Lena Simonne changes her position on the chair, letting her wrists rest over her folded knees and fixating her serious blue eyes on the camera. Behind it stands photographer Gilles Bensimon, wearing jeans and a cashmere sweater over a light blue shirt. The 24-year-old French model is styled in high boots and lingerie in black lace. The scene takes place in a spacious photo studio a stone’s throw away from the Canal Saint Martin in Paris’ trendy 10th arrondissement, and from the speakers you hear the tones of Verdi’s opera Traviata.
“Gilles is great,” Simonne tells me following the cover shoot for Maxim. “I felt so inspired by him and he made me relax. I really like doing shoots for magazines. Then I can improvise more and be closer to myself; I get in a mood where I feel strong. When you do a commercial campaign, you often have to act in a special way—laugh and smile.”
Her current hectic life as a model in the French capital stands in contrast to her upbringing in the village of Dégagnac with its nearly 700 inhabitants, just under two hours drive from the city of Toulouse in southwestern France, where her family lived in a house next to a farm. “I was quite shy and felt most at ease with the animals,” she laughs.
“When I met people I did not know, I was often a little suspicious and did not say much. That’s what my parents have told me.” At a young age, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. Later, she abandoned that idea and studied photography in high school. Her interest in taking pictures came from her father who is an amateur photographer and frequently used Lena as a model. “I felt quite lost in what I wanted to do in life,” she recalls. “But in high school, I did my internships with various photographers. They told me that I should try modeling and I thought that it might be cool to try.”
After graduating in 2016, at the age of 19, she moved to Montpellier to continue her photography studies. But after only a few months, she dropped out. An old friend of Lena’s brother had just started working as a model scout, and after seeing Lena’s pictures on Facebook she contacted her. They went to Paris together to attend meetings with agencies. New Wave Management was interested immediately. Soon they had signed a contract and she moved to the French capital. By that time, she was already in a relationship with her current boyfriend, the Belgian rapper Roméo Elvis.
They first met when Lena took a one-year visual arts course in Belgium. At the same time as Roméo released his first album, Lena’s modeling career took off in Paris. One of her first jobs was in legendary French luxury fashion house Balmain’s showroom, wearing runway creations for their best clients. “I loved working for Balmain. It’s a grand brand and it was the first time I wore such beautiful dresses,” she says. “Afterwards I did more showrooms for other brands but I soon felt that it wasn’t for me; throughout the days you would hear people judging you and having an opinion about your body.”
Lena feels that it is in the last two years, since she switched agencies to Premium Models, that she has really had her breakthrough and thus also gained more control over which jobs to choose. In 2018 she did campaigns for L’Oréal and Off-White. Off-White designer Virgil Abloh, who is also the creative director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, personally selected her for the campaign.
“That job gave me confidence,” Simonne says. “We were a few girls and a bunch of guys in the countryside during one long day. It was great to work for such a reputable brand. I felt like: Okay, I can do this.” Since then she has done campaigns for, among others, Carven eyewear, Etam lingerie and the American clothing brand Nasty Gal. As Lena’s face has gotten more exposed and she has become a known name thanks to her more than 300,000 followers on Instagram, she has also adorned the covers of fashion magazines like Lui, L’Officiel and Elle. But the flourishing career and celebrity that followed has also had a price.
“It is a harsh profession in many ways,” she sighs. “At the beginning of the year, I traveled a lot—it could be eight different cities within a week. Sure, I get to visit beautiful locations in great places like SaintTropez, Milan, Marrakesh and Abu Dhabi. But most of the time it is long working days and then you have to head to the airport again. The job is far from as glamorous as many people think.”
She also feels divided regarding the large amount of followers on Instagram. On the one hand, she is proud to have built a community and she realizes that it is thanks to this that she has been offered many of her assignments. On the other hand, her life becomes somewhat public goods, which makes her vulnerable. “I have come to realize that Instagram is not real life and that comments there can quickly break you,” she says. “Right now I feel like I want to cut down a little on how many pictures I post.”
A couple of years ago, she started thinking about how she should use her influence “to do good”. She wanted to give back, but did not know how. Soon after, she was contacted by Entourage, a French network that helps homeless people. They decided to collaborate on a project together: a collection of hygiene products for women without a roof over their heads. “I wrote about the organization on Instagram and we encouraged people to donate products,” she says. “In the end, it was both individuals who went through their cabinets at home to see what they could do without, and companies that donated larger lots.”
In total, she has participated in six or seven similar projects with various associations in Paris as well as one in Brussels. The latter she did together with Roméo and some friends in collaboration with a Belgian aid organization. That time it was especially he who could use his influence on Instagram where he has 1.5 million followers.
“For me, these projects have served as a counterweight to the more superficial, fashion-related things that also exist on my Insta,” she notes. “I get to feel useful.” This spring’s lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she spent with Roméo in his apartment in Brussels. She walked around in her Birkenstocks, cut her hair short “because it was so worn from many years of coloring,” and took a long walk every day. She also watched movies and read books, while in the evenings, she and Roméo took turns cooking dinner for each other.
“I did everything I felt I had not had time for before. The lockdown occurred just during a period when I wasn’t far from a burn out; my traveling had been pretty extreme for a while and I felt a great need for recovery.” After the summer holidays, the jobs began again. She has done campaigns for the makeup chain Sephora and the lingerie brand Chantal Thomass—and now the cover shoot for Maxim. Lena notices a big difference from when she started her path as a model five years ago; now that she has become a name on many people’s lips, the offers keep rolling in. But the road has been both tough and long.
“I really like what I do but I don’t think I will continue modeling for another five years,” she declares. “It is a tough profession and by having a platform on social media, a lot of people meddle in your life and have an opinion about it. It has been mentally challenging for me. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I could do later. So far I have no idea. We’ll see.”
For now she takes the days as they come and tries not to push herself too hard. Her dreams at the moment are about buying a house with a large garden somewhere outside Brussels. “There I want to live with Roméo, a couple of dogs and our little kitten,” she says dreamily. “That is my deepest desire. For the rest, I have everything I need and do not want anything else.”