For John Casablancas, an Italian restaurant in Stockholm was Schwab’s Drug Store, and a high school girl checking coats was Lana Turner. “You know, you could be a model,” said Casablancas, the founder of Elite Model Management and the firm’s chairman of the board, to the tall 17-year-old with long brown hair and piercing blue-green eyes who checked his coat one evening in 1973.
“Yes, sure I could,” said the girl, who had learned English in school.
At the time, Lena Maria Kansbod had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, but modeling hadn’t even crossed her mind. If she was beautiful, she says, then Casablancas was the first to inform her of it.
“I wore glasses and had two chipped teeth,” she said recently in the dining room of the Prince de Galles hotel in Paris. “There were lots of girls prettier than I.” Well, maybe—it was Sweden, after all. But Casablancas persisted, and eventually he spoke to Kansbod’s father, Sten, a no-nonsense engineer.
“John wanted me to come to Paris and give it a try,” she says. “My father thought I’d end up in a harem in Arabia.” Where she did end up, after Sten was finally persuaded to turn her loose “with a red suitcase and a return ticket,” was on the cover of Elle, Europe’s leading fashion magazine, just a few months after she got to Paris. “I just don’t have many of those desperate-model stories,” says Kansbod.
“It came very easy for Lena,” says Monique Pillard, president of Elite. “She was a natural.”
Kansbod had moved to New York by 1976, the year she answered a call from Sports Illustrated swimsuit editor Julie Campbell to participate in a five-day shoot in Hawaii. “Lena was vivacious, a blithe spirit, a joy to work with,” says Campbell. “The best thing about her was that she was nice to the other women. You don’t always see that.”
On the cover of the 1977 bathing suit issue, Kansbod lounges on an orange beach chair beside the cover billing ZOWIE, IT’S MAUI! “People seem to remember it,” she says, “but I don’t think it has anything to do with me. It was more the ‘zowie’ thing. What I remember is that the beach chair I was sitting on kept breaking. I was too heavy, I guess.”
She laughs and her face reddens, as it often does. At 32, Kansbod is married to Philippe Paillette, a French business executive, and is the mother of Josephine, a two-year-old blonde—who, Kansbod says, “looks more Swedish than I do”—but she remains a beguiling mixture of child and adult. “That’s what gave her her fame,” says Pillard. “She had a timeless quality. She was very sexy, with the pouty lips and all that, but there was something childlike about her too.”
Kansbod laughs that off, yet she can’t really explain, without seeming immodest, why modeling came so easily to her. “I don’t know, maybe they took me for an American,” she says, throwing up her hands. ‘Everyone likes American girls, you know.” She laughs and her face reddens again.