Call her the Swedish Unicorn. It’s the only fitting nickname—her curves are just as unreal as that mythical creature. Her real name is Ines Helene, and the 23-year-old Swede has fast become one of the most famous Instagram models in the whole damn world. She’s amassed an army of more than one million followers with no signs of slowing down.
But Helene is much more than a super-hot woman who’s famous online. She’s a tireless advocate for human rights who devotes much of her time to 28. Jun, a global humanitarian organization. They say all politics are personal. As a digital influencer, Helene is political because she’s personal. On her Twitter she informs her fans about world events and educates them on social issues. Little by little, the Instagram model changes hearts and minds.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Playboy, Helene opened up about what it’s like being sexy for a living and being underestimated because of it, Twitter fandom, watching video game streams into the small hours of the morning, daily online abuse and why the refugee crisis in Europe is so heartbreaking. Helene emerged as a kind-hearted, Nutella-loving, wicked smart young woman.
In the last year and a half, you’ve become Instafamous. Obviously, no one can prepare for that. How have you adjusted?
I was much more naive in the beginning. I avoided interviews and anything that could bring me more notoriety and attention online because I was afraid of the scrutinization that comes with it. My father said a very wise thing: ‘People are always going to disagree with you or have something bad to say, whatever it is you do. Do what makes you happy.’ And since then, I’ve learned to manage it pretty well. I disregard negativity and completely ignore rumors.
Speaking of the rumors… there is whispered talk that you’ve gently corroborated in the past that celebrities such as Drake or the Weeknd have slid into your DMs. Sadly, rumors like those caused some haters to gossip that you’re bound to become a conquest, just another hip-hop groupie. How do you deal with such intense sexist scrutiny of your flirtations? How do you deal with people who misinterpret every little thing you do and track every show you may or may not attend? Does it make it tough to be 23?
I have over a million followers on Instagram. I wouldn’t call them fans. I’m just a girl from Sweden who posts on Instagram. It’s quite bizarre. I’ve heard anything ranging from artists, actors, athletes and even to my female friends. I can’t follow, or comment on something, even tweet someone, without rumors circulating. Because I don’t put my whole life online, people speculate and would rather improperly infer things or flatly fabricate things to fit their misperception of me.
You studied business at university and planned to be a financial analyst in the investment banking sector. But I’ve read that once your Instafame began to leave the earth, you left school to concentrate on building your empire. Jay-Z once rhymed 'I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.’ Now you’re a business, woman. You’ve certainly followed a similar path of self-made wealth. Would you say you have that same hustler spirit?
There seems to be a misconception that I left university because of Instagram. My new business was a factor, but I left it mostly because I was going through a tough time. I had health problems. After having studied and worked my whole life, I needed a break. I plan on resuming my studies next year. But yes, I would say I have a hustler spirit. I’ve been independent all my life. I started working and helping my father out when I was 10 years old. I was taught to earn my own money. And I haven’t stopped working since. I definitely plan on building my own empire.
What do you want to build? What would you like to create with your newfound fame?
I am grateful for the opportunities that have come my way as a result of Instagram. It would be foolish for me or anyone not to take advantage of any opportunity to create a career for themselves through the viability of social media. Thinking beyond the moment, I hope to use the platform as a springboard to matters that are close to my interest and heart. I think with a huge presence on social media, I have a responsibility to raise awareness and share important issues. I want to help people and do a small difference in this world. I am already trying to make an impact by working with different charities and organizations, such as World Aid Active. It’s an organization that actively works with human rights to help refugees. My most current project is helping stranded Syrian refugees with the organization, 28. Jun.
You’re famous for being sexy. In a sense, you’ve turned sexiness into power. It’s almost like a currency. Is that how you see it?
I don’t have power. My Instagram has given me a degree of influence. With that degree of influence, I want to change something that has always been perceived as an either/or. A comment I get sometimes is: “I only follow you for your selfies, not opinions.” My social media is both a job and a hobby. I get paid for some posts, but my humanitarian posts are my own thoughts. [Those comments] don’t not bother me. You can follow me for my selfies, political messages or funny remarks. I care about you seeing my message. Whether it’s a product or an opinion. You might not be interested in it, but maybe, just maybe, someone is. And that someone is enough for me.
On your Twitter feed, I’ve noticed that you engage with your fans in a very real way. You joke with them. You ask them about what they like and enjoy. You give them life advice. You also correct them, or will shut them down when they act ignorant or foul. Ignoring the haters, what do you like most about your fans?
I want to engage with them. They don’t have to follow or like me, but they do. It’s a very grounding thought. They have become a part of my daily life. I like their humor and how respectful they are. They confide in me and ask me for advice or share their thoughts whether they’re sad or happy. It can range from depression and heartbreak to career choices. I know how it feels, having no one to talk to when you’re young and confused. I love to help if I can.
Do you have a favorite artist, writer, poet, philosopher, spiritual practice or school of thought/philosophy that guides your worldview?
I live by one quote by Mother Teresa, and it is: 'If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.’
