Olivia Harriet ambassador interview: Model, muse and horse-whisperer
Olivia Harriet is probably the first person you will see if you head to the Vera Black website. She is the main model, Vera’s muse and a key member of the Vera Black ‘family’. I’ve seen Olivia’s images on countless products and now I’m about to interview her. I’m waiting on a beautiful tree-lined road in London, not far from the Portobello and Camden Markets where the Vera Black brand first established itself. Whilst I’m here to meet Olivia Harriet, it will also be the first time I met Vera and Luke face-to-face. Our previous meetings have always been over Zoom calls.
There’s no mistaking their arrival. Their iconic 1972 Dodge Boogie van with kick ass Vera Black visuals growls up the street and parks. Luke shouts good-natured abuse as I walk towards the van. He opens the side door and I’m greeted by Ripley, their golden cocker spaniel and baby Bobby Ryder whose car seat is clamped on custom made bars on the floor between the seats. Vera appears from the back with a big smile and gives me a hug.
Olivia is sitting at the back of the van with her black wolf dog Jax. She smiles and thanks me for coming to interview her. My first impression is that she looks exactly like she does in her fashion photography. No Photoshop needed.
Somehow she manages an elegant exit from the van wearing a long black strapless dress and boots. The road is suddenly full of Vera Black hats and standing next to their super-cool van I feel I should be writing songs rather than books – I feel like a rockstar.
Hello, here I am interviewing, er, um, Vera Black, no - Olivia Harriet!
We’re meeting at the house of the illustrator Mandy Pritti, another close friend of Vera and Luke. It has been the setting of a number of Vera Black fashion shoots with Olivia including the Boho Hair Feathers Shoot. There are now three dogs as Mandy has a Hungarian Puli called Bea (who also stars in the Boho Hair Feathers video along with Olivia, Vera, Luke, model and aerialist Naomi Wood plus the other pooches Ripley and Jax).
Vera and Olivia spend some time prowling around the room checking out the light. It quickly becomes obvious that recording an interview with two dogs who are taking it in turns to bark and a baby in the background is not going to work. Luke and Mandy are dispatched to take Bobby and the noisy dogs out for a walk. Jax is given the right to stay as the only noise he makes is the occasional heavy sigh and the click-clack of his claws on the floor.
The interview starts and I go to introduce Olivia and promptly forget her name. We laugh and start again. This time I introduce her as Vera. It’s not quite so funny this time. Thankfully, I get it right the third time and the first thing I want to know is how she first got involved with Vera Black.
“Oh my goodness! I actually met Luke first. I had just bought this vintage 1980’s VW black van with a friend of mine and we were about to take it on a European road trip. If you have a vintage van it goes without saying that you have to have a beautiful dreamcatcher, it’s hippy law!
“I remember walking along Camden’s famous market and I saw this perfect dreamcatcher! I’d never seen one like it and it was fluttering in the breeze with the afternoon sun coming through all the webbing. I thought, this is the one! So I went into the store and it was full of the most beautiful little oddities I’ve ever seen. I felt like I had been wanting to find these things my entire life.
“I met Luke, this cool Australian dude running the stall and I want to buy everything. I’ve this friend with me who is far more sensible than me. She’s saying ‘You’re not spending £80 on a dreamcatcher!’ ‘This is going to happen.’ I reply. ‘I would rather spend this money and look at it every day and be in love with it than buy some cheap mass produced thing.’
“Then Luke told me about his vintage Dodge 70’s import van and I remember having this overwhelming feeling of – I need to know these people! I saw a picture of Vera and she looked like an absolute stunning goddess, so empowered. I just felt such a connection to these people I had only just met, and a longing to get to know them better.”
“So I harassed them for about a year! I would go back to the store and buy gifts, or decide that I really needed a particular bracelet. I was messaging them, saying ‘Come on, I’d really like to work with you as a model’.”
“Finally I think I just got to breaking point and I said ‘Look, I’ve this vision. I’ve got this beautiful black horse. I want to do a very Californian, or Arizona based look of having a golden hour riding this horse free on a beach with feathers in the horse’s mane and feathers in my hair’. At the time I had no idea that Vera liked horses.
“She said that it sounded really cool and so I met her. It was a beach in Wales and I think it was August, but it was Wales, so it was pissing down with rain. It definitely didn’t look like California, or Arizona! However, we had this beautiful shoot on this black Friesian horse with stunning feathers in its mane. And they’ve been my best friends ever since.”
“I think I have a slightly separate vibe to Vera. Hers is very much rooted from music and a lot more bright colours, which I find very difficult to pull off. I’m a bit more into neutral colours. It was funny at first because I genuinely thought she didn’t like me. I showed her the dresses I brought for our shoot. She replied in a really blunt message – ‘I’m going to have to re-make everything. None of this is going to work.’
