Keeping Tabs On The Ends & The MeansSaturday, March 03, 2012
The story behind the taking of this picture is straightforward. Sometime in May 1989 writer John Lekich and I dropped in to see Charles Campbell (not relation to the subject of this blog) the editor of the Georgia Straight.
Campbell was a man who trusted the ideas of the people he trusted. We said to him, "Your paper needs a bit of excitement. How about a gorgeous blond who also happens to be smart?” We were dispatched forthwith on the case.
Later that May, when I checked the envelope file containing Campbell, Karen negatives I found I had written:
First shoot new studio on Robson!
In the late 80s I was still obsessed with imitating George Hurrell’s Hollywood style of photography. I used a spotlight, overhead on a boom on Campbell and with another spotlight I projected a cloud gobo (a metal stamp) on the back wall.
Charles Campbell, a wise Charles Campbell had introduced to the Straight a few years a page called Intro. This was to be Lekich and my favourite page for our mutual ideas. The Intro page was perfect for profiles that were not yet cover material and did not fit within the boundaries of the column oriented Georgia Straight. It meant that within a few restrictions, Lekich and I could do whatever we wanted.
With Charles Campbell gone from the editorial pages of local magazines, our business had become arid, boring, commercial and predictable. By the time someone makes it into our local magazines they have been written about elsewhere. Campbell, the editor, took chances and our life was better for it and much livelier.
Keeping Tabs on the Ends and the Means
By John Lekich
May 26 - June 2, 1989
Remember all those things your mother used to say in the hope that you’d ultimately avoid the fruitless pursuit of depressingly gorgeous women? Stuff like, “Trust me, son. Beauty is only skin deep.” After several stints in some of the more squalid corners of Heartbreak Hotel, you finally realized she was right. It’s just that watching Karen Campbell, as she sits for a portrait against one of those old MGM backdrops, has a way of making you forget every sensible thing your mother ever taught you.
At 20 Campbell just may have a shot at major-league stardom. Confirmed romantics can’t help rooting for her. Maybe because she has the kind of willowy looks that recall the glamour days of Grace Kelly or Kim Novak. Cast your mind back a few decades and you can almost imagine Hitchcock discovering the former model on the cover of Vogue.
But, once Campbell begins to converse, the cool demeanor gives way to a sense of runaway animation. Listening to her talk is like watching a boulder gather speed from the top of as steep hill. She apologizes when you ask her to slow down. “I have always been impatient,” she grins. “I like things to happen fast.”
A classically trained dancer, Campbell did her first commercial at 10. By 11 she was hosting her own educational children’s series in Ontario. “The kids called me ‘bunhead’,” she recalls, “I was never the type to hang around after school.”
In fact, Campbell seems much more sophisticated than her age would indicate, perhaps because performing has been a personal goal since the age of seven. “I didn’t have a stage mother,” she says, “It was all my idea. There’s a part of me that always wanted to be a movie diva of the 40s.”
She gleefully admits to gravitating towards the grandiose. “I love glamour. And I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t appreciate being catered to. On the other hand, I really value my independence. I was one of those kids who was taking the train alone at the age of six. I’m used to making my own decisions. So those two elements are constantly at odds with each other.”
And yet, while Campbell may have missed the golden age of Hollywood, the modern equivalent is beckoning. A locally based performer, she has appeared in videos with Colin James and Paul Hyde, and once sang back-up for a band to “experience the raw vitality of the music”. Suddenly Campbell may be a lot closer to the centre of that vitality than she ever anticipated.
As this piece goes to press, Campbell is flying to New York to do several shows as a guest veejay for MTV. Viewers who caught her stint as a host of on CBC’s short lived Pilot One won’t be surprised that the MTV brass has granted her this opportunity after screening Campbell’s audition tapes.
Of Pilot One, a controversial, teen oriented program that was axed in a recent wave of CBC cutbacks, Campbell says there has never been a show in North America that took so many risks. “We were free to blatantly discuss topics that were relevant to kids. Things like sex, drugs and the environment. A lot of people found the bluntness a little difficult to take. But we weren’t scared to say: ‘Hey it’s out there. Let’s talk about it.’ Just because those kinds of issues weren’t dealt on The Brady Bunch doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Devoted couch potatoes may have a little trouble reconciling Campbell’s bright, outspoken nature with her cult status in a series of slick, locally shot milk commercials – the ones that urge you to maintain your cool while serving up images that could boil a frosty glass of eggnog.
Campbell appears in a string of wholesome guises that range from a fresh-faced go-go dancer to an even fresher-faced punkette. Yes, mom, beauty is only skin deep. But as skin goes, the consensus seems to be that Campbell’s is, shall we say, above average.
Which is why Campbell found herself modeling in the pages of Elle and Mademoselle at an age when most of us were still busy soaking up Clearasil. It was a lifestyle she recounts with admirable self-restraint – filled with travel, celebrities, and an income that ranged from $500 to $3000 a day. After three years of jetting from Japan to Jamaica, the initial excitement gradually gave way to disillusionment.
With her eye on saving money to study acting n New York, Campbell recalls that modelling was originally supposed to be means to an end. “But the means can become so appealing that you forget there’s and end in sight. It’s like being in the middle of an endless rock video. The ones who survive just sort of let life wash over them.”It took Campbell three years to leave the business despite the encouragement and support of her mother. “She said, ‘If you’re not happy you should quit.’ But then there was the reality of all my friends putting themselves through acting classes by waiting on tables.”
Yet Campbell, who is currently taking a writing course by correspondence because, “all this showbiz stuff makes me worry about staying literate”, ultimately decided to give it up.
“I was put on this earth to be more than a coat hanger. I’ve always found the discipline of aesthetics very boring,” she confesses adding that a high fashion model’s professional life revolves around nothing more challenging than working out and getting the proper amount of sleep. “If you’re an actress, you can always improve on monologue. If you’re a dancer, you can refine an adagio. But how do you get better at posing?”
Observing that her best friend through the modelling years was a daily journal, she says, “I was worried about my neurons dying. When you’re a model, nobody really cares about what you say or how you feel. People tend to pay more attention to how you talk, instead of listening to what you’re saying. You know you’re in a weird business when your rent depends on whether or not you have a broken fingernail.
“Finally, I started feeling really stupid,” she adds. “I’d sit for eight hours thinking: ‘What am I doing lying on the beach in the middle of winter wearing nothing but a bathing suit? I’m freezing my ass off and people are telling me that I’m fat. Is this all I’m good for?”
Not that modelling didn’t; have its more memorable moments. Among them, jetting to Monte Carlo at age 17 to shoot a fashion layout with Helmut Newton, arguably the world’s most famous glamour photographer.
Campbell remembers Newton with affection. “He’s known for making his models stand in the middle of the snow with g-string on and then screaming at them. But he saw that I had a lot of rambunctious energy that modelling couldn’t get rid of. And we just had a gas.”
Asked if she was aware of the photographer’s prestigious reputation, Campbell says that while people told her when she got the job that it was the epitome of modelling she didn’t know who Newton was. “He kept saying he wanted to shoot me in my favourite lingerie. And I would go: ‘Well I have a sports bra…’”
As Karen Campbell’s features give way to an introspective smile, you recall another motherly cliché – something about not being able to judge a book by its cover. But even mothers can be wrong occasionally. Once in a while, a cover manages to live up to expectations, revealing pages the inevitably promise an interesting future with each turn.