OK, let me just say it plain: you are easily one of the sexiest women in the world. It’s indisputable. Yet, men and women seem genuinely shocked to learn how smart you are. Is that frustrating?
It is one of the curses of being a woman in general. I’m not the only woman who was to deal with this prejudice. Women are objectified and looked at like mannequins. It’s deeply embedded in society. It’s frustrating, but these are attitudes and prejudices we encounter in everyday life. I find it ironical when I get the comment: 'You chose to be a model and show your body, you should expect this.’ When I was studying finance and working, I experienced much worse sexism on a daily basis. This applies to all women.
How do you handle the constant dismissal? Do you use the underestimations of you to your advantage? Or does your pride flare up, and you want them to know, so you make sure to let people see what sort of sharply intelligent mind they’re dealing with?
Sometimes I won’t bother, and sometimes I like to shock depending on the platform I’m on. Most of my Twitter followers know by now that I’m politically aware. It’s a different story with Instagram. There is not as much space to voice your thoughts. I think it scares some. How can you be sexy and know four languages? How can you have studied finance or social science? How can you go against all the stereotypes we’ve created?
Do you feel that people underestimate your intelligence twice, like, once for being a woman, and again for being a beautiful woman?
I get it bad. A lot of women get it bad. Some people assume that if you are a woman with a face people find attractive you automatically rely on a man to support you. People have attempted to shame me by insinuating that I’m anything from an escort to a groupie.
What about women? Are they as sexist as men?
I think most women are just repeating what society has taught them since they were born. In that way they are validating the sexism, with competing, comparing and undermining one another. It’s often not intentional because most aren’t aware of it.
You ride the fine line of provocative and choose to conceal rather than reveal. Yet, for your fans, none of that seems to matter. Even if you don’t pose in lingerie, due to how sexy you look in a tight dress, your fans still see you as a sex symbol. Do you ever feel that psychic weight of all those fantasies focused on you?
I would rather conceal because that is my personal style. It bothers me when I get comments like, “You are much classier than some of these half-naked models,” like a piece of clothing is going to affect your dignity or your self worth. I guess the weird emails, comments and DMs can freak me out a bit. Who wouldn’t be? Who deserves to receive rude, vile comments directed at them?
As someone who’s out there on the frontlines of the culture, a woman who’s helping to change our views and expectations of women, as you just pointed out, you take a city block’s worth of online abuse every day. So, what makes you hopeful for the future? That is, if you are optimistic about it.
Again, I am just a woman from Sweden with an Instagram and Twitter account. I am not on the frontlines. Female activists, leaders, politicians and artists are the ones on the frontline. I do what I can to address the issues that matter to me in ways that I can. What makes me hopeful is seeing all these young women coming to realize that you don’t have to be something that society expects you to be. Women around the world are exposing injustice and coming together by supporting each other. With help of strong female role models, younger generations have started questioning the meaning of the female role in society, that striving for other things than a man, marriage and a family is OK and does not make you less of a 'good woman.’ You don’t have to choose; there is room enough for you to be you.
Long before you were famous, you were a little girl born in the Balkans during the war. Your parents are Serbian and Bosnian. And your family emigrated to Sweden as refugees. Since you grew up in Sweden, do you think of yourself as Swedish? Yes, I consider myself Swedish, but I value and respect my ethnic heritage.
This gives you a rather unique perspective on the current refugee crisis in Europe. How do you empathize with these most recent refugees?
I truly think that to completely understand the situation of what these people are going through, you have to go through it yourself. You leave everything you’ve ever loved and known behind. You’ve probably lost most of your family and friends. Some might even have turned against you. You go to the refugee camp. You’re waiting. Waiting forever, it seems. You’re going somewhere, but you don’t know where. Only thing you know is that you’re not going home. You’ve packed your bag with memories and clothes, and that is your whole life packed down in that bag. You end up going to a country with a completely different culture, different language and social norms. It’s human nature to want to seek a better life for yourself. How can you blame someone who does that? The last thing my parents wanted was to leave their home. And when they did, they thought they were leaving to stay a year or two. But by the time the war was over, and things started to settle, there was no home to return to. Family, friends were gone and replaced by painful memories and ruins.
From what you learned from your refugee experience, what would you say is the best path forward for Europe?
Reading about how some EU countries have treated refugees appalls me. Asylum is a human right. A right which many of the citizens of these countries have used when they were in need of it. Take Hungary for example. What if the world closed its borders for the Hungarian people during the revolution in 1956? Around 200,000 people fled. I don’t think there is an easy way to solve the refugee crisis, but we have to start connecting the dots. People are fleeing both Assad and ISIS in Syria. To think that reinstating Assad would be the solution is naive. As for Europe, as it is right now, according to the so-called Dublin Regulation, a refugee must seek asylum in the first EU-country they arrive to. That has not been the case. Refugees have been coming from Greece, the Balkans, without any sort of registration in these countries. If EU is going to work as a union, this needs to be regulated differently and have a more fair distribution. All this is based on the solidarity between countries.
