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Born to do it: Elliot Cowen on modelling, his mother and what the future holds


Try to sum up Elliot Cowan in a word and all roads lead to ‘magnetic.’

Elliott Cowan photographed by Bowen Arico.

Chatting over video call early one March afternoon, I resign quickly to the fact that distilling his particular brand of magic feels like too difficult a task. Is it the Gen-Z effect? Of which he feels the perfect personification. Is it his community? And the confidence that comes with being able to express yourself, freely, and exactly as you are. Of course, it’s likely to do with his (arguably great) genetics; his mother is Emma Balfour, and since she emerged on the scene in the early ‘90s, her sense of self was always something that set her apart. Less than five minutes into my conversation with Cowan, it’s clear the same, almost mythical self-assurance runs in the family.

Fresh out of school, one of the most infectious things about Cowan is his genuine excitement for life’s possibilities. Not in the self-importance sense, but rather in an endearingly optimistic (and refreshingly youthful) way of seeing the world. In 2021, he got his start as a model alongside his mum for Harper’s Bazaar. A year and a half in, his body of work includes a campaign for Bottega Veneta, Vogue Australia’s February 2023 Pride issue, walking for Romance Was Born and more. And while model mothers help when it comes to opening doors, it’s Cowan’s individuality and his insistence on ‘bettering everyone’ that’s setting him up to have true lasting power.

From his first memories of fashion to what the industry could do better, I caught up with the booked and busy 18-year-old to unpack his magnetism a little further.

Hilary Bourke: Your memories of fashion are likely different than most, considering who your fabulous mother is. Can you tell me about them?

Elliot Cowan: I remember when I was a little kid, I'd always be running around in dresses and skirts and tutus. Like, I had really long hair, I loved makeup and I was always very flamboyant. I wouldn't say that’s my first memory of fashion though, I guess that was more self-expression, which of course, still relates. My first proper memory of fashion would have been semi-recently because my mum kind of didn't let on that she was a model…

[Laughs.] When did you find out?

In my teens, maybe the beginning of high school or something?! She'd never told us but I'd always be curious and then finally she let on with something like ‘Oh, there's this big poster of me in David Jones at Bondi Junction.’ And it was like ‘Ohh, that’s what you do? Right. Okay.’ Ever since then, I've been drawn to it. I guess now that I know what's been going on, I'm kind of like, well, I want a part of it too!

How has her work influenced the stories you want to be part of?

There are all these photos of her by her ex-boyfriend, David Sims. They would do these random, pared-back shoots, like of her in a Spider-Man t-shirt. And I always loved that side of it; just a beautiful image, as opposed to this crazy extravagant thing. I've always just loved someone sitting in their bedroom with a book.

What advice on entering the modelling industry has she given you?

The main thing that she's always said to me is, and it's kind of classic, but she’s always said to be yourself. You want to actually present yourself, not present the character that they're trying to create for you. You don't have to show up to your casting or your digital photo shoot in a white t-shirt and black pants. If you show up wearing something that's more you, people will see that and it translates. They'll be like, ‘Oh, hang on…’

I think it goes hand in hand with diversity, as well as acceptance and equality. If you present yourself and people really relate to that then you’ve got this platform that you can use to help others by making them feel special, safe and valued.

How did you stay true to yourself throughout your high school years?

I had kind of a weird high school, obviously, as every queer does. I remember in primary school I was getting bullied and bullied, by people all over the place, even by my friends. So that taught me really early on about resilience, and how not to care. Going into high school I was kind of like, ‘it's like a fresh opportunity,’ blah, blah, blah. But that kind of didn't matter. I didn't need a fresh start. I needed to continue being myself. And in high school, I'd get picked on, but I just didn't care. Because I'd already been through the worst of it.

I remember specifically there was a time, I think it was in year 10, in 2020 right after the first lockdown. I'd had time to myself and time to think about things and I came back to school, for the first time, in a skirt and wearing makeup. I was really nervous, I mean, people were always looking at me being like ‘What is going on?’ I remember a lot of people thinking I was trans. And I was like, ‘No, I'm just a boy in a skirt.’ But since doing that, people would expect kind of anything from me. They just got used to it and realized I didn't really care.

Do you now feel like you can express your whole self freely?

I would say, yeah. Especially going into the fashion industry. There are so many queer people in the business that you're not gonna rock up to set wearing a skirt and people would be like, ‘Well, what's that guy doing?’ Like the hairstylist is gonna be gay, and the makeup artist is gonna be gay, the stylist's gonna be gay. Everyone's gonna be gay. And they're not gonna care.

On my first ever shoot with my mum, they were like, ‘Oh, we scrolled through your Instagram and we saw that you are pretty open to wearing whatever.’ And the first outfit they put me in was this giant Romance Was Born dress. So I feel like that immediately kind of solidified it as a safe space, in that sense.

What could the fashion industry do better?

It all comes back to representation, and storytelling as well. You want to hear what people have to say about their experiences and how they can better the industry. And not even just the industry, but, humanity in general. Better everyone! Images are a huge part of anyone’s life. And so is seeing yourself, or not seeing yourself and feeling bad because of it.

What do you think people see when you’re in the pictures? Or what do you hope they see?

I've had a lot of thoughts about this. I know that there's definitely part of it that's, you know, ‘He's Emma Balfour's son.’ But I know that it's not only that. I’m kind of normal, physique-wise. I’m not this totally skinny or big buff guy. I’m kind of stock standard, but also a little on the ‘interesting’ side. I don’t know… I feel like because I’m young and queer, it's nice to just see someone living in their own world a little bit.

Who inspires you in fashion?

I really love Romance was Born because their morals are just so correct and it’s so refreshing. They actually stand for showing, as they did at this most recent show, every type of person. Seeing all these queer people, trans people, black people, white people; it's just such a refreshing thing to see.

I think my favourite ‘fashion’ person at the moment is Alex Consani. She’s a trans model. She lives in New York. She started off on TikTok and she’s just like this hilarious chick. Now she's walking all these major runway shows and I'm utterly obsessed with it.

Where do you hope your work takes you?

I remember a couple of years ago, I was set on being a designer. And as the years went on, it didn’t feel like my thing anymore. I'd love to do styling. I'd love to take photos. I love creative directing on shoots. I love being the person that goes, ‘Okay, put that on there. Put them there. Shoot it with this.’ I love being a director.

I've got a plan this year… I wanna make a magazine. I wanna start making music. I wanna do my own photo shoots where I’m shooting other people. Which would go hand in hand with the magazine; put that in there, all of it. I just want to begin making my own stuff. High school kind of killed my creativity because I was so overloaded with work and stress that I didn't have the time to work on something for myself. So I've been really trying to get into doing my own things again. It’s like all I’ve been thinking about; I wanna have my own thing going on.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photography Bowen Arico

Stylist and Director Charlotte Agnew

Hair Daniel Jianing @ USFIN

Beauty Gillian Campbell

Model Eliott Cowan @ Priscillas

Words by Hilary Bourke