Emily Ratajkowski was arrested for protesting the appointment of US senator Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October 2018. At the time, the latter was under an intense FBI microscope pertaining to allegations he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party in their teenage years. At the 11th hour, could the 300 protesters at the Senate building on Capitol Hill in Washington DC – including Ratajkowski and comedian Amy Schumer – change the course of American history? Shortly afterwards, the rancorous battle was capped as the Republican was sadly confirmed to the Senate by the skin of his tiny teeth, with sombre-looking senators voting 50 to 48. (To put that figure into perspective, appellate US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed 96 to 3 upon her appointment into America’s highest court in 1993. Kavanaugh’s confirmation stands as one of the slimmest margins in history and the president was exultant at the result, which should say it all, really.)
“Men who hurt women can no longer be placed in positions of power,” Ratajkowski posted to her Instagram after her arrest. “Kavanaugh’s cofirmation as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is a message to women in this country that they do not matter. I demand a government that acknowledges, respects and supports women as much as it does men.” But despite this important statement, the model, actress, activist and designer was shamed online for – wait for it – not wearing a bra while protesting, with many claiming her out t of jeans and a crop detracted from her political motivations. (May it be known that Schumer was also not wearing a bra, but no one seemed to notice.) Sitting down with ICON in Madrid, Em Rata explained the constant need to justify her actions. “In every industry, everyone has to prove their worth,” she said. “But I think in this one even more. People don’t like a woman having opinions.”
Let’s address the obvious: Emily Ratajkowski is beautiful. No, her looks are not something we should focus on for she is also many other things – intelligent, politically abreast, successful, opinionated – but her beauty, and how she presents herself, is almost always in scrutiny.(And definitely the reason her lack of underwear made headlines in the Kavanaugh case.) Blasting onto the scene as the standout naked girl in Robin Thicke’s 2013 lubricious party jam music video Blurred Lines, Ratajkowski was the subject of immediate global discussion. Even now, she finds that notorious cameo hard to shake and has said references to the video today are the bane of her existence. From here, she made many a magazine “hottest” list and a year later played Ben Afleck’s mistress, Andie Fitzgerald, in David Fincher’s 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. That same year, she appeared opposite Taylor Kitsch in the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare live-action trailer, and in 2015 she played a fictionalised version of herself and love interest to Adrian Grenier’s Vinnie Chase in the Entourage film.
A few months later, Ratajkowski earned her first leading role opposite Zac Efron in the musical drama We Are Your Friends.But the photo shoots in between these movie roles – remember those erotic shots with Karlie Kloss taken by now disgraced photographer Bruce Weber for CR Fashion Book? – meant the actress was typecast into a certain character: a mistress, a bitchy girl, an intimidating love interest. Simultaneously, Ratajkowski was waging a different war on the fashion front. While she had walked Miu Miu’s 2016 show, runway work was few and far between because she was a fair bit shorter than the traditional model and is definitely not an A-cup – a different body shape to those sample-size coat hangers. (Today, she’s a staple on Versace’s runway, with creative director Donatella preferring to dress a woman’s attitude over her body.)
The jobs Ratajkowski secured were always based around her sex appeal – and as time went on and the world changed socially and politically, like a lot of celebrities, Ratajkowski spoke out about causes she cared about. But many only knew her in various stages of undress and found her opinions difficult to swallow.
Today, she’s unapologetic; you can be a pin-up girl and a pin-up girl with a brain, she touts. Born in England, Ratajkowski is the daughter of two university professors and grew up in a home where politics were inseparable from life itself. “I began to have a feminist conscience very early thanks to my mother, who taught literature,” explains Ratajkowski. “Just as some people have a religion that marks their childhood, I listened to the conversations of my parents, who are two super-political people. Being a model and a feminist is not a contradiction for me. I believe that there shouldn’t be a certain stereotype of how a feminist should look. The idea that a woman should place importance on certain beliefs is sexist. Anyone can be a feminist as long as it is their choice, regardless of what they are dedicated to and how they are seen.”