“I was worried I had just angered this person who I really wanted to work with and it’s all taken me so long to get here! However, the new stuff she made was beautiful and the shoot worked really well.”
Being part of the Vera Black family
I pointed out that Olivia sometimes refers to being part of the Vera Black family and I ask if they feel like family to her.
“Without doubt! I think there are some connections which to me are more than just a friend. I feel like both of them have instilled parts of their personality within me, which very much encourages the best version of myself. When I look at someone like Vera and the way she is and the way she handles things, I use it as a guide of how I would aspire to come across as well. So as much as they are my friends, they have also become incredible mentors for me. So yes, for me they are my artistic chosen family.”
This feeling goes both ways as you can tell from this video Vera and Luke made for Olivia’s birthday.
Escaping into the world of magic
Olivia Harriet has an ethereal look, with a gentle touch of fairy tale michief. I wondered if this reflected an interest in this area.
“It’s so sweet as people do say to me, ‘Oh you look like a fairy’ or whatever and it’s funny because I don’t necessarily see that myself. It is interesting what we see of ourselves as this is not necessarily what other people see. I really believe there is so much magic in the world and I believe there is so much magic within ourselves.
“I think that the more I can make my life into things of beauty and art, and living a beautiful life; doing things that make me happy, the better. I am extremely privileged to live the life that I can, but it’s not in terms of “Oh I’m a princess!”. It’s in nature and the animals and my giant black wolf, or whatever, that I love.”
The award-winning Sleepy Hollow fashion film
One very successful project that Olivia was involved in was the award winning Sleepy Hollow fashion film. I asked Olivia to describe her experience of this project.
“That was actually really funny how that came about. I have a lovely friend called Matt Ovens who is a male model and actor. We were on an alternative gothic magazine wedding shoot together for Halloween. He said ‘I wish I looked like this every day!’ So I said ‘Why don’t you model for Vera and we’ll do something together?’
“It was very much the opportunity to work with someone as high level as Denson Baker (Vera’s brother who won the prestigious Milton Ingerson Award for Cinematography for the film) along with Joseph Lynn doing all the stills photography that made it as special as it was. It’s just one of the things about Vera in that she brings people together for the love of creating.
“We also had the most amazing location of Paradise at Kensal Green – my friend managed it at the time. It was all brought together just for the love of creating and to promote Vera Black. There was just so much energy on that shoot. If every day or every shoot could be like that I would be as high as a kite, it was just fantastic!
“It took three days. We did three different things. We did the first shoot in Kensal Green Cemetery which is one of my favourite cemeteries! I found it when I was in a very hectic part of my life and it was very peaceful. And the second day was in Paradise and then the third day we shot the horse bit out in Surrey.”
Stills from the Vera Black Sleepy Hollow fashion film
Olivia Harriet and horses
I pointed out that Olivia and horses seem to create something special. They seem to go together like gin and tonic. I asked if she felt a particularly strong connection with horses.
“Absolutely! Ever since I was four years old when my mum stupidly decided to buy me my first riding lesson. That was a horrible financial decision for her in the long run! There is something about horses that ignites the human spirit in me I guess. It is amazing to have that from another species.
“To be able to connect with another animal, to almost fuse as one being, and to be able to experience physical capabilities outside my own, just through being able to speak to another animal, is the most incredible feeling I’ve had as a human experience. When it comes to an artistic sense, there is something about them. Especially the Friesians or Spanish horses or Arabs; the ones that really have a lot of presence; a lot of fire in them. They just put me in a state of awe and to me they are art. I think it’s incredible to be able to combine that and to get the movement, energy and passion that I get from a horse captured in an image.
Olivia, a camper van and a wolf dog called Jax
While we were discussing animals I was interested in how Olivia found herself living in a campervan with her wolf dog Jax.
“I haven’t done it as much in England, and if I have done it it’s been doing modelling tours or travelling. I did it in the Peak District in February which was really dumb! My van is very basic, it doesn’t have a heater or anything like that in it. But it is without doubt my favourite way to travel.
“For me, backpacking is great, but I like to have a little home with me and you just have so much freedom with a camper van. To be able to just park up in front of a mountain and have that as your going-to-bed view. It’s amazing! There have been times when we’ve just said: ‘Do you feel like going to Croatia?’ ‘Sure, it’s a 13 hour drive away, but let’s go!’ What other freedom do you have to make that spur of the moment decision? I feel really sad about the current world situation with covid and Brexit or whatever, that has taken away this freedom from a huge amount of people. I am really grateful that I have had these sorts of experiences before it gets more difficult to do.”
