Nadia Lee Cohen is momentarily speechless. “Wow, oh wow,” she stutters. Just back in Los Angeles after a three-month stint in London, she’s distracted by photos flooding her Instagram feed of a heavily pregnant Rihanna rocking underwear for outerwear in a vampy black lace babydoll dress. “That’s really cool,” she says. “If anyone else who’s pregnant wears something like this, people will say they copied Rihanna.”
And Cohen, 29, knows a zeitgeist-capturing image when she sees one.
A master of creating a captivating aesthetic, the Essex-born photographer, model, director and all-round fashion cool girl has become the It crowd’s favorite muse. Her resume reads like a pop culture dreamscape. She has modeled for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty label (“Rihanna is a super-superwoman; she can do no wrong. It was really cool to work with her”), directed music videos for A$AP Rocky and Tyler , the Creator, was hand-picked by creative director Daniel Roseberry as the face of Schiaparelli, made a short film for fashion house Maison Margiela and created an ad campaign for Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand Skims.
Cohen also made headlines thanks to a naked cover shoot for Interview magazine with billionaire Kardashian. About the shoot, Kim said: “Working with Nadia Lee [Cohen]- we just feel so good when we shoot together. She is the first photographer that I really go for. The team said, “No jockstrap.” And I’m like, ‘Come on. This is what I do.” I perform best when I ignore them and do what I want. So I’m glad we did it.” During the 2023 Super Bowl, Beyoncé announced the second part of her Renaissance trilogy with a video shot by Nadia Lee Cohen.
“Kim is very sweet, very kind and easy to work with,” she says. “She didn’t even want to see the pictures, she was happy with what was going on and I was really surprised about that.” I’m also shocked, I say, that the self-made billionaire whose image can go viral in minutes was so aloof. “Well, she knows how to train her body; she knows her angles and how to stand,” says Cohen. ‘Because she has been photographed so often, she knows. And she’s beautiful, so you can’t really take a bad photo of her.”
However, there are limitations to working with someone so famous. “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 show up somewhere and shoot. It’s very strict. It has to be in a studio or have the necessary security.”
This glittering celebrity life in LA is a far cry from Cohen’s rural upbringing on a farm in Essex with her Israeli father and British mother (“she’s of Ukrainian descent – luckily she no longer has any family in Ukraine, they’re all a 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 wild. I was a little kid in the mud who didn’t brush her hair or wear girls’ clothes It was a very isolated upbringing.”
It was a copy of French Vogue that she came across during a family vacation that marked the beginning of her obsession with making images. “I think I understood then how exciting images – and images in fashion in particular – can be.” Until then, as a child of the 1990s, it had been a different kind of glamor that attracted her. “I was always experimenting with what I looked like as a teenager, but in the wrong way,” she laughs.
“I was very, very Essex. I always thought the moms at school were really glamorous with their fake tans, fake tits, hair extensions… That was glamor to me as a teenager. It was mainly Footballers’ Wives, Jodie Marsh and Katie Price, who I still love. I grew up in that time.”
Does she get nervous working with the biggest names in the world? “I only really get nervous when I feel unprepared, but when I’m working on a project I usually get 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 has been less than ten years since Cohen graduated from the London College of Fashion. Her instantly recognizable work – stylized golden age Hollywood shots that have been described as ‘real visions of saturated, surreal dreamscapes’ – has since received critical acclaim and she was included in the National Portrait Gallery’s prestigious Taylor Wessing portrait prize when she was only 21. .
Her first photography book, Women, features 100 highly produced set 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,” Cohen says of the project, which was six years in the making. “I had to ask people what they were comfortable with and say, ‘You can show as much as you want.’ It differed between everyone: some people showed nothing and others showed much more.”
Cohen herself often appears half-naked in campaigns and on her Instagram. Where does this openness with nudity come from? “I like being naked and I think that’s because I struggled with bad skin during my teenage years, but I always felt comfortable with myself underneath my neck. I think it’s something deep-seated that has to do with that. I like it when I see people being comfortable with whatever body they have, so if I were to take those kinds of photos of other people, it might be hypocritical if I didn’t take them of myself in that way too .
“Obviously I don’t like everything about my body. I’m not actively trying to be that thin, I have a thyroid problem and that’s a struggle. I have insecurities, as we all do, but you get to a stage where you accept what you have.”
A limited edition 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 has now sold out. Copies of the first edition sell on eBay for £250.
Next up is her debut photo 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 big, I wish I could tell you, but I’ve have to sign a thousand non-disclosure agreements.”
In the meantime, Cohen is trying to limit the time she spends on Instagram. “It got to the point where I realized I was doing more on Instagram than in real life. So I thought it was better to do things in real life, and then the content would be there.”
Her strategy has paid off: she has half a million followers, including some of the biggest names in the world. “Do I have a lot of high-profile followers?” she asks, not quite believing. I’ll pick them up: Grimes, Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Emma Corrin, Sophie Turner. “Oh wow,” she says. “It feels different now.”
She continues: “I recently manifested – it’s the last thing I would expect – it’s not very British! But there’s something in it. It works, everything I wrote down is happening.”