Models, meet Birte Carolin Sebastian, a German dynamo with an illustrious modeling career and a Phd in Literature. She studied at the Sorbonne in France while traveling the world to catch editorials for industry giants like New York Times Magazine, Elle, Glamour and Cosmopolitan plus campaigns for numerous brands like Bogner and Triumph. In addition to her experience with the camera and the catwalk, Birte has explored work as an actress and journalist/author mostly for German FAZ, ZEIT, VOGUE and others. Although it hasn’t always been easy to combine these different worlds, she chose her way and still is to combine things that at first sight don’t necessarily match.
We took a moment from her busy schedule to learn about the woman behind it all
Q: Outside of modeling, what are some recent projects you’ve worked on?
I’m very much interested in recent social crises, trying to understand the many drawbacks of our globalized world. I wrote about the precarious situation of the National Museum in Sarajevo which had been shut down for many years, about the depression in Japan after Fukushima, about the refugee situation in Germany in the form of a contribution for the book ‘100 letters to Germany.’ I’m therefore fascinated by the position of artists such as Olafur Eliasson and his ideas about activism. I interviewed him at length about this. My interview with French filmmaker Mia Hansen Love is available online—check it out on Revolver. “Lou Andreas Salome” is still showing in German cinemas and will be out in Austria on September 6. In this film I played the real life character of Greta zu Meysenbug who acquainted important figures such as Nietzsche and Freud. It’s a costume drama. Before this one, I played in another costume drama: ‘Capitan Alatriste’, set in the 17th century, a German-Spanish co-production, for ARTE.
In both films I interpreted women struggling for their own identity: women who don’t shy away from confronting a hostile male world surrounding them. Just like the role Isabelle Huppert plays in Mia Hansen Love’s newest film ‘L’Avenir’ which I wrote about.
I’m currently preparing interviews with challenging film-directors, photographers as well as cultural leaders, which you will find in upcoming issues of German Vogue, SZ and FAZ. I have film-projects as well such as a French comedy, set in the milieu of millenials which will be shot in Paris this autumn.
Q: Tell us about how you started modeling. Who discovered you and how old were you?
I started modeling when I was 19, while working in Milan as an au pair girl. I was scouted by Riccardo Guy, then soon afterwards by Ford Models of Paris. I stayed with my au pair family during one year, learning Italian and beginning to model. Back in Germany, I decided to study international law – before ‘daring’ to switch to comparative literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Then many were afraid to ask what I intended to do with such studies. I discovered that people get afraid when they cannot define immediately the purpose of what you are doing – and how difficult it is to stay put in your own way.
I have always combined studying with modeling. I’m convinced that these at first sight very different worlds can complete each other: combining ‘esprit’ with actual work, expressing yourself through body language. Yes, I’m a female. At the same time I wrote my doctor thesis on Goethe. As we know now all too well, Goethe was much fascinated by strong women: their beauty, strength but also their fragility. Speaking about Goethe: I will always be impressed by his idea of ‚Weltliteratur’ to name just one fascination. It shows his broad way of thinking: including instead of excluding, a kind of a ‚cross-over’ dimension on a meta level. Connecting things that at first sight don’t necessarily match. Allowing that everything is connected to everything else.
Q: What is your fascination about modeling?
I have always been fascinated by change and transformation. Modeling made me explore different facets of myself, taking a chance to even escape from my greater self. This does not only happen through clothes and make-up. And I have to admit I do change a lot with make up, it just helps to slip into various roles. Yet, during some moments in time, you become someone else: ‘me as if’. This is also true when acting. Modeling prepared me for acting.
Q: What are some of the highlights of your modeling career?
My first job was for Vogue Australia, shot in Milan. After, in Paris, I got to do a fitting for Helmut Lang. His clothes that were taken to New York—it was his first US collection. I liked his minimalism and pureness, both in his cuts and colors. I remember coming home long after midnight fully energized, for HL had involved me in the unique process of creating, allowing himself to make radical changes and to start everything anew.
I remember vividly a shooting with fabled gastronomist Charles Schumann for The New York Times magazine. He tried to teach me boxing: a strong man versus a strong woman, a match between the sexes, if you will.
And I do have most fond memories of a shoot in Capetown, obligatory jumping on a trampoline, with above the Table Mountains – while being confronted with ‘post-apartheid’, upon visiting Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held as a prisoner for almost his entire life. Seen from a distance, I realize that I fully enjoyed the big contrasts between both my different worlds; the worlds of images and words. I’m aware such is another cliché of being a model, that models don’t know how to use words. Do I therefore object to television series like ‘Germany’s Next Topmodel’?
Q: Fashion week is coming up – what advice do you have for girls who are getting ready?
Since you are constantly exposed to others, confronted with stereotypes, often becoming a field of projection for people which you don’t even personally know or will never ever meet, I guess I can say: try always to stay true to yourself. Try to find your own way without getting too much involved. Try to take things in a healthy, objective way. Creating a distance can be full of humor and joy.
Q: Tell us what you especially loved about modeling.
What I always loved is the feeling of being an “accomplice” with colleagues, instead of competing. This is something I would wish for all women to achieve, becoming ‘accomplices’. Working with and for each other, pursuing a cause. One wouldn’t necessarily think learning such a ‘lesson’ in the modeling scene. My experiences as a model inspired me to start with a friend in 2008 a line called ‘Cottongirl’ with natural cottons produced in Egypt. In this context, I think also of the courageous fashion designer Nina Hollein. Another good example are the women who established the online magazine ‘hey women!’ and I’m happy to be able to write for them. Amongst other on one of my favorite fashion designers: Simone Rocha.
Q: Anything you learnt in all these years of modeling that goes beyond it all?
People always think that models get to see the big world. Indeed, you do get to see quite a lot. But very rarely one visits ‘political agitated’ areas. Areas in which ‘culture’ as we know it, isn’t ‘given’ in the sense of: it is not known or thought of as a fundamental right. That’s why I wrote about the condition of Sarajevo. The same goes for traveling to Ouagadougou discovering the idealistic Operndorf of German director Christoph Schlingensief. In a few weeks I will be traveling to Khartoum to see a new museum site designed by David Chipperfield. Such far away places and projects put all things in perspective. Lately, I started to even get interested in the sociology of fashion.
The ideas about fashion of German author Barbara Vinken – who writes about literature and fashion in an unusually original, yet very precise way. The same goes for Ingeborg Harms – and American Valerie Steele. Many of the ideas of Vinken, Harms and Steele come together in the magazine ‚Vestoj’ by Anja Aronowsky-Cronberg which I highly recommand. One of Steele’s books talks about ‘corsets.’ Now I understand why I didn’t shy away from shooting for Playboy dressed only with a sexy corset in 2003. There is a much bigger context for such fashion items: it’s about the position of women, the female body and body language past and present. That’s also why I love fashion illustrations by Francois Berthoud or Kera Till. Fashion illustrations seem to replace slowly fashion photography. By the way, exciting photographers for me are: Ronald Stoops, Annemarieke van Drimmelen and Wolfgang Tillmans. They point to the future of fashion photography.
These are among the many aspects of fashion which I got to talk about with Haider Ackermann, Linda Loppa, Kaat Debo, Walter van Beirendonck, Dries van Noten and Geert Bruloot, all representatives of the lively Antwerp fashion scene. But I love buying clothes at the Rue Antoine Dansart in Brussels. Especially at DE STIJL – it’s owner Sonja Noel is a true fashion pedagogue. You see what modeling leads one to.
Q: Anything ‘practical’?
Modeling taught me to enjoy sports and eat normally, instead of depriving myself from sweets. I always tried to sleep a lot yet also realizing that being excited, keeps you awake and radiant.
Q: What is something friends and family might call you for?
I think I’m a good listener and can give a bit of helpful advice.
Q: If you’ve possessed a superpower, what would it be?
Sharing, promoting justice, making opposite parties listen and talk to each other, taking each other seriously as well as finding ways to cooperate with one another. On another level, helping children to grow without fear.