Rosie Huntington-Whiteley has the kind of gentle beauty one might have sketched on the back of a book during double maths in 1991. Sitting with her in the restaurant of a Soho hotel is to gratefully disappear. Not only do the other diners stare at her with the wide-eyed beam of cars at night, but outside in the rain hovers a middle-aged man with a camera. Everything about his posture says: “This wasn’t the life I planned.”
It is an anniversary, of sorts. It is 10 years since Rosie, now 26, left school (and her parents’ Devonshire farm) to become a model. Last summer she was promoted from face of Marks Spencer to designer (with MS’s Soozie Jenkinson) of her own line – it was the fastest-selling collection in the company’s history. A face of Burberry, and a Victoria’s Secret “angel”, today she lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, actor Jason Statham, who has helped her move sideways into film – she made her acting debut in 2011, in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and this year filmed another action franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road. Although she says the words within implied quote marks, “Brand Rosie” is booming.
She was 15 when she interned at a modelling agency, and 16 when she started modelling. She still had her braces on. “I wanted to get out of Devon so desperately. London for me was where the big lights were.” She wanted to work in fashion, “but I was never particularly fashionable. Devon didn’t allow for those opportunities.” The first time she thought properly about trends, she recalls with sweet discomfort, was as a young teenager when she bought a fake pair of Ugg boots on eBay. “I remember walking into a restaurant wearing them,” she says, “and literally everybody turned to look at me, and they all laughed.”
People are still turning to look at her today. In the week’s run-up to our interview the tabloids are reporting alleged problems in her relationship with Statham. In the time it’s taken for us to order a coffee, another paparazzo has arrived outside. “It can become uncomfortable,” says Huntington-Whiteley. “I remember having a conversation with one of my girlfriends in New York, a very famous model, and she said: ‘It’s so exhausting to have to constantly try and be what everyone wants me to be.'”
What does everyone want Rosie to be? The “face” of a retailer is a large investment, crucial to a brand’s success or failure. Says Verdict retail analyst Honor Westnedge: “A retailer like Marks and Spencer with a large target audience for lingerie must be careful not to alienate customers. It needs a likable and accessible model.” MS tells me its customers love Rosie. “Not only is she beautiful,” says Jenkinson, head of design for lingerie, “but there is also something very grounded about her that resonates with our customers.”
Really? This is the woman who was voted World’s Sexiest Woman by FHM readers. She has a double-barrelled surname. And she’s a “money girl” – industryspeak for models earning six-figure sums, from power brands such as Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein. She is all the things the MS customer is not. As far-reaching and diversified as we are, with our superfood salads and multi-packs of socks, the MS woman does not live in LA, is not 26, with a body built from yoga and baby oil, does not have the legs and eyes of a relaxed fawn. When I ask MS to describe their typical customer, they reply quickly: “The MS customer is the British public.”
Lingering by the bras in a central London store, I ask a 50-year-old woman looking for a Rosie for Autograph set in a 38B what the appeal is. She doesn’t know who Huntington-Whiteley is, though she recognises her face from buses, but she loves the “luxury” of the lingerie – “the lacy details”. She leaves with the dove-grey satin bra and midi knickers, proving that it shouldn’t work but it does. More than 600,000 pieces of Huntington-Whiteley’s collection have been sold this year. At any time, one in three women in Britain is wearing an MS bra. One of them will always be a Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
Her success means much of her life is spent mid-air. She commutes between London and LA. “The world seems very small now,” she says. On a recent flight, when she woke from a nap the man in the next seat leaned over and said: “There were people trying to take a picture of you when you were sleeping.” “Everyone’s paparazzi,” she says with a sighing shrug. “The moment you leave your house you’ve got to be ready for somebody to be taking something of you, someone who’s going to be making money from you.” She shouldn’t complain though, she says. “You go: ‘It’s good for my brand, it’s good for my brand.'” Which, yes, it is. It must be. But doesn’t it send a person mad? “Oh, no one wants to fucking hear that.” She swears politely, with an angry elegance I quite like. “And it’s not my reality.”
The Daily Mail runs a story on her every day – some are positive, some scathing. Her performance in the Transformers film was ridiculed, scene by scene. A critic for Empire magazine wrote: “Michael Bay introduces [Huntington-Whiteley] with a self- parodying shot of her barely clad bottom and it’s all downhill from there. You’ll believe a robot can fly, but you won’t believe a Huntington-Whiteley can talk.” Does she read Mail Online? She sighs, and half-smiles. “I’d be lying to say I didn’t. I have a much healthier relationship with it now than a few years ago. It was very upsetting for me – there was this other Rosie that was becoming famous and it was quite an out-of-body experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. I cut myself off from everything. I wouldn’t go on the internet. I hid for quite a while. I got very nervous in public, actually.” Of the reaction to her film debut she says: “There was… not a lot of support for me during that time.” One minute she was “trundling on” as a model, “then all of a sudden I’m on the biggest movie of all time. I’m on set as a lead role, but with no idea what I’m doing.” She takes a deep breath. “I took the opportunity, because how was I supposed to say no?” “[But] people want to see you fall. Your fans want to see you fall. Everyone wants to see you fall.”
And then she laughs. GQ once described her mouth as “overflowing… to the point of vulgarity”. They said she was “well mannered but rude to look at”. Most descriptions of her follow a similar pattern – you can smell sports deodorant in the ink. And yet her impossible sexiness somehow sits comfortably with her broad appeal to women; the thing that draws men to pictures of Rosie in her underwear draws women to the underwear itself. For a model, that’s a rare thing. After 10 years in the industry, she’s watched it change with interest. When she was starting out, one agent advised her to eat “a single piece of sushi a day”. “My eloquent response was: ‘Go fuck yourself!'”
She chuckles. When she started with her new agency she asked them how it helped the younger girls. “Because I felt that there was never anything for me, no workshops, no people letting you know how you should be eating or what you should be wearing to castings.” For the new faces of today there are talks and nutritionists – proper advice.
“There’s been a real shift,” she says. “It’s been a funny 10 years to be in the industry. I started in 2003, when castings were sent to me by fax. Now everything is put out on social media as soon as it’s shot. There’s more engagement. Everybody wants to know the models. You’re more real now than ever.” More real? “You’re no longer this one-dimensional image. Perhaps the paparazzi is part of that. It’s more expected now for supermodels to be smart, to have opinions, to have a personality.”
Part of this – part of having a voice, a personality – is the expectation that she will expand her remit from modelling to acting, to designing. And she revels in it, the opportunities to work, the subsequent longevity of a model’s career. “I mean, it’s self-indulgent. It’s not like I’m a nurse or I’m helping people with their finances. I think it’s important to be aware of that. I have seen people who think they’re doing something really noble for the world, and it’s like: you’re making a movie. You’re doing what makes you happy, but get real right now. Certain people take themselves very, very seriously and it’s just unnecessary. That’s a funny thing with celebrity and charity work, too, isn’t it? It’s not selfless, either.”
Outside, the rain has got heavier and Soho is slick with wet newspapers. One of the photographers has run for shelter; the other is still there, his jacket pulled over his forehead like a hood, his camera hanging on his wrist. I leave the hotel, then turn back. I want to talk to him – to find out a little about his life, to find out what his pictures of this woman, taken through steamed windows with an expensive lens, are worth. But seeing me approach, he slips his camera behind his back and quickly walks away.
The Rosie for Autograph Sleepwear Collection is available to buy at MS stores and online at marksandspencer.com/rosie