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A Conversation With Susan Holmes McKagan

Supermodel Susan Holmes McKagan sat down with Giddy's Marisa Sullivan to discuss her modeling career, her marriage to Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan and how they parent their children, both of whom have grown up in the modeling industry.

In this candid interview, "The Velvet Rose" author reveals the harrowing exploitation and abuse she observed in the modeling industry at the height of her career. Those days, thankfully, are mostly in the past, as cultural shifts have increased advocacy for the dignity of today's models, including the McKagans' two daughters: Grace and Mae.

McKagan also opens up about how she and Duff have made their marriage to Duff. The secret, she reveals, is they intentionally do activities together to enrich their relationship. They have tried everything from French lessons to riding motorcycles, and they use these activities as a springboard to keep their relationship fresh after two-plus decades of marriage.

Susan and Duff McKagan don't focus solely on their relationship, however. They also are the doting parents to two daughters, and their parenting style is naturally informed by the world they live in, both the good and the bad. For example, Duff's sobriety and experience with substance use influences how they talk to Grace and Mae about drinking and drug use. Additionally, Susan's experience in the modeling industry—and her intimate understanding of the pressure to meet beauty standards—has taught her to instill in her daughters the goal to be healthy, rather than chasing a certain jeans size.

Transcript

Marisa Sullivan (MS):

I'm Marisa Sullivan, and today, we are here with Susan Holmes McKagan, supermodel, best-selling author and journalist. I feel like you have a million other occupations; just a talented, bad-ass business bitch. How are you?

Susan Holmes McKagan (SHM):

What an intro! Wow, thanks, Marisa. Thanks for having me. Thanks for coming over and filming this fun segment.

MS:

I know a lot of my friends who are models have had, kind of, those uncomfortable moments. Has there ever been a time you had to make a quick decision of how you were going to handle a difficult situation?

SHM:

Yeah, there were a lot of times. And I'm very thankful because I have daughters, two daughters, and they do both model. They've worked for everyone from Pat McGrath to Skimz and Calvin Klein ads.

MS:

Grace and Mae, right?

SHM:

Yeah, Grace and Mae McKagan. Very proud of them. But they're much more protected nowadays, because in my time, I mean, you would be hit on all the time. You know, skeezy casting directors, photographers or agents, even. OK, let's just put it like this. I mean, it was all over CNN. One of my former modeling agents in Paris was linked to the [Jeffrey] Epstein thing. That was after I'd been there, I don't know, maybe he was…

MS:

Which is scary.

SHM:

It was very scary. There is that dark side. I think they think they can prey on the ones maybe that aren't necessarily gonna make it. You know, a lot of them are from poverty-stricken countries or families, and they just wanna get the hell out of there, and they'll do whatever it takes. And they're just so young, you know? And they'll brew up some story. I know Carré Otis is really going to bat right now against one of our agents who, unfortunately, yeah, was pretty bad, too. Now there's Models Alliance, so there's somewhere to go.

MS:

And anonymous...

SHM:

Yeah.

MS:

How did those experiences test your strength? Because I can see you learning a lot about yourself as you make those tough decisions.

SHM:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I can always look at myself in the mirror. I have scruples. I never did anything that was uncomfortable. And yeah, maybe I didn't get necessarily as many...some of the work, you know. But I feel very, I don't know, I just have a very strong sense of inner self, thank God, and knew...

MS:

Were you the person the other girls would come to? You seem like that mother hen that someone's like, "Oh this person did [this]" Did you ever have those moments where girls were leaning on you?

SHM:

I mean, I guess I'd like to think I was strong and a pillar of strength. But there's a lot of facades in that industry, because it's all about looking good, how you look, like the exterior. So everyone kind of projects this stronger, you know, confident sense of self. I think models actually feel the most insecure out of anybody. People think, "Oh, they must be so snobby and stuck up," and I say, no, because we know every single inch of our makeup, what's wrong with us. We've had so many rejections. And you're getting judged on the most superficial things.

MS:

Did you ever have issues with your weight? Were you always naturally thin or did you ever have moments where you thought, "Oh, maybe I'm not going to eat today," like some girls go through?

SHM:

That's a good question, because I will say there is a misconception with that. I'd say the majority of the models are naturally thin. I used to get teased in school, you know, like "toothpick" or whatever. So I would be trying to gain weight. I remember doing an Armani fitting in Milan and trying to breathe out because I couldn't fill the suit out. Like stuff like that. So a lot of the girls are just kind of gawky [and] gangly. They're tall and they're young, so they haven't quite grown into their full shape yet. So of course there are a few I'm sure [who've gone through that], like any like even in normal society.

