Lessons I Learned in David LaChapelle Land


I am in Hana-Maui, Hawaii, standing out on the rocks under the mist of a breathtaking waterfall. I started the day in full ballerina regalia but am now half naked, soaked and confused.

“Get in the water… Get out of the water…Take this off…Move your arm.”

And then the crown jewel of directions: “Katie, you’ve got to be more interesting than that!”

I am a model for David LaChapelle.


More interesting? I exhale my frustration, dropping my “model” pose and relaxing my muscles. “YES!!! That’s it! Do that!” David yells out from behind his camera perched in the rocks. The gods are pleased, I think and can’t help but laugh. It’s David’s world. We just model in it.

I share a look with Sabina Kelley, a model I greatly admire, and she gives me a reassuring you got this, with a twinkle in her eye.

The waterfall was not my first or last time modeling for David, but it’s stayed with me as a defining moment. Love or hate his work, David LaChapelle is an artist of uncompromising vision and clarity. That day in Hawaii, he didn’t want Sabina Kelley, Rebekah Uccellini, Daphne Gunniess, myself and the other models to be “pretty” or “perfect” – he wanted us to be natural and real.

David is famous for “making ugly things beautiful,” or perhaps presenting ideas inversely to their cultural stigmas. Models are no exception. This makes David’s work controversial, to say the least.

I once asked if being the subject of so much scrutiny bothered him. I had some artistic “haters” of my own and needed help. He said definitively, “Let them talk! Your work isn’t there to make people happy, it’s there to make them think. If everyone likes you, you’re doing it wrong.”

Those words hit me hard. I can be a people-pleaser; I just want everyone to get along. But in that moment, this world-class artist gave me a personal commission to boldness — and I rose to the challenge.

I can’t say I’m always as unfazed as David, but I’m pushing through and putting the work first.

And with David it really is about the work. Always the work. The man is constantly reading, researching, and repurposing every experience in service of his creative vision. Before the Hawaii shoot, he spent months alone out there with Renaissance art books. While the tropical rain poured, he pored over the paintings. When it came time to shoot, he could spot if my wrist was in a classically correct position.

It’s that level of dedication to detail which separates the auteurs from the amateurs.

I’m so glad David LaChapelle saw in me something he wanted to capture for his art. The platform, exposure, and access its given me is unparalleled in my life. Lately, David’s joke on set is: “When I first met Katie, I couldn’t get her to take her clothes off. Now I can’t get her to put them back on!” But within the joke, there’s the heartbeat of conviction and truth. I’m passionate about creating counter-culture alternatives to how we see the female body. What I’ve learned from David LaChapelle is how to harness my power as an artist and direct it towards a higher purpose.

We all participate in the creative process on some level in order to be heard. We reach out into the darkness of the human experience to let others know they are not alone. I’m proud of the work I’ve done so far, and excited to take on new projects as they come. It’s not a conventional path, that of the artist and muse, but I want to know how deep this rabbit hole goes… and LaChapelle Land has yet to disappoint.


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Katie Johnson is a Los Angeles based Fine Art Model, Actress, & Writer. She's been called everything from “magic” and “fearless” to “dependable, bendable” and even “the balliest f***ing model I’ve ever worked with!” Connect with her at: thekatiejohnson.com, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram