Nadia Lee Cohen is speechless right now. “Wow, oh wow,” she said. She has just returned to Los Angeles after a three-month stint in London and has been overwhelmed by photos flooding her Instagram feed of a pregnant Rihanna wearing underwear as outerwear in a lace babydoll dress vampy black. “That’s amazing,” she says. “If anyone else who’s pregnant wears something like this, people will say they copied Rihanna.”
And Cohen, 29, knows a zeitgeist image when she sees one.
A master at creating an engaging aesthetic, the Essex-born photographer, model, director and fashion maven has become a leader of the It crowd. Her CV is like a pop culture dream. She’s founded Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty label (“Rihanna’s a superwoman; she can do no wrong. She’s been super cool to work with”), directed music videos for A$AP Rocky and picked up Tyler , the Creator, personally with creative director Daniel Roseberry as the face of Schiaparelli, created a short film for the fashion house Maison Margiela and has run an advertising campaign for Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand Skims.
Cohen also made headlines thanks to a butt-baring cover shoot for Interview magazine with the billionaire Kardashian. About the shoot, Kim said: “Working with Nadia Lee [Cohen]— we love being so good when we shoot together. She is the first photographer I have been completely impressed with. The team was like, “No jockstrap.” And I’m like, “Come on. This is what I do.” I do best when I’m ignoring them and doing what I want. So I’m glad we did it.” At Super Bowl 2023 Beyoncé announced the second part of her Renaissance trilogy with a video shot by Nadia Lee Cohen.
“Kim is incredibly sweet, 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 and I was very surprised.” I’m also surprised, I say, that the self-made billionaire whose image could go viral within minutes was so hands-on. “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 take a bad photo of her.”
There are limits to working with someone who is famous off the charts. “My first idea for the shoot was something completely different, which I would have preferred to have done. I wanted to do something on location with Kim but, because of who she is, you can’t have her come up somewhere and shoot. It’s very, very tough. It has to be in a studio or have the relevant security.”
Cohen’s rural childhood on a farm in Essex with her Israeli father, her British mother (“she is of Ukrainian origin — thank God, she has no family left in Ukraine, all of them. He moved to England a generation ago but not I can even believe what’s happening there. It’s really scary”) and an older brother. “My upbringing was very strange. I was a little child in the mud who didn’t brush her hair and didn’t wear girls’ clothes. A very isolated upbringing that was there.”
It was a copy of French Vogue she happened upon during a family vacation that sparked her obsession with image-making. “I think that’s when I realized how exciting images – and fashion images, specifically – can be.” Until then, as a child of the nineties, it was a different kind of glamor 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 mothers at school were very glamorous with their beautiful fake color, fake tits, hair extensions… That was glamor to me as a teenager. The Footballer’s Wives, Jodie Marsh and Katie Price were great – I still love them. I grew up in that era.”
Does she get nervous working with the biggest names on the planet? “I only get nervous when I feel unprepared but usually when I’m working on a project I tend to be very obsessed with whatever it is; so I usually feel ready. I got 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 immediate work — a golden age of stylized Hollywood shots described as “virtual visions of surrealist-saturated dreams” — has since been considered for the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing portrait prize when not she was only 21 years old. .
Her first photography book, Women, features 100 vintage photographs of women – including Euphoria’s Alexa Demie and Charli XCX – in various states of undress and comes with a foreword by acclaimed photographer Ellen von Unwerth. “I wanted to achieve a state of celebration without it being sexual,” says Cohen of the project, which was six years in the making. “I’ve had to ask people what they’re comfortable with and say ‘you can show as much as you want.’ Everyone was different – some people were showing nothing and others a lot more.”
Cohen herself often appears half-naked in campaigns and on her Instagram. Where did this openness to nudity come from? “I’m comfortable being nude and I think that’s because I struggled with bad skin in my teens but I’ve always felt comfortable with myself below my neck. I think there is something deep-rooted to do with that. I like it when I see people comfortable with whatever body they have so if I’m going to take those kinds of pictures of other people, maybe it would be hypocritical if I didn’t take them of myself that way too .
“Obviously I don’t love everything about my body – I don’t actively try to be thin, I have a thyroid problem which has been a struggle. I have insecurities, as we all do, but you manage to take a step where you accept what you have.”
A limited edition of his second photography book was released in December and the second edition hit the shelves this month. Hello My Name Is… is a series of self-portraits featuring Cohen featuring 33 different characters and has already sold out. Copies of the first edition are being sold on eBay for £250.
Next up is her first 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’m . I had to sign a thousand NDAs.”
Meanwhile, 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 I was doing in real life. So I thought I’d be better off doing things in real life and then there’s the content.”
Her strategy is paying off: she has half a million followers, including some of the biggest names in the world. “Do I have enough high-profile followers?” she asks, not quite believing it. I get them: Grimes, Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Emma Corrin, Sophie Turner. “Oh wow,” she says. “It feels different now.”
She continues: “I’ve been performing recently – it’s the last thing I’d expect to do – it’s not very British! But there is something to it. It’s working out, all the stuff I’ve written is happening.”