The 2023 Pirelli Calendar celebrates the muses who have inspired photographer Emma Summerton and, more broadly, the remarkable power, passion and talent of women
For her dramatic Pirelli Calendar shoot, the model Lauren Wasser stood on top of a golden crescent moon against an ocean backdrop, clasping a large silver swordin the stance of a warrior.
Photographer Emma Summerton chose Wasser to embody The Athlete in her Love Letters to the Muse-themed Calendar for 2023, an athlete who “does not compete in the Olympics but in life”, a “Joan of Arc figure... who is never held back by fear. Never held back at all.”
“A ‘Joan of Arc figure... who is never held back by fear. Never held back at all’”
It is an apt description of the model, who lost part of both her lower limbs to toxic shock syndrome (TSS) a decade ago, came close to death, but still dominates the catwalk and basketball court on her golden prosthetic legs.
“I saw her as a heroine,” said Summerton as she reflected on the emotional shoot. “She’s an inspiration. And maybe that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Like she’s cool, powerful, beautiful.”
Wasser has been both a model and an athlete all her life. The daughter of models, she first appeared as an infant in Italian Vogue with her mother, Pamela Cook. But although modelling was “part of me”, sports were “my first love”.
“I’m an athlete, I’d rather play basketball and beat up boys than be in stilettos” she said. “I’ve always been that way.”
In 2012, when she was 24 and an up-and-coming model in Los Angeles, Wasser fell ill with a desperately high fever. At hospital she was placed on life support and put into a medically induced coma. When she woke, her legs were on fire – gangrene had set in. The cause was TSS, caused by a tampon. She had the lower part of one leg amputated that year and the other amputated in 2018 because of continuing pain. Her life, as she knew it, was no more.
In the wake of the trauma, she battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and came close to taking her own life.
“After losing my legs I had to really dig deep and figure out myself from the ground up,” Wasser said. “It took a hell of a lot to get here. Ibasically fought to live, to survive. I mean, every day, it was just getting by.”
“After losing my legs I had to really dig deep and figure out myself from the ground up. It took a hell of a lot to get here. I basically fought to live, to survive”
Leading by example
Now Wasser, who says her athleticism helped her to recover, dedicates herself to raising awareness about TSS, challenging preconceptions about disability and beauty, and using her story of resilience to inspire others who are facing challenges. Her message is one of empowerment, perseverance and self-love.
“I thought I would never model again, and here I am. And I’m just grateful for this time... and for the example that I hope that I’m leading, and inspiring as many people as I can.”
She’s also grateful for “being able to reintroduce a different side of beauty that’s never been seen and to create a lane that’s never been made.”
Wasser is certainly in demand, having recently appeared on the cover of Elle France and at catwalk shows for Missoni, Balenciaga, Sacai, Dolce & Gabbana, Maison Margiela and Off-White. She also opened and closed the Annakiki Fall 2022 show and closed the Louis Vuitton Cruise 2023 Spring collection. As well as modelling work, she is currently training for the Los Angeles Marathon and feels “quicker and faster and stronger than ever”.
For the Pirelli photo shoot, which set designer Viki Rutsch revealed was partly inspired by a tarot card, Wasser wore a knitted bodysuit by Justine Janot and a flowing green cape, her legs bare. She said she did indeed feel like a warrior. “I felt very powerful... Obviously, me embodying Joan of Arc is pretty badass.”
“I felt very powerful... Obviously, me embodying Joan of Arc is pretty badass”
She also loved being part of such an “epic” cast. “To be with amazing women celebrating and empowering each other and also just embodying empowered women, people that are just legends – it’s an honour.”
As for what comes next, “I’m just beginning,” Wasser said. “There are so many things that I want to accomplish. Really, there’s no ceiling on what I’m capable of. And I think that’s the exciting thing about life.”