MS:

Any industry, or any woman, facing any kind of rejection...

SHM:

But now, thank God, the boundaries have opened exponentially. There's plus size, petite, handicap, you know Winnie Harlow with her beautiful skin.

MS:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's cheesy and overused, but it's true. There's so many different definitions of what beauty is. You can ask 50 men what they think beautiful is, and it's going to be completely different.

SHM:

It's so true. Did you see that there was like a nice sort of layout and they went country by country of what each...

MS:

...Is the perfect kind of woman or dream woman...

SHM:

...dream woman for a guy, in like Spain or the States, and it was [all over the place]... It was really fascinating to see their dream girl. So different.

MS:

So [your] book, it's based on true stories, but partly fictional.

SHM:

It's a novel, it is fiction, but they say write what you know about, so I did, and sometimes you can tell more about a person's story through a fictitious novel because there aren't those fences.

MS:

You're not barred in, you can have more freedom.

SHM:

Yeah, you can have more fun.

MS:

Hey, they don't know if I'm telling the truth or not...

SHM:

Yeah!

MS:

Of course, you're writing about coming of age in New York as a model and falling in love with your real-life rockstar husband Duff McKagan, bass player for Guns N' Roses.

SHM:

Right, yeah.

MS:

That's covered in [the book], with The Westies. Is that the fictional band?

SHM:

Yeah, The Westies, which I was gonna say, there's a record. So this is the band stemming from the "Velvet Rose" book, signed by Duff for you. This is actually sort of like an "Almost Famous"/Stillwater the band... The Westies is the band in the book. And there's a couple songs on here [the record that accompanies the book]. It's Duff on bass, Izzy Stradlin on guitar on one of the songs, and Slash on guitar, Puffy from Faith No More on drums. They were never released before tracks that we had in the vault, and they went perfectly with the book. And the best thing about the book is it's my way of giving back. A portion of the proceeds go to MusiCares.

MS:

Oh, good, I love MusiCares.

SHM:

It's such a wonderful foundation. I mean, they truly truly give back to so many. They've helped a lot of people we know battling addiction, and needing help, counseling, a place to live. But they also help people with HIV, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's...

MS:

Yeah, they're a great organization.

SHM:

They're wonderful.

MS:

So when you're flitting around becoming this international model, at what point, if you want to tell me... I know I remember [how it is] in the book, but I don't know how similar or different the real-life version is of you meeting your husband and going through that. Can you take us through that first, because obviously we talk a lot about relationships [at Giddy].

SHM:

We just celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary, in a row! We say that, in a row, because there's not a lot of those. Well, first of all, I am very blessed and fortunate because I met and married my best friend, the love of my life, like genuinely a...I mean, he's a bass player, he's a team player, and he gets, like, it's not just "always about me." Duff is a great guy. I call him my "True Blue Dude" because he's just, you know, salt of the Earth.

MS:

Yeah, he seems to handle all the fame very organically, and doesn't seem [to have that rock star behavior], just meeting him a few times here and there..

SHM:

Yeah he's easy-going; you know Duff.

MS:

Not what some of these other guys in the industry can be like...

SHM:

Well, he's the youngest of eight children.

MS:

OK, so there you go.

SHM:

His older brothers and sisters would have not allowed that [behavior].

MS:

You guys seem so romantic. Do you have those kinds of date nights where you do little things to celebrate those early years?

SHM:

We definitely do, especially when the kids were younger. Now you get to have date night like every night. But I think it's super important to keep a dedicated day of the week. Every Friday is your night to, you know, wine and dine me, and basically just dedicate something to do together.

That's the thing, too. Don't ever just throw in the towel, always keep trying and keeping it a little fresh, and try not to take that person for granted. I've taken motorcycle lessons, I got my motorcycle license, we'll ride Harleys [together]. I've learned to play some guitar. We took a boating navigational course together because we were running this small yacht.

MS:

That's cool, activities and branching out. That's great advice.

SHM:

He'll write me a song...

MS:

OK, that always helps! And even if you're not a musician, guys out there, write a poem!

SHM:

Write a poem, or just write a little note, switch it up, don't always just say "I love you." Say it, show it...

MS:

Making a little effort, even if you're slammed and busy, just a teeny little text, "thinking about you, slammed, call me later."

SHM:

That little heart emoji.

MS:

Just to show you you're on their mind.

SHM:

Yeah, don't just send the D-pic...

MS:

I won't even go there. I know, don't ever