With the world watching, model, actor and social media phenom Emily Ratajkowski makes her mark on fashion, film and feminism.
Long before Emily Ratajkowski writhed her way into the pop-culture psyche in the music video for Robin Thicke’s 2013 summer anthem “Blurred Lines,” her mother predicted a far different career path for her daughter. “When people wanted me to sign with an agency or get head shots when I was 3 years old, [my mom’s] comment was, ‘She’s going to be a brain surgeon. Stop,’” recalls the 25-year-old. “It was always her message to me that ‘You are more than the way you look,’ but also, ‘You never have to apologize for or feel embarrassed for the way you look,’ which I think is really important, too.”
“I wasn’t aware that it was necessarily feminism that [my mom] was instilling in me, but, that’s definitely what it was, and that came very early in my life.”
Ratajkowski ended up in front of the camera after all, yet her mother’s philosophical leanings still play a defining role in her career, as a model, actor and social-media star who uses her voice to speak out on issues from body shaming to Planned Parenthood. “I wasn’t aware that it was necessarily feminism that [my mom] was instilling in me, but, that’s definitely what it was, and that came very early in my life.” Consider her a modern-day feminist: one who is as likely to pose in a topless—albeit censored—Instagram selfie alongside Kim Kardashian as she is to hit the campaign trail with Bernie Sanders in the name of female voters. (At a rally in New Hampshire, she took on feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who accused young women backing Sanders of simply seeking male attention with their support.)
“I’m really politically active, and have been my whole life,” explains Ratajkowski in between sips of coffee on set for her cover shoot in Malibu. Makeup-free with her hair pulled back in a loose pony-tail, the doe-eyed brunette is as strikingly beautiful as she is instantly likable. “If I wasn’t a public figure, I would still be Tweeting articles and maybe everyone would be less sensitive,” she says, in reference to the flak for which she is an occasional target. Some argue her battle against the objectification of women at odds with her public embrace of her own nudity. “But I think it’s really important to use your platform. Also, that’s just who I am,” she explains. Her February essay “Baby Woman” for Lena Dunham’s influential Lenny Letter outlines her views on sexuality and womanhood (“To me, ‘sexy’ is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated…Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up?” she writes) and has earned praise from the likes of feminist author Naomi Wolf.
With two globe-trotting parents in academics, Ratajkowski’s broad worldview came into focus at an early age. Dad, John David Ratajkowski, is an artist and teacher, and mom, Katherine Balgley, is an English professor who gave birth to Ratajkowski during a teaching stint in London. The family returned to California as Emily was entering kindergarten, but continued to vacation in Ireland, where the Ratajkowskis got together with friends and purchased two dilapidated farmhouses that they restored (now retired, her parents live there half the year). “It was great for me because it helped me to find who I was, not by the place where I’m from and the environment that I’m in, but for who I am in all these different spaces,” concludes Ratajkowski of her childhood summers in Europe. “It just gives you so much perspective.”
Ratajkowski, the new face of Amore & Sorvete swimwear, identifies as a California girl (“I say ‘gnarly,’’’ she jokes), the result of her formative years in a beach town outside San Diego—“a small good-feeling community.” At a public high school—where PE classes included surfing and skateboarding—a young Ratajkowski immersed herself in journalism, theater and the arts (Dad also happened to be the art teacher). Modeling was a natural byproduct of acting for the 5-foot-7 stunner, who signed with agents in both fields in Los Angeles at age 14—and landed modeling gigs and small acting roles for the likes of Nickelodeon shortly thereafter. “I was still in school, which was really important to me and my parents, but it was great because I was able to come up to L.A. a couple times a month and make money.”
Upon graduating high school, Ratajkowski considered a writing program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, but ultimately enrolled in an art program at UCLA, where she could simultaneously focus on her career. “I was 18 and a lot more jobs were coming in because I always looked older. It was good, but there was this awkward phase where it was like, ‘Well, she looks like a 21-year-old with a full body and everything, but it’s weird to cast her when she’s 16.’ At 18, it was more comfortable.” A year later, Ratajkowski put school on hold. “I felt like, ‘OK, I’m getting this art education but I could be making a lot of money.’”
The ascent to sex-symbol status happened almost overnight in 2013 with her star turn in the music video for Thicke, and later, for Maroon 5’s “Love Somebody.” Film roles began pouring in, from Ben Affleck’s mistress in Gone Girl (2014), to a fictionalized version of herself in Entourage (2015), to Zac Efron’s love interest in We Are Your Friends (2015). Ratajkowski just wrapped on the ’80s-set indie romance flick Cruise, in which she plays a Jewish girl from Long Island who infiltrates the hot-rod scene in Queens, before heading to London to film the psychological thriller In Darkness alongside Natalie Dormer.
Meanwhile, Ratajkowski is bound for the small screen in the Netflix comedy-drama series Easy directed by Joe Swanberg, premiering this month. She is also set to appear as a guest judge in the new season of Bravo’s Project Runway—a show that she fondly remembers watching in high school that’s now entering its 15th season. “I thought there was going to be some trick to it, like they already know [who wins], but it’s totally what it is, 100 percent,” she says, pleasantly surprised by the show’s authenticity.
When she’s not working, expect to find Ratajkowski at dinner parties with friends or exploring the art gallery scene in her Downtown Los Angeles neighborhood, usually with her boyfriend, musician Jeff Magid, to whom she has been linked since 2014. “I keep a low profile,” she admits. “The worst feeling is when you’re at a restaurant and really feeling comfortable with your friends and then all of a sudden people are looking at you and taking your picture.” For those wanting a true glimpse into Ratajkowski’s world, there’s her Instagram account, @emrata, which claims a following equal to the population of a small European country (7 million and counting). Here, fans are regularly treated to her jet-set adventures, not to mention a steady stream of skin-baring snaps.
Despite her best efforts to avoid reading stories about herself online (“click bait is real!” she laments), curiosity often gets the better of her—especially when her mom starts asking questions about stories she’s read. “It [would be] weird if I didn’t know what she was talking about. Or someone on set will say, ‘Oh, I saw that thing blah, blah, blah,’ or ‘I saw those pictures of you’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what is that?’ So, I do Google myself. I can’t help it.”
What she has mastered, however, is the ability to nurture successful careers in modeling and acting simultaneously—ones that promise longevity. “I think maybe 20 years ago it was harder for a model to be accepted as an actress. Everything is so interdisciplinary now,” she says. She may not be saving lives as her mother once envisioned, but she’s carving out a remarkable one of her own.
Photography by Beau Grealy.
Styling by Alison Edmond.
Written by Lesley McKenzie.