Model Karen Alexander has been working in the fashion industry for 30 years, weathering its ups and downs. She is grounded, down to earth, and devoted above all else to her family, especially her three daughters, ages 25, 18 and 3. She shared her moving and inspirational story with us, from her start as a teenager to the hard choices she’s made—and doesn’t regret.
Tell us your story.
I’m Karen Alexander. I am 50 years old. I’m from New Jersey and I’m a model. I was working in a nursing home when I was 13. Somehow, I decided I wanted to build my own nursing home, since I didn’t like how it was being run. I happened to be reading one of my sister’s Essence magazines, and there was an article on black models: Beverly Johnson, Iman, and Sheila Johnson. And I thought, well, maybe I could do that, to make some money, to build the nursing home! Now it seems like such a crazy leap to go from reading this article and thinking, “Well, I could do that.”
Q: How did it go after that?
I had a cousin take pictures, and I went around to agencies. Every one of them said no. For a very long time. And then finally, luckily, like two years later, I was signed on by an agency, and that was the beginning.
Q: How do you describe yourself now?
I’m the mother of three daughters, and I’ve been a mom for 25 years. So much of my career has been informed by being a mom. Every decision that I’ve made, in terms of how much I travel, how long I’ll be gone from home, was influenced by my desire to be a present parent to all of my daughters. I think I’ve had a different career than some of my other colleagues. I was a mother at 25, so I was not someone who was going off to Europe to do collections for a month at a time. Very few of the models had children then. There was me and Stephanie Seymour. I chose to turn down a lot of things so that I could be at home with Ella. I never regretted it.
I love my job; it’s mine. I also love being a mother. Modeling is my thing, and I’ve done it for a long time and enjoy it. There’s always the toss up, always the balance of wanting to maintain my career, but not wanting to miss a swim meet or a dance recital. I patched it together and figured it out, like every other working mother does. The challenges that I have are the same that pretty much every mother has. It really doesn’t matter what arena you’re in, whether you’re a lawyer, or a model, or staying at home; you’re still trying to balance taking care of yourself, having your own time, your own career, and still nurturing your family. So, I’m not unique.
Q: What is your personal style philosophy?
With a three-year-old, it’s to be clean and stain free, honestly! I love art and music, so I spend a lot of time in museums, and I go to a lot of concerts. I people watch, and I’m inspired by anyone who moves about their day and their lives with confidence, from a mom at my daughter’s school pick-up to someone I see out.
Q: How has your style evolved?
I don’t really follow the rules about what I should or shouldn’t do for my age. When people say, “Well, you’re 50, so your hair should be this length” or “You’re 50 and you shouldn’t wear this color,” I do not care. When I wake up in the morning, I think about what I need to do with my day and how I want to feel when I’m doing it. What I wear is an important part of that. It doesn’t have to be a designer thing, and it doesn’t have to be expensive, but I need to feel good in it.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
If I could give my younger self advice, I would say to slow down and enjoy the whole ride. Even the hard times. There is something really beautiful and powerful about getting through hard times. Be nice to yourself. You’re going to make mistakes, whether it’s in work or in love or in parenting, so just embrace them and move on.
Q: How are you celebrating Mother’s Day?
I love Mother’s Day. It’s a huge deal in my house. My daughters bring me breakfast in bed. The egg may be various degrees of hot, the toast may be a little dark, and the tea may be watery, but it’s the most delicious thing I eat all year.
Q: What message do you want to give your daughters about style?
Advice is such a crazy thing to give. I tell all of my girls, “Trust yourself; you have good instincts.” And it doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about style, beauty, age. Trust yourself.
Q: Who inspires you?
My mom, who’s 82 and absolutely beautiful, is a very confident woman. Everything she does is very purposeful and filled with love, whether she is doing something simple like gardening, or she is taking care of my dad, or reading to my little one. There’s a sense of taking her time, and being fully present, that for me is very moving and beautiful. That is my goal. To be fully present, no matter what I’m doing.
Q: What’s next for you?
I’m going to move back to New Jersey for a short time to help out my parents a bit. I’m really looking forward to being with my parents at this point in my life. There’s something that feels really rich and powerful about being able to go and take care of them. It’s going to be hard for a lot of reasons, but it will also be amazing. I feel really lucky.
Watch our exclusive interview with Karen here.