‘I love London’s art scene!’ - An Interview with Lily Cole

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Image © Lily Cole via Facebook

Lily Cole is a thoroughly modern British fashion icon, but she's also set her sights on the stage. We spoke to her about appearing in The Philanthropist, fashion, family and her unusual acting inspiration.

The youngest ever model to appear on the cover of Vogue - aged 16 - Lily Cole is a thoroughly modern British fashion icon. This month the multitalented London-based star appears alongside Matt Berry, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal in The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios. Here, Cole talks fashion, family and her unusual acting inspiration.

With her ethereal looks, statuesque physique and razor-sharp intellect, model-turned-actress Lily Cole is the ideal choice to play seductress Araminta in Simon Callow’s revival of The Philanthropist. Boasting an all-star cast including some of television’s best-loved comics, the play is set in an English university town, and follows 24 hours in the lives of a group of young academics, documenting their hilarious and somewhat saucy adventures. Written by Christopher Hampton, the comedy was first performed at the Royal Court in 1970 and is a riff on Moliere's The Misanthrope.

Cole admits she was drawn to the play because it was ‘brilliantly written’. “It’s witty and sharp, and I was really excited about playing such a well-developed character,” says Cole, whose other stage credits include Helen of Troy at Shakespeare’s Globe, and Nina in The Seagull at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge. “I really enjoy doing comedy, and it’s made all the better for having such a fantastic cast of experienced comedians.”

Born in Devon to Patience Owen, an artist and writer, and Chris Cole, a fisherman and boat-builder, Cole moved to London with her mother and sister after her father left the family. Her childhood was carefree and bohemian, and though she rarely sees her father, she speaks fondly of her upbringing. “I don't know my dad that well. He built a boat, a 64ft yacht, because he wanted to sail around the world,” reveals Cole. “He'd already built that by himself when he met my mum when she was selling her paintings on the Bayswater Road, and he was selling jewellery that he'd made. I lived with my mum growing up in London. We were just three six-foot, red-headed females!”

Cole was scouted aged just 14 by Kate Moss' modelling agency, and quickly found herself catapulted into the mainstream. By 2004 she was British Model of the Year and has appeared in a variety of high-profile campaigns including Chanel, Hermés and Topshop. Her versatile look makes her at home on both haute couture catwalks and the cover of Playboy, and she is credited as one of the first models who forced the fashion industry to question the preconception of ‘conventional beauty’. “I definitely think there's still a fascination with being thin and skinny in the modelling world. I also think there's a celebration of curves,” she explains, before declaring: “I have breasts. I love my breasts!”

Yet Lily Cole’s quest to step away from the modelling masses is sincere. She took a break from the catwalk to earn a degree in Art History at Cambridge University, as well as nurturing a successful acting career on stage and screen.

Cole is also a devoted philanthropist, supporting numerous humanitarian and environmental projects. And in 2013 she launched impossible.com, an altruism-based social network, with Kwame Ferreira, her partner and father to her one-year-old daughter, Wylde.

With her curious spirit and thirst for experience, it’s hardly surprising to see her extending an already prolonged venture into acting - she made her acting debut in rebellious schoolgirl flick St. Trinians, and bigger roles quickly followed, in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus opposite the late Heath Ledger, and Snow White and The Huntsmen. Having briefly attended Sylvia Young Theatre School, acting was not entirely unfamiliar to the flame-haired beauty, but it took a nudge from a famous pal to reignite her thespian fire. “I've always loved acting. Marilyn Manson made me go to a couple of classes in New York and that made me remember how much I loved it,” she reveals with a knowing smile.

“I think the ability to change is something we all have to nurture, and you only get that from immersing yourself in influences around you,” she says. “I love London’s art scene - it really is so rich and, more than any other I can think of, completely accepting. I think London’s diversity has afforded it now a tolerance - not in a cultural sense, which is often what we presume of the word, but in style and design and fashion and art. And that’s important, because they are all the things that define us as individuals, so why should we find them suppressed?”

The Philanthropist is at Trafalgar Studios from April 3 to July 22. Find out more and book tickets here.