The supermodel, actor and activist discusses why she set her new film in Liverpool, how she shields her daughter from the public glare and what it’s like being a tech entrepreneur
By Annabel Leydon
Last year the Brontë Society appointed Lily Cole a creative partner for the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth, prompting author Nick Holland, an active member of the society, to resign. In a post on his blog, he criticised the society as wanting to appear “trendy” and “attract a younger audience” by making the appointment when the role should have gone to a writer.
He wrote: “What would Emily Brontë think if she found that the role of chief artist and organiser in her celebratory year was a supermodel? We all know the answer to that, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t fit to make the decision or have any role in the governance of the Brontë Society.”
Cole, now 30, has a double first in history of art from Cambridge University, having broken off a career that had already brought her first British Vogue cover at 16, and the model of the year accolade at the 2004 British Fashion Awards. Originally from Torquay, she made her acting debut in the remake of St Trinian’s and had her first leading role in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 fantasy film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Now she’s co-written a short film, Balls, exploring connections between the Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. She’s an activist and businesswoman.
Holland’s blog post is no longer there.
How did you get involved with the Foundling Museum and what have you discovered through your relationship with it? The museum director approached me in 2016 to ask me to be part of their fellowship programme, after I had visited the museum with my young daughter. It is a fascinating museum that reveals an extraordinary part of our history and the horrific social conditions in the 18th century, whereby 1,000-plus babies were abandoned in the streets of London every year and infant mortality was 95 per cent in workhouses.
What’s the creative concept behind Balls? The film was a collaboration between the Foundling Museum, the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and the Rapid Response Unit, produced by Fury Films and timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth.
I took the male protagonist in Emily Brontë’s book Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff, as the starting point. In the book, Heathcliff was found as a child – so a foundling – in Liverpool in the late 18th century, so I used real archival materials from the 18th century to create a fictionalised account of his origins, based on real accounts of foundling babies and their parents at the time.
Why did you film it in Liverpool?
We filmed it in Liverpool because of the connection that Heathcliff has to Liverpool: found on the streets there in the late 18th century. We know that Branwell Brontë – Emily’s brother – visited Liverpool a few months before she wrote the book, and Liverpool was a hub of the slave trade and Irish emigration, so it’s likely she chose Liverpool as his origin to reference to social and racial tensions of the time.
The Brontës used pseudonyms to gain credibility for their work. Have reactions like Holland’s ever led you to consider doing the same? I was very tempted with this film – and a book I am writing – to publish under a pseudonym, as so often people judge works based on associations or assumptions they might already have about the author, and I wanted to be able to measure honest responses. But my producer persuaded me to use my own name!
You spent some formative years under the scrutiny of the media spotlight. Would you advise your own daughter against pursuing a career in the public eye or does social media now mean everyone is scrutinised regardless? Interesting question. I don’t think social media is quite the same as being in the public eye – unless you have a very large following – although it may have different or other dangers. I have made a conscious decision not to bring her into the spotlight. I never publish photos of her face, for example, and have asked journalists to respect that, because I think it is important that she makes those choices for herself. I would probably feel nervous if she was in the public eye at a young age, but I would support her if that’s something she wanted to do. She is only three so hopefully, or maybe, social media won’t exist – or in a different form – by the time she owns a mobile phone. And hey, mobile phones might not exist either!
Have you ever felt that your occupation as a supermodel during your teenage years hindered other aspects of your life or even caused academic achievements to be overlooked? Or do you feel that your success provided you with a platform to pursue other career paths? I don’t think my academic achievements were overlooked. Quite the opposite – they tended to make the news! I think there were psychological challenges to modelling so young that I recognise more now with hindsight, but it was also a great opportunity for me to explore the world and then use that platform to pursue other interests, so I am glad it happened as it did.
You founded Impossible in 2013 as an altruistic social network in which people could trade time and expertise. It’s since morphed, but are you still hopeful that a gift economy can work and what are its main obstacles? It was difficult to financially sustain the platform as it was originally designed, which is an inherent paradox in building a technical platform to facilitate a money-free service – that is, it takes money to run! We made the code open source and it is now being used by a few communities. Meanwhile, we broadened Impossible into a technology incubator and now partner with different companies and NGOs to develop new products and services, looking for different ways to have an impact. The company Impossible is a social business, a registered B-Corp.
I still feel that the gift economy is a big part of our reality, and that we don’t necessarily need technology to enable it. The UK government says the amount of things people do for free for each other in the UK is already bigger than GDP – favours for friends, neighbours and families. That said, I do feel that isolation and lack of community are still big issues in the west, especially in big cities, and I wish we would explore other ways and tools to build and enable community.
You’re a passionate environmentalist. What do you consider to be the most pressing environmental issue right now and what single change should we be making as individuals? I am really concerned about climate change and the impact it will have on my daughter’s generation and the ones that follow. I wish there was only one issue to single out: there are so many and they are multifaceted and related.
I guess the most obvious silver bullet would be a change in political response. Most economists for example agree that a carbon tax would be a very fast and effective way to curb emissions, as it would discourage companies from polluting and incentivise consumers to buy into greener products and services, by making them cheaper. It would also help facilitate the move from fossil fuels to renewable energies. That should be happening more urgently than it is, as they would become more price-competitive.
In terms of consumer action, I do believe that the consumer is king or queen in our capitalist equation and people shouldn’t underestimate their power to have an impact with their buying choices. Switching to a green energy supplier like Ecotricity, cutting down the amount of meat and dairy one eats, buying less but better quality things so we minimise waste and landfill, trying to stop or reduce the amount of single use plastic bought – these are simple steps that, if taken by lots of people, will have a big impact. If we look at plastics as an example, there has been a tidal wave in the last year – really helped by Blue Planet – in a consumer consciousness to use less single-use plastics, like water bottles and straws, and this effect is consequently now rippling into companies and politicians’ policies. By taking green steps we signal to politicians that green policies will be popular.
At the end of the day the politicians and businessmen are just puppets playing into the hands of what ordinary people want – to buy or vote for – even if it seems the other way around sometimes.
What’s on your to-do list after Balls? I’m currently writing a book with Penguin, and would like to direct and act more. I enjoy being creative and that takes different forms.
Balls, produced by Fury Films, will be playing at the Foundling Museum, London, and at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Howarth, from August to December (lilycole.com, @lilycole). Main photo: Jessie Lily Adams
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