously – it’s not a legal contract. But it was symbolically important to set the expectations and the tone.”

Feminism – which Cole has admitted she used to consider ‘a horrible word’ – is another journey she’s been on. “I’m still quite cautious of the word,” she admits. “It’s a bit like ‘God’ – it’s a word that’s interpreted in different ways for different people. Do I believe in gender equality? 120 per cent. Do I think we’re fully there yet? No. And do I also think that men, in some ways, are less equal than women? It’s nuanced, you know? I think the aspiration towards gender equality is something that everyone would benefit from, and there’s still a way to go.”

The irony of launching a book peddling reasons for optimism against the backdrop of a global pandemic isn’t lost on its author. But even here she spies a potential opportunity. “I mean, everything is up for grabs, right?” she says. “There’s a quote from an adviser to Barack Obama [Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff], who said, ‘Never let a crisis go to waste”. It’s the idea that, a crisis is a crisis, and we can’t undo the damage that’s been caused, and is being caused. But then you ask, ‘Can we respond to this in a positive way that makes things better in the long term?’

“So, while obviously being sensitive to the fact that it’s a very difficult, challenging time for people around the world, I do see it as an opportunity. But I wouldn’t like to say what it’s an opportunity for, because we’re yet to see how it plays out.”

Who Cares Wins is published in hardback by Penguin Life, £20

Originally published in Waitrose Weekend on July 30, 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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