MAGAZINE: Conceived as a playhouse for adults, Cara Delevingne’s 1940s white-brick home in Los Angeles is the stuff of design-world lore. It brims with madcap furnishings, each corner appointed with her signature wit and imagination. There’s a tented poker room draped in red velvet, a David Bowie–themed bathroom, a ball pit with circus-stripe walls, trampolines laid into the lawn.
When I arrive at the big blue front doors on a cloudless day in late January, Delevingne greets me with a warm hug. She has the gawky charm of a teenage music nerd—barefoot and dressed in an oversized vintage Prince T-shirt matched with gray marl gym shorts—and ushers me quickly past the crystal clear baby grand piano and the glowing James Turrell art installation up to the den on the first floor. If each room reflects a side of her personality, then this space suggests Delevingne at her most introspective. Decorated with little more than a few graphic Bowie concert posters, it’s the one room where the famously kinetic British model and actor might occasionally sit still. “Did you feel the earthquake last night?” she asks, referring to the 4.2 magnitude shock waves that struck off the coast of Malibu in the early hours of the morning. I confess I slept through it, and I’m surprised that she didn’t as well. Could anything rock the foundations of this fantastical bachelorette pad? “They don’t really scare me much,” she says dryly, of earthquakes, sinking her gangly limbs into the sofa and curling up with her dogs—one a Pomeranian husky named Leo, the other a Chihuahua terrier called Alfie. “I guess I’m just always ready for the ground to fall beneath my feet.”
After an emotionally turbulent year, Delevingne is slowly beginning to find her center: She’s proud to tell me that her commitment to sobriety is some four months and counting. “The games, the crazy performances, the escape rooms—I loved giving that to people,” she says. “They could come here and leave their stress and responsibilities behind, and maybe that sounds like Willy Wonka, but it was the idea that they could come and just be like kids,” she says. “But in giving that to people, I was kind of stuck in myself.”
On the outside, Delevingne has always played the beguiling mischief-maker. She shook up the modeling world as a wide-eyed 18-year-old schoolgirl from London, shooting to fame as the face of Burberry in 2011. Along with those magnificent caterpillar brows, her high-spirited nature and wry sense of humor helped propel her to stardom over a decade when personality was all but shunned on the runway. Here was a young woman who was self-possessed, even in the blinding glare of the spotlight—and her ascent to Hollywood with roles in films like Paper Towns (2015) and Suicide Squad (2016) only furthered that perception. On the inside, however, she was struggling to make sense of who she was. “If you have problems going into this industry, they will only get magnified and exacerbated,” says Delevingne. “There is nothing about it that makes it better.”
Still, few could have anticipated Delevingne’s all-too-public unraveling last September, shortly after her 30th birthday, when she was photographed looking disheveled and distressed at the Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles. The tabloids were quick to draw comparisons to Delevingne’s 63-year-old mother, Pandora, who has talked about her struggles with bipolar disorder and heroin addiction. Then, just weeks later, defying all expectations, Delevingne appeared at a Paris Fashion Week event for a collaboration honoring her friend the late Karl Lagerfeld, looking coiffed and radiant. Fans were left wondering: Had the headlines about Delevingne’s so-called downward spiral been blown out of proportion? Was Cara okay or was she not?
Delevingne describes those paparazzi photos as a source of overwhelming shame and embarrassment, and an urgent wake-up call to step away from the substances and the alcohol that had long seduced her with their offer of escape, and to confront deeper personal issues that she’d been running away from. Delevingne had just returned from Burning Man—“I hadn’t slept. I was not okay,” she says—and was en route to a work engagement. “It’s heartbreaking because I thought I was having fun, but at some point it was like, Okay, I don’t look well.” She pauses to gather her thoughts, then continues. “You know, sometimes you need a reality check, so in a way those pictures were something to be grateful for.”
