Sitting in the sun outside the Dream Factory LA Studio in downtown Los Angeles, digesting a champion’s breakfast of two 8 oz. Trader Joe’s French Vanilla Cold Brews and .25 mg of generic alprazolam, I am trying my best to keep cool. As someone who routinely gets tongued-tied and googly-eyed at even your not-so-above-average-looking Starbucks employee, the idea of sitting across from a former Miss Universe fills me with a special kind of anxiety I can only describe as “giddy dread.”
Waiting for Olivia Culpo to arrive, I do some unhelpful breathing exercises and go over my questions one more time; trying with each repetition to evoke the calm cadence and succinct clarity of a Michael Barbaro. While quietly practicing my pronunciations of words like “performativity” and “philanthropy,” a shiny blacked-out Range Rover pulls into the parking lot. I already know this is Culpo arriving before I can even make out her slender silhouette through the passenger side window. She has a presence that transcends tinted windows.
An actress-slash-supermodel-slash-designer-slash-restaurateur-slash-‘influencer,’ Culpo occupies an unexpectedly unique place within the sphere of social(media)ites. In just one short year, Culpo went from being a small town Rhode Island teen dream with big aspirations and a freshly-inked modeling contract, to applying to her first ever pageant, to successively winning the titles of Miss Rhode Island, Miss USA, and Miss Universe 2012, being the first ever contestant from her state to do so. Since her thrust into stardom, she has stayed consistently busy with a never-ending list of creative and philanthropic endeavors. “To be honest, I was never really all that interested in pageants,” she says. “I thought of it more as a good experience to grow and learn about developing stage presence, and to use it as a platform to help people and enrich these skills I was already working towards in my time studying communications at school.”
She’s also an accomplished cellist, having performed with the Rhode Island All-State Orchestra, as well as the Boston University Accompanietta. She “loves the concertos of Lalo and Dvorák,” but “of course” she has a special affinity “for the Bach Cello Suites,” she lets me know, while playfully humming the instantly recognizable prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. Her hairdresser, one of the three individuals actively working on Culpo, looks visibly impressed as he is locked-in focused on a portion of hair that falls gracefully to Culpo’s jawline. “I did not know that,” he says with a smile in that distinctly generic European accent that sounds like the voice of a hair stylist. The manicurist and make-up artist say nothing.
In person, Olivia Culpo portrays a sort of aloof candidness that I find genuinely refreshing compared to the version of herself I’ve seen portrayed on her social media channels or on any of her on-camera interviews. It could be the fact that I am one of five people in the room currently interacting with her, or I’m mistaking cool detachment with general annoyance at my saying “hell yeah” or “totally” after every goddamn answer she gives, but I choose to believe I was privy to Olivia Culpo, turned off. Her posturing and presence demonstrate a sense of image control and calculated goal-oriented focus you might imagine from icons like Victoria Beckham or Tyra Banks. These traits are palpable in their intention, from her interpersonal interactions, to her overall career path. If Culpo wants something, she will make sure she gets it. She is more Michael Barbaro than I will ever be.
As our conversation continues on to the topic of social media influence, it inevitably reveals the inherent paradoxes that exist within the relationship between an influencer’s social channel and the influencer themselves, paradoxes that Culpo seems to be at ease with. She initially states she doesn’t believe her “social channels are curated at all,” that they come “naturally and candidly,” then later refers to them as “a false reality, it’s not my real life, it’s not me, it’s my brand.” Maybe they’re both at once? Maybe she’s playing with me? As F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I’m starting to feel old, confused, and disconnected as the realization sinks in that there is an entire interdisciplinary industry based around this curating of social media content as some alternative form of sponsored entertainment, and, seeing that I’m out of my depth, I shift the conversation to her other plentiful pursuits.
Luckily for me, Culpo has been active in more tangible spaces as well. In just the last year, she has released a new clothing line, her second collaboration with Marled by Reunited Clothing. She describes it as a fall capsule collection “inspired by the girl-on-the-go, playing with patterns and materials that people would be able to dress up or dress down. It was important to me that all the pieces were accessible, versatile, and feel good to wear.” She has also co-opened an “American-style comfort food” restaurant, Back 40, with her family in her home state, and made her debut as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Rookie, in a journey captured from start to finish by the reality show Model Squad on E!. But Miss Culpo tells me this is just the beginning. “I’ll be launching another collection with a brand soon, I just can’t talk about it yet, except that it’ll be out soon,” she says with a coy smile. In addition, she plans to release “more musical collaborations” and other “exciting new content” in the near future. She’s a one-woman creative industrial complex, and I just hope that in our own near futures, after catching up on the latest Olivia Culpo television before donning our Olivia Culpo clothes to eat an Olivia Culpo meal (taking a break from conversation to double-tap an Olivia Culpo ’gram), that we still get a chance to hear her play the concertos of Dvorák now and then.
Makeup by Liz Castellanos.
Flaunt Film directed by Derek Milton.
Prop Stylist: Steven Valdez
Styling and Production assistant: Jake Harrison
Location The Dream Factory LA Studio