Although you were very, very young when the Bosnian war happened, what is it like losing one’s country? And how do you explain Yugoslavia to someone now that it’s being forgotten?
It’s like being nationless in some people’s eyes. In my everyday life, I’m reminded that I’m 'not really Swedish,’ but 'not really Bosnian either.’ I feel at home in Sweden, even though a lot of my cultural heritage is from former Yugoslavia. I consider myself as both. My ethnicity is Bosnian/Serbian. My nationality is Swedish. When we moved to my childhood home, we had a lot of problems with some neighbors who were telling us to 'go home’ and the police wouldn’t do anything about it. I remember thinking 'but this is my home.’ I’ve never known another home. That’s the first time I started doubting my identity. Still, I’m happy that we came here. It’s one of the best countries in the world. My big sister who spent most of her teenage years in Bosnia feels differently. Even though she loves Sweden, her home will always be Bosnia. Life happened, and starting over somewhere else just isn’t an option.
One major theme that emerges from all your various interests is a strong sense of ethics. Where do you think that comes from?
My father has always been a role model and an influence on me. His strong sense of right and wrong has always been an inspiration to me. I would say Swedish culture as well — my second home was with my best friend and her mother. Having both these cultures and perspectives made me more understanding of people and different cultures in general.
I read that Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk are two of your favorite authors. What was the last great book that changed you as a person?
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, which is a must-read. It’s a touching story, and at the same time gives you an insight into the Taliban and the fragile position of women.
Obviously, I have to ask. Nutella is like bae to you, right? You have a one-woman campaign to become the spokesmodel for Nutella. Seems like a genius bit of marketing. Has Nutella reached out to you yet?
I’m still waiting on that text back from Nutella. I actually saw they had a campaign going on for spokespeople, but that was U.S. residents only. Hopefully they’ll do a Europe one and I’ll have my chance to sweep them off their feet.
What if another hazelnut and chocolate spread realized Nutella’s mistake and they asked you to be their spokeswoman, could you do it? Could you betray bae?
I could never betray bae.
Everyone has their late-night YouTube vids they secretly love. What are your favorite k-holes to fall down when you have an insomniac night?
I love watching documentaries. I’m one of those people who become quite obsessive if there is a subject that is talked about and I don’t know anything about it. I will spend days researching facts about it until I get it, for fun. I also spend a ridiculous amount of time watching gaming streams.
Let’s get a little weird. Do you believe in life after death? Or reincarnation?
This is a hard question. I’d like to think that we don’t just have an expiration date, and then it’s over. But that is why I want to make the most of my time while I’m here.
What about spirits? Have you ever seen a ghost? Or do you believe that’s all nonsense?
I’ve never seen a ghost, but I have experienced things such as dreams that have turned out to be true. I don’t think it’s nonsense. I don’t think you should dismiss anything as simply nonsense, without knowing a hundred percent that it is untrue.
OK, here are few fast, fun ones: Beyonce on the beach… or Future up in the club? Beyonce on the beach.
Someone gifts you with an airplane ticket and accommodations for one night. Where do you go?
You love Swedish Idol, if you had to go on the show what would you sing?
Sugar Man by Rodriguez.
Let’s say your house is burning down… you run back in, you have this once chance… what do you save?
My cat, Fatty.
Haha! So, you and Fatty… Do you ever get worried you’ll become a cat lady? And would that be terrible?
I am already there.
What if you could see a glimpse of your life at age… 25, 30, 40, 50. Which would you want to see?
If cost were no concern, how would you spend a perfect day?
I’d probably spend it eating the entire day.
If you take a quick scroll, you’ll find tons of pretty girls on Instagram. Something sets you apart. Do you enjoy playing with your persona? Do you enjoy the game of seducing the world?
I don’t do it on purpose. I think it’s the fact that I manage to be private but still reveal bits of myself without revealing too much. Just enough for people to stay curious about it. I do enjoy the fact that people are drawn to me for reasons other than my looks. It’s a flattering thought. And I think there are a lot of pretty women in the industry, probably intelligent too, who don’t want to play that card. It’s good to have something that sets you apart. It puts a personality to the photos.
Recently, a young woman who’s Instafamous revealed the lie of her carefully-constructed social media appearance. This seemed to be genuinely shocking to some folks. How do you create a fantasy without confusing yourself?
Instagram may be a tool of fantasy for some people, but to me it is a means by which I choose to share aspects of my life visually. It is just one second of 24 hours of my day. My life isn’t perfect. No one’s life is, regardless of what their Instagram may look like. People need to remember that.
Last question. Pretty sure our readers would like to know: What qualities make a man worth your time? What makes a man sexy and a good partner for you?
A man with confidence and humor is extremely attractive. I’m not talking about the arrogant type of confidence, but someone who isn’t afraid to be honest and tell you exactly how it is. It’s also important that they are on the same page as you. I find it very hard to converse with people about gossip or small things. I want substance.