The tumultuous narrative arc of Delevingne’s interior life begins when she was a child born into a wealthy family—her father, Charles, a property developer, her socialite mother the daughter of Jocelyn Stevens, a Fleet Street executive, and Jane Sheffield, a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. “In a way, a lot of people have looked at my childhood or my family and thought, She’s spoiled, there’s nepotism, she grew up extremely privileged, which I did, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “But life wasn’t all that easy for other reasons.” Delevingne admits she’s still grappling with the history of addiction her mother has talked openly about. In 2017, Cara cowrote a young adult novel, Mirror, Mirror, that was informed by the maelstrom of her teenage years. It is no accident that the protagonist’s mother was an alcoholic. “For a long time, I didn’t really put myself in her shoes,” Delevingne says. “I just needed someone to be angry at and I was angry at her, but it wasn’t her fault…. The way that addiction took my mother from me was brutal, and it was brutal for her too.”
As a child, Delevingne was precocious, curious, and exceptionally bright. Though not academically gifted, she excelled in the arts. “She was always uniquely talented,” remembers Delevingne’s aunt, the author and editor Melinda Stevens. “Whatever she picked up—whether it was a guitar or a piano or whatever—she just could play it and nail it. She has a kind of prodigy-ish note in her. But even if she was quiet in moments, the inner whirrings of her mind were always churning away.” Delevingne attended Bedales, the well-known liberal arts boarding school in Hampshire, England, committing herself to drama and music, even as the emotional chaos of her upbringing continued to follow her. “I was happy as a kid for sure, but I think when I grew up, I looked back and realized, That’s not normal,” says Delevingne. “And then as a teenager, it just all came plummeting down. That’s also when I started drinking and partying. There was this need to escape and change my reality as I was hit with just huge questions: What am I doing here? Who am I trying to be?”
She recalls her first experience with alcohol misuse at just seven years old, at a family wedding. “I woke up in my granny’s house in my bedroom with a hangover, in a bridesmaid’s dress,” says Delevingne. “I’d gone around nailing glasses of Champagne.” By the age of 10, she was prescribed sleeping pills to manage crippling insomnia. She was also diagnosed with dyspraxia, a disorder that affects movement and coordination. “This was the beginning of mental health issues and inadvertent self-harm,” she remembers, and led to various forms of therapy—“art therapy, music therapy, EMDR, CBT,” she says, rattling off the list. Then at 15, she suffered a breakdown, and was put on antidepressants to help her cope with her deep sense of isolation. “I was on medication and it just…it saved my life,” she says. “This wasn’t a chemical imbalance as much as it was a full trauma response,” she adds. “I hadn’t uncovered the fucking hole inside, the real whirlpool within. And I still think there’s a part of diagnosis and labeling that is damaging. There were so many times that I was encouraged to take this or be put on that.” Now, she says, “I’m more of a naturalist, a purist in a sense, when it comes to medications.”
Delevingne has weathered bouts of depression at various stages of her life, but in 2020, as the world went into lockdown, she hit a wall. “In the beginning, I was living with people in this COVID bubble in LA. We thought it was going to be a weeklong thing, and so it was fun.” She started her quarantine with Ashley Benson, her then girlfriend of almost two years. By April their relationship had ended. “And then I was alone, really alone…it was a low point.” As each day bled into the next, she struggled to get out of bed. “I just had a complete existential crisis. All my sense of belonging, all my validation—my identity, everything—was so wrapped up in work. And when that was gone, I felt like I had no purpose. I just wasn’t worth anything without work, and that was scary,” she says. “Instead of taking the time to really learn something new or do something new, I got very wrapped up in misery, wallowing, and partying. It was a really sad time.”
As the world began to open up, Delevingne quickly fell back into her old patterns, throwing herself into work the first chance she could, and partying hard in her downtime. “I’m classically good at avoiding things, I just didn’t want to deal with my issues,” she says. “And those are things I’ve been running from since I was a kid.” In the fall of 2021, on the heels of shooting the popular fantasy TV series Carnival Row in Prague, a project came along that required her to reveal herself in a way that she’d never done before: Planet Sex, the six-part docuseries exploring sexuality and gender recently released on Hulu. It acted on her as a kind of mirror. “It was super personal and I didn’t really realize how personal it would be,” says Delevingne, who remembers being moved to the point of tears at the end of her first day on location at the Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs, billed as the world’s largest festival for queer women. “I’d only really learned how to show emotion when I was acting because I didn’t feel worthy enough to feel those things as myself. With Planet Sex, I was just so uncomfortable in front of the camera in the beginning because it was like, Oh, God, I’ve gotta be myself.”
On the show, Delevingne unpacks the complexities of her queer identity. “I still struggle with being open—really open—about just how much I love women,” she says in the first episode, speaking directly to camera. Jessica Chermayeff and Ana Veselic, the couple who directed the docuseries, were instantly taken by this directness and her willingness to be vulnerable. “I think a lot of celebrities say they’re on a personal journey, but with her it was more than just lip service,” says Chermayeff. “She was scared in all the right ways.” Veselic concurs: “Cara was very open. Not everything was this perfect platitude statement, this neat little answer that checks all the boxes. There were definitely gray areas. As a viewer, I really miss that in conversations like this, because it’s not black and white.”
But there was still more personal turmoil to come: While filming Planet Sex in Tokyo the following spring, she received the crushing news that her grandmother Jane Sheffield had died. For Delevingne, Sheffield had always afforded her a rare safe space as a child—a place to be herself, a home and a garden to play in. “I would stay with her in her house in the country. She looked after me a lot when my parents weren’t able to…. When I heard she had died there were a lot of things I had to process because I hadn’t seen her since Christmas the year before. I was really trying to pour everything I had into work, and every night I would come back from filming and sit alone and just cry. By the time I got to the Met Ball two weeks later I was fucking exhausted.” When Delevingne, who suffers from psoriasis, walked the carpet of the gala covered in gold body paint, dry flaking patches of her skin were laid bare, visibly inflamed. “It was a sign of the major stress in my life,” she says, “that I couldn’t cope, that my body, this sensitive organ, couldn’t handle it.” But, she says, she didn’t hold back at the after-parties. “I went and got blackout afterwards. It was like, What am I doing? The day after, I had to travel to my granny’s funeral. It was horrible.”
And so she embarked on a summer of self-destructive and hedonistic revelry. “I always kind of knew that things were going to have to be different in my 30s, because the way that I was living was not sustainable,” she says. As a last hurrah for her 20s, Delevingne planned a blowout Alice in Wonderland–themed birthday party, the crescendo to a three-week-long vacation in Ibiza. “I told myself, I should be having such a good time. I’ve got all my friends here. I need to be enjoying this. The house I was staying in had a tower and I would just kind of lock myself in it instead. I barely left the room.” She describes the feeling of foreboding as like “a slowly beating drum inside.” “There was this need for change, but I was fighting it so much. I was welcoming in this new time but I was also grieving. It was like a funeral for my previous life, a goodbye to an era. And so I decided I was going to party as hard as I could because this was the end.”
Things came to a head when she flew from Europe to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for Burning Man. “There’s an element of feeling invincible when I’m on drugs,” she says. “I put myself in danger in those moments because I don’t care about my life,” she says. Her memories of that time are somewhat fragmented, refracted through substances that she doesn’t name, but aren’t hard to guess at—whatever would ramp her up and keep introspection at bay. She recollects being covered in inexplicable bruises. “I would climb anything and jump off stuff…it felt feral,” she says. “It’s a scary thing to the people around you who love you.”
For members of Delevingne’s family, witnessing this brilliant yet deeply troubled young woman on the verge was painful. “It was scary, we were longing for something to change, but you can’t project that onto someone else,” says Stevens. “There were plans to do something about it, a lot of coordinating with her sisters and closest friends. We spent a lot of time with each other that summer, and it was reaching a pitch.” As her mother’s younger sister, Stevens shares a special bond with Delevingne, who is also the youngest of her siblings, Poppy and Chloe. “We’ve remained extremely close and connected whether we’re on opposite sides of the world or not,” Stevens says. She recalls a plane ride she took with Delevingne toward the end of her birthday celebrations as a major inflection point. “Obviously there have been highs and lows—huge highs and lows,” she says. “So I’m just extremely proud that she got to this new start of her own volition, because she’s so capable, she’s so strong.”
That fall, after the paparazzi photos came out, a tight group of Delevingne’s childhood friends, many of them Brits living in LA, rallied around her. Delevingne confesses that, at first, she struggled to make the most of the support. “I have so many friends,” she tells me. “They ride for me and I love my friends so much, but it felt like a lot of the time, they were shallow relationships only because I wasn’t able to be honest about the things I was going through. I didn’t want to burden anyone. It was also like, What if people leave? If you ask any of my friends, they would say they’d never seen me cry.” Meanwhile, she says a brand that had once lifted her up as a vocal mental health advocate was now shying away. Suddenly all the meaningful connections she’d made seemed more valuable than ever. “From September, I just needed support. I needed to start reaching out. And my old friends I’ve known since I was 13, they all came over and we started crying. They looked at me and said, ‘You deserve a chance to have joy.’ ”
Her circle is wide-ranging and has remained steadfast. Only Murders in the Building costar Selena Gomez, a close friend, says she is someone who “wants the best for other people.” Phoebe Waller-Bridge describes her as “deeply loyal” and “unnervingly wise.” “We all have moments in our lives that we’d rather weren’t photographed and shown to everyone. She has maintained her honesty and vulnerability and is open-hearted about her life and her experiences—what more can you ask of a person who is living their life in a fishbowl?” Waller-Bridge met Delevingne in London a few years back. “There isn’t anyone like her in the world. She has been a rock-solid friend to me,” she says. Margot Robbie, who came to know Delevingne on the set of Suicide Squad, echoes the sentiment. “We shared most of our 20s together and we were by each other’s side as we entered our 30s,” says the 32-year-old actor. “I was literally with her the day I turned 30 and vice versa. I think it will always be that way—40s, 50s, 60s. God knows what we’ll be doing on our 70th birthday, but the thought of it already makes me laugh.”
Those who have known Delevingne since before she was famous all point to her irrepressible verve. “Even if you don’t meet her in person, you can sense it through the lens,” says Stella McCartney. “Her charisma, it’s just not of this planet, is it?” says Sienna Miller, a family friend who first encountered Delevingne when she was a teenager and describes her as “the most special person I’ve ever met.” She recalls Delevingne’s early career in the nascent days of social media as extreme and high-octane. “I remember having lunch with her in New York, and just a million more people were following her on Instagram each day. It was really overwhelming because it came out of nowhere.” For Miller, the challenges that Delevingne has faced are all too relatable. “In my 20s, I experienced complete chaos in my own life, because I didn’t know how to manage what was being flung at me. And for someone with that amount of fire and life in them, it can be really difficult,” Miller says. “For her to have reached this point, to have done the 180 and completely turned around and started walking in a different direction is astounding. Sobriety is a difficult road, and she’s made this step, she’s seen herself, and I think she is loving herself more than she’s ever loved herself.”
Delevingne’s current girlfriend, Leah Mason, a musician who goes by the moniker Minke, has stuck by her in dark moments too. While they started seeing each other a little over a year ago, the bond runs deep. They first met as kids at Bedales, then lost contact before reconnecting at an Alanis Morissette concert 12 years later. “She’s the type of person who has boundaries, and there came a point with me when she wasn’t going to have it much longer, and it was a blessing in disguise,” Delevingne tells me. “It’s the first time I feel like I’m in a relationship not trying to rescue someone.” Shy and soft-spoken, Mason arrives at the house later that afternoon and we’re briefly introduced over cups of ginger and turmeric tea. The couple spent the holidays in Utah. This was Delevingne’s first time doing Christmas and New Year’s Eve sober. “It was just the two of us,” she says. “I was in bed by 12:15 a.m. on New Year’s Eve having the nicest time.”
Delevingne understands that the road to recovery has no end point. Ultimately, the most important person to hold her to account right now is herself. “I’ve had interventions of a sort, but I wasn’t ready. That’s the problem. If you’re not face-first on the floor and ready to get up again, you won’t. At that point,” she says, referring to her wake-up call this fall, “I really was.” Delevingne checked herself into rehab late last year, knowing that she needed therapeutic support. “I hadn’t seen a therapist in three years,” she says. “I just kind of pushed everyone away, which made me realize how much I was in a bad place. I always thought that the work needs to be done when the times are bad, but actually the work needs to be done when they’re good. The work needs to be done consistently. It’s never going to be fixed or fully healed but I’m okay with that, and that’s the difference.”
Perhaps the most life-affirming decision she’s made in the last year has been committing to the 12-step program. “Before I was always into the quick fix of healing, going to a weeklong retreat or to a course for trauma, say, and that helped for a minute, but it didn’t ever really get to the nitty-gritty, the deeper stuff. This time I realized that 12-step treatment was the best thing, and it was about not being ashamed of that. The community made a huge difference. The opposite of addiction is connection, and I really found that in 12-step.”
Other changes she’s making are incremental and cautious. “It’s the small things, because, my God, I wanted to quit smoking too, but right now it’s too much,” she explains. “At first I was exploring all the avenues, seeing what was best for me, seeing if medication was necessary. Putting everything—work, every obligation—aside and just asking myself, What do I need in this time?” It starts by getting outside, working out, and eating three meals a day, she explains. A committed yogi since she was 18, she includes meditation and movement in her twice-daily practice. In addition to the 12-step meetings, there are weekly therapy sessions—she’s found psychodrama, a form of therapy involving role-play in which a person dramatizes a personal problem, to be especially helpful.
“This process obviously has its ups and downs, but I’ve started realizing so much. People want my story to be this after-school special where I just say, ‘Oh look, I was an addict, and now I’m sober and that’s it.’ And it’s not as simple as that. It doesn’t happen overnight…. Of course I want things to be instant—I think this generation especially, we want things to happen quickly—but I’ve had to dig deeper.”
As for where she’s headed next, Delevingne doesn’t want to look too far into the future. Everything now is day by day, moment by moment, or “second by second,” as she puts it. She’s intent on being careful around career choices. “Work is extremely important, but work is secondary because my self-work is the most important thing,” she says. That said, there are some long-term personal goals she’s working toward, including motherhood. “I’ve wanted a kid since I was 16,” says Delevingne, who hopes to freeze her eggs one day soon. “I want babies so bad. Back then I would not have been ready, of course—I just wanted to replace the need to look after my mom with a kid of my own.” In the short term, she’s taking time off, packing up her RV for a road trip with Leah. “I still have a lot of energy,” she admits, “but it’s not erratic. I’m calmer. I’m stiller.”
At that moment our conversation is interrupted by an app notification flashing on her phone. “Keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open today,” the message reads. As she peers into the screen, I notice the tattoos on her hands. The face of a lion is etched along her right forefinger in fine inky lines. It’s the first tattoo that Delevingne, a Leo, ever got, one that was an act of defiance when she first started modeling as a teenager. “At that time you couldn’t get tattoos because it was part of your modeling contract, and they kind of owned your body,” she explains. These days it feels more rebellious to get them removed, wipe the slate clean. And that’s something on Delevingne’s to-do list. “Fresh start,” she says, smiling. “New beginnings.” No matter the case, she’s starting to feel more at home in her own skin.
BY CHIOMA NNADI