Nadia Lee Cohen is momentarily speechless. “Wow, oh wow,” she stutters. She’s just arrived back in Los Angeles after a three-month stint in London and is distracted by photos flooding her Instagram feed of a heavily pregnant Rihanna rocking underwear as outerwear in a vampy black lace babydoll dress. “That’s very cool,” she says. “If anyone else pregnant wears something like this, people will say they’ve copied Rihanna.”
And Cohen, 29, knows a zeitgeist-capturing image when she sees one.
A master at creating a captivating aesthetic, the Essex-born photographer, model, director and all-round fashion cool girl has become the It crowd’s go-to muse. Her CV reads like a pop culture dreamscape. She’s modelled for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty label (“Rihanna is super-super woman; she can do no wrong. It was really cool working with her”), directed music videos for A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator, was personally picked by creative director Daniel Roseberry as a face of Schiaparelli, created a short film for fashion house Maison Margiela and has shot an ad campaign for Kim Kardashian’s Skims shapewear brand.
“Kim is really sweet, very kind and easy to work with,” she says. “She didn’t even want to see the pictures, she was happy with whatever was going on which I was really surprised at.” I’m shocked too, I say, that the self-made billionaire whose image can go viral within minutes was so hands-off. “Well she knows how to work her body; she knows her angles and how to stand,” says Cohen. “Because she’s been photographed so much, she knows. And she’s gorgeous so you can’t really take a bad photo of her.”
There are limitations to working with someone so off-the-charts famous though. “My first idea for the shoot was something completely different, which I would much rather have done. I wanted to do something on location with Kim but, because of who she is, you can’t just have her turn up somewhere and shoot. It’s very, very strict. It has to be in a studio or have the relevant security.”
This glittering, celebrity-packed LA life is a long way from Cohen’s rural childhood on an Essex farm with her Israeli dad, British mum (“she is of Ukrainian descent — thankfully, she doesn’t have any family left in Ukraine, they all moved to England a generation ago but I can’t even believe what’s happening there. It’s really scary”) and an older brother. “My upbringing was very feral. I was a little kid in mud who didn’t brush her hair and didn’t wear girls’ clothes. It was a very isolated upbringing.”
It was a copy of French Vogue which she happened upon during a family holiday that sparked the beginnings of her obsession with image-making. “I think that was when I understood how exciting images — and images in fashion, specifically — can be.” Until then, as a child of the Nineties, it had been a different type of glamour that drew her in. “I was always experimental with how I looked as a teenager but in the wrong ways,” she laughs.
“I was very, very Essex. I used to think that the mums at school were really glamorous with their fake tan, fake tits, hair extensions… That was glamour to me as a teenager. It was very Footballers’ Wives, Jodie Marsh and Katie Price — who I still love. I grew up in that era.”
Does she get nervous working with the biggest names on the planet? “I really only get nervous when I feel unprepared but usually when I’m working on a project I tend to become quite obsessed with whatever it is; so I usually feel ready. I did get nervous with Sophia Loren (Cohen directed a short film called Dinner’s Ready for streetwear brand GCDS), but only because my camera broke.”
It’s been less than 10 years since Cohen graduated from the London College of Fashion. Her instantly recognisable work — stylised golden age of Hollywood shots which have been described as “veritable visions of saturated, surreal dreamscapes” — has since garnered critical acclaim and she was included in the National Portrait Gallery’s prestigious Taylor Wessing portrait prize when she was just 21.
Her first photography book, Women, features 100 highly produced set-piece photos of women — including Euphoria’s Alexa Demie and Charli XCX — in various states of undress and comes with a foreword by renowned photographer Ellen von Unwerth. “I wanted to achieve a state of undress without it being sexual,” says Cohen of the project, which was six years in the making. “I had to ask people what they’re comfortable with and say ‘you can show as much as you want.’ It differed between everyone — some people were showing nothing and others a lot more.”
Cohen herself often appears semi-naked in campaigns and on her Instagram. Where did this openness with nudity come from? “I am comfortable with being nude and I think that’s because I struggled with having bad skin throughout my teens but I always felt comfortable with myself below my neck. I think it’s something deep-rooted to do with that. I like it when I see people feeling comfortable with whatever body they have so if I’m to take those types of pictures of other people, it would perhaps be hypocritical if I didn’t take them of myself in that way too.
“Obviously I don’t love everything about my body — I don’t actively try to be this skinny, I’ve got a thyroid problem which has been a struggle. I’ve got insecurities, as we all do, but you get to a stage where you accept what you have.”
A limited run of her second photography book was released in December and the second edition hit shelves this month. Hello My Name Is… is a series of self-portraits in which Cohen embodies 33 different characters and it’s already sold out. First edition copies are being flogged on eBay for £250.
Next up is her debut photography exhibition in LA, a feature film (“I’m writing a script with my brother; it’s a dark comedy”) and a music video with someone “so huge, I wish I could tell you but I’ve had to sign a thousand NDAs.”
Meanwhile, Cohen’s trying to limit the time she spends on Instagram. “It got to a stage where I realised I was doing more on Instagram than I was doing in real life. So I thought I’d be better off doing stuff in real life and then the content will be there.”
Her strategy has paid off: she’s got half a million followers, among them some of the biggest names on the planet. “Have I got loads of high profile followers?” she asks, not quite believing it. I reel them off: Grimes, Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Emma Corrin, Sophie Turner. “Oh wow,” she says. “It does feel different now.”
She continues: “I’ve been manifesting recently — it’s the last thing I would expect to do — it’s not very British! But there’s something to it. It’s working out, all the stuff that I’ve written down is happening.”