Did you always want to be a model?
No! I was like many teenage girls. I really didn’t enjoy the way I looked at all and I actually wanted to be a journalist. I really loved writing. I still love writing, but it is very difficult to find the time as I have such a chaotic life at the moment. I was working at All Saints, the fashion brand when I was 18 doing the spirit killing job of welcoming people into the shop. This person came up to me and said ‘I have this legging brand, would you like to come in and model for it?’
“So I did that and I think it paid double what I was earning a day at All Saints. It was a lot easier than doing nine hours of soul-destroying retail work! Then I found a lot of friends who did photography and it kind of built from there, but there was a lot of really hating what was on the back of the camera. It’s been a really beautiful journey of getting past that and now enjoying it from an artistic point of view.”
I point out that it seems incredible that Olivia looks amazing and earns a living through being a model, yet she still has insecurities about how she looks.
“Oh yes, and everyone does to this day! It can sometimes be really detrimental and it can sometimes be really liberating. Even now I have things I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable shooting without; such as hair extensions. Having long hair is such a feature of my images. Without that I would not feel very confident. So there are add ons that are creating a sort of a comfort blanket around me.”
I’m interested to know whether Olivia has more of a reason, (or excuse), to spend more time exercising and working on her health because she has to look fit and healthy for her job.
“No. It’s difficult. I was always very much in love with the 90’s heroine chic look, so it’s taken a lot for me to mentally come away with the fact that it is not my natural body size. It is very rarely anyone’s natural body size and when you go down those roads, there is a detriment to both your mental and physical health.
“But we are indoctrinated in this, especially my generation. We grew up with the viewpoint that a model wouldn’t get any work if she didn’t look like a rake. Now it is a bit different. There is more body sensitivity and different acceptable sizes.
“I think that looking after yourself in terms of what you eat is the best thing. I really do believe that food is medicine so the purer the food you eat the better. I don’t eat animals, I live mainly off fruit, vegetables and super foods. If I start eating sugar and drinking caffeine again I will quickly notice it in the mental sense – how I am and how I react to things. Life is chaos; there is a lot of bad stuff happening in the world and it is helpful to be the most level headed and conscious we can be.”
Advice for models on working with photographers
I asked if Olivia had any advice on working with photographers
“I don’t particularly like working with photographers on a one-to-one basis anymore. I prefer working for brands. If you’re updating your portfolio or doing paid shoots with photographers, make sure you look at their images. You can tell the vibe you’re going to get as soon as you see what they’ve taken of other people. It’s very clear. And just like life in general – never let anyone push you into doing what you don’t want to be doing.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve never been in a situation that I’ve felt I can’t handle, or someone who has been overly rude, or has asked me to do things I have not wanted to do. But part of this has come from a place of looking at their work beforehand and knowing what I’m getting myself into.
I was curious whether there are other areas Olivia would like to branch out into
“Yes! I think that at the moment I am still feeding the ego side of the human experience. I’d love to try my luck at acting. I definitely feel this is something I am drawn to do. To be able to get a job in film playing some kind of elvin horse master situation. I could cross that off my list and be happy! But I think that once I’ve done that side of wanting to be on camera and all of that I would like to return to writing. To immerse myself in the stories that are in my head and get those out into the world. This is something that I’ve definitely put in the back of my head so far as I’ve been distracted by all the other wonderful stuff around me.
Finally the BIG question to ask Olivia Harriet
I’ve noticed behind the scenes shots where Vera is wearing a huge coat and hat while Olivia is wearing a lot less – yet still looking relaxed. I wanted to know how Olivia deals with the cold on shoots.
“One of my heroes in life is Wim Hof (The Iceman). He is someone who has managed to master the art of cold water therapy and deep breathing and taking control of your adrenaline system. I would love to say that it is because of him, but it’s more about trying to stay focused and quiet.
“I find the more you stress about it or complain, the worse it gets. It gets difficult when people take a long time setting the shots up and there is a lot of waiting around. Just make sure you have something warm with you, wait until the very last moment and then go and do it.
“I remember being in a shoot for an amazing designer called Florence Morris-Clarke on a Cornish beach once and it was raining. It was freezing. You can imagine the wind coming off the sea! But because it was fast moving and because what we were creating was great. I just got into it. You use the wind, use the rain, bring the nature out in the images. And then go for lunch and have a really warm drink and you’re fine!
“And we are capable as humans of being in these conditions, so keep that in your mind and get on with it. People are fighting wars in the world. You’re wandering around looking beautiful – yeah, you’re fine!”
We finish the interview and soon the rest of the party noisily reappears with barks and good-natured grumbling (and that was just Luke). The first thing Olivia says to them is: “Russ forgot my name. Twice!”