This fun-loving British transplant is blooming on Manhattan's party circuit.
By Derek Blasberg
All legs and locks — the former coltish, the latter a pale, flaxen blonde — Poppy Delevingne, 23, is curled up on a dark-gray leather banquette in the lobby of the Mercer hotel in SoHo. The British model tucks into a bucket of french fries, dipping one skinny fried potato after another into ketchup, then mayonnaise. It's a devastating ritual to watch, given her willowy frame. When it's put to her that she's a lucky girl, Delevingne counters with a literary response. "It's like Tennessee Williams once wrote," she says, her plummy British accent somewhat at odds with her smoky voice. "'Luck is believing you're lucky.'"
That may be partly true, but there are always other factors at play in good fortune. In Delevingne's case, that would be the luck of being born into an English family with a history that's rich in aristocratic connections (Granny was a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret), bona fide style (Mum, in her day, was an ultrachic girl-about-town in London), and money. (Dad is a successful property developer.) Then there's the genetic windfall of a perfect sample-size body and a strong yet lovely face.
All of the above served as Delevingne's passport to New York, where she moved two years ago from London to further her modeling and acting careers. (As a model, she follows in the tradition of storied English roses like Stella Tennant. Like Tennant, Delevingne caught the eye of Karl Lagerfeld, who made her a Chanel brand ambassador last year.) But in a city teeming with ambitious, pretty blondes in borrowed frocks all posturing to become the next It hit, Delevingne has paved her own charmed path with, well, charm. "She doesn't take herself too seriously, which isn't as common as you'd think," says her friend and current roommate, Sienna Miller. Meanwhile, designer Richard Chai, whom Delevingne describes as one of her "first fashion friends in New York," says, "Poppy is the best person to go out with; she looks fantastic in anything and is so much fun." Delevingne muses on the subject, "It would be ridiculous for me to say I am unlucky, but, like any other family and any other girl, I've had my ups and downs."
So while Delevingne credits her quirky family for her blithe spirit, the flip side of that party-perfect temperament is weighted with the knowledge of mother Pandora's '70s-era substance abuse, which devolved into a heavy prescription dependency later in life. In fact, the name Poppy is a reminder of Pandora's struggle. "I'm sure she [named me Poppy] partly for a laugh," she says with a wry smile.
Delevingne was born when Pandora was in her early 20s. She says she had no inkling anything was amiss when she was a young girl, even though her mother was still struggling then. However, when she and her older sister, Chloe, were teens, their parents sat them down for a frank discussion about their mother's harrowing battle. "The best thing that could have come out of her own dark times is her honesty," Delevingne says. Mentioning studies that posit that addiction is hereditary, she says, "We were warned to look for characteristics in our behavior, which luckily none of us have encountered. But if I ever have a problem, not only with substance abuse, I know I can go to her."
Nowadays Pandora works in the private-shopping department of London retail emporium Selfridges. The fashion plate still has her wardrobe from the '70s and '80s, though it's been kept under lock and key from her daughters since she noticed a few things missing. Still, it's clear where Delevingne inherited her nonchalant sense of style — the one that enables her to throw a leather bomber over a sundress for a polo match at Governors Island or swan without a second thought into a charity gala in a Chanel jumpsuit. Her style has also been influenced by a couple of years in New York. She's updated her English-magpie ways, now cleverly mixing quirky bits and bobs with sleeker hard-edged pieces.
It was Pandora's mother, Jane Stevens, who was one of Princess Margaret's ladies-in-waiting. (Not that Delevingne knows exactly what that entailed. "I think it means they were best friends. All I know is she had a flat in Buckingham Palace, which is quite cool.") A young Delevingne idolized the princess, writing her letters and receiving cards containing cash from the palace on her birthday. Meanwhile, father Charles's late aunt was Doris Delevingne, a beauty who counted Winston Churchill as a friend and paramour and whose Venice palazzo was bought by Peggy Guggenheim and is the site of the Guggenheim museum today.
Though living life to the fullest appears to be a family trait, Delevingne specifically credits her mother's triumph over addiction with giving her the courage to move to New York. But if the move was a gamble, it's brought dividends. She has retained her status as the face of quintessentially English brands like Anya Hindmarch, Bamford, and Laura Ashley but has upped her editorial quotient here with photographers like Terry Richardson. Delevingne has been on every important guest list from the Costume Institute Gala to New York Fashion Week's fabulous front row. A few nights a week, you can find her out with her London-based beau, James Cook, or with friends like Lily Donaldson, Caroline Sieber, Jen Brill, Leigh Lezark, Tara Summers, Julia Restoin Roitfeld, and of course Miller on the fashion party circuit. They also make their own good time at the Rose Bar, the Box, or the Standard hotel's chic boîte formerly known as the Boom Boom Room. "I'm not used to going out every single night, which you can do in New York," she says. But she has proved herself up to the challenge of the nonstop social whirl and everything else that life throws at her. Perhaps, for some girls, it's not just luck but also resilient pluck that's the secret to their success.