Piers Morgan. Well, this guy is not a feminist. And he has a well-documented problem with Ratajkowski’s brand of feminism. In 2017, Ratajkowski shot for LOVE magazine’s annual advent calendar at New York City’s famous gym The Dogpound. In underwear – and, oddly, mittens, I guess because it was winter and she must have been cold – the then 26-year-old basically had sex with her linguine. Ratajkowski described the moment as empowering as it portrayed a woman having complete authority over her sexuality – even if she herself didn’t quite understand the spaghetti part. When Morgan’s Good Morning Britain co- host Susanna Reid introduced the calendar, she referred to Ratajkowski as “a very successful international model”. “Global bimbo,” Morgan interjected. “What Emily is doing is using this in the name of feminism. Don’t use the excuse it’s feminism because it’s not.”
We think what Morgan was trying to say was not everything has to be justified as feminism. Many have pointed out that while Ratajkowski has every right to exercise her freedom of choice – that in itself is a feminist act – it does not then follow that the choice she makes is inherently feminist.
Ratajkowski has other ideas. “To me, female sexuality and sexiness, no matter how conditioned it may be by a patriarchal ideal, can be incredibly empowering for a woman if she feels it is empowering to her,” Ratajkowski said at the time. “The way I dress, act, flirt, dance, have sex – those are my decisions and they shouldn’t be impacted by men. Being sexy is fun and I like it. I should never have to apologise for that.
“I have been so disappointed to hear women talk about ‘modesty’ and ‘our responsibility’ as if we need to, yet again, adjust to make it ‘easier’ for the rest of the world,” she continued. “I want to do what I want to do. Feminism isn’t about adjusting, it’s about freedom and choice.”
At the end of the day, the term is grounded in its support of women – even if we wouldn’t make those choices for ourselves.
We broach the subject with her today. “To me, sexy is a kind of beauty, a kind of personal expression, something that must be celebrated, something wonderfully feminine,” she says.
“Why does sex have to be something that men initiate and women deliver? Most teens are introduced to sexuality through pornography or through a retouched image of a celebrity.
Is that the only example of sex we’re going to show them? Where can girls see women who empower themselves by deciding when and how to feel sexual? Life cannot be dictated by the perception of others. For me, people who react to my sexuality are those who have a problem, not me.”
With 22 million followers on Instagram, this message is not a quiet one. “The importance of Instagram in my career has been enormous,” she says. “Today’s models have the ability to control our image. Friends of mine who began their careers 20 years ago had no way of doing that. They depended on others. So, I think it’s a very powerful tool.”
In February 2018, Ratajkowski married millionaire movie-maker Sebastian Bear-McClard – a man who kind of resembled The Hills alum Spencer Pratt and who no one really knew existed. They wed in New York City and the bride wore a simple orange suit from Zara. “I keep many things private. I mean, in my Instagram, you don’t see anything about me that is really private.” We do see a little of Bear-McClard from time to time, but Ratajkowski’s feed is mostly a bikini wrapped up in a (feminist) riddle. Not that we’re complaining.
We are told to explicitly avoid political questions during this interview. The model is a big supporter of left-leaning Bernie Sanders, so we cheekily quickly ask who Ratajkowski would like to see as America’s next president. “I would like it to be someone who has no ties to the corporations and is very left, someone to change the system completely,” she responds. “So are you an activist?” we ask. “Some people think you can be an activist by posting stories on Instagram and others think that’s nonsense. That’s why I don’t know if I feel comfortable using that term. No, I’m politically active and I’m uploading the ideas I believe in.”
As we go to print, we see one of these ideas arrive in the form of a flickering circle surrounding Ratajkowski’s Instagram profile picture, the same time the world mourns for the 50 lives lost in the devastating Christchurch massacre in New Zealand. “Love to Muslim communities. Fuck white supremacy,” it reads. Ratajkowski is no global bimbo. (If you need further proof, she was reportedly the only model to hashtag “ad” in her Fyre Festival promotional post, a technicality that saw her escape big legal complications that Bella Hadid found herself wound up in.) Ratajkowski is walking and talking proof women who enjoy their sexual allure can be complex and politically-minded humans too who shouldn’t have to “put some clothes on” before they can take their rightful seat at the table. And in 2019, they certainly don’t need a literal bra to burn at a political protest. If this makes us bad feminists in saying so, so be it.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED ORIGINALLY IN THE APRIL 2019 EDITION OF ICON MAGAZINE.