American Beauty

by Natasha Wolff | March 6, 2013 12:00 am

On a chilly January day, I meet Hilary Rhoda for lunch at a casual, rustic restaurant in downtown Manhattan, the sort of place where you order at the counter and seat yourself at a distressed-wood table. Rhoda walks through the door shivering, her cheeks flushed from the cold, her blue eyes shimmering in the way eyes sometimes do right before they well up with tears.

But Rhoda is all smiles. Her slouchy knit beanie covers a mop of air-dried dark hair, and she’s barefaced, like a friendlier, pared-down version of herself. She is thin, but athletically so, a hint of muscle tone visible even beneath her wrinkled chambray shirt. Judging by her skin’s pale, almost ethereal glow, she is the kind of woman who slathers on the sunscreen and assiduously avoids the rays.

Since she was 15 years old, Rhoda has been quietly tiptoeing her way into the modeling industry—as quietly as a 5-foot-11-inch, raven-haired, all-American beauty can. At first, it was like an illicit affair. In high school, she would often disappear for days at a time—like she did one Thanksgiving to shoot with Bruce Weber in Florida—but would always return to school in time to finish her assignments. “I just lied [to my friends] and made something up until the pictures came out,” she says. “I don’t know, it seemed ‘braggy’ or something.”

With a slim physique and eyebrows that earned her  comparisons to Brooke Shields, Rhoda was beloved by commercial clients from the start. The jobs were abundant: campaigns for Hollister, Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie and Fitch. So abundant that as her friends began to daydream of college—the wild parties, the dorm romances—Rhoda envisioned a different plan. She visited only 1 of the 10 colleges she applied to but knew that once the tour was over she’d never be back. “I didn’t even tell anyone,” she says. “I had a fake college written on my graduation pamphlet.”

But while commercial modeling had been a fun hobby—one that allowed her to still be a “normal” kid, she says, with plenty of field-hockey play-offs and homecoming parades—once in New York City she set her sights on the runway. It was an untraditional trajectory, for sure. Most models use runway work as a vehicle to drive recognition—and, ultimately, score those lucrative commercial contracts. Rhoda, of course, had already mastered the commercial part. But at her first round of Fashion Week castings, the feedback she got was quite disheartening. 

“All the designers in New York said the same thing: You’re too American looking,” she says. “That was the response. It was all Brazilians and Eastern European girls at the time when I started. There were literally no Americans.” Which was why Rhoda’s big break happened in Paris, where Balenciaga’s then-creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière, handpicked her to walk in his show. After that, she says, “all the other designers jumped on the bandwagon.” Not long after, Rhoda, then 19, was chosen to open for big houses like Valentino.

By the time she returned to New York City, it was as if the tectonic plates of the fashion industry had shifted. “Now all of a sudden I was in demand,” she says. “You just have to laugh. In New York… I think they were just afraid to do something different, putting some girl on the runway who was not what everyone else looked like.”

Seven years later, over a lunch of green salad with grilled chicken, her face framed by a chestnut curtain of hair, she’s the vision of what we’ve come to define as clean-cut all-American, with a reputation to match. Rhoda keeps a relatively low profile, attending work events frequently, but alone. She is very close to her parents and older brother, who live a few blocks away. Meanwhile, fashion’s hunger for fresh-faced American models hasn’t dissipated a bit. By now, Rhoda has walked in hundreds of shows at home and in Europe—Chanel, Donna Karan, Derek Lam and YSL, to name a few—and her trademark brows have graced the pages of Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. Since 2007, she’s been recognized as the face of cosmetics giant Estée Lauder. She’s undeniably helped pave the way for many of her contemporaries, girls like Karlie Kloss, Lindsey Wixson and Joan Smalls. Not since the days of Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington has the American model been so relevant.

“I guess the fashion industry is always looking to come up with something new, something different,” she says. “But it does come full circle eventually.”

Now that she’s mastered the modeling world, Rhoda is ready to take on a different kind of challenge—Hollywood—so she’s recently started acting classes.

“Once you’ve done everything, you’re always going to want more,” she says. “I’m open to working harder to maintain that. You can’t let whatever successes you’ve had go to your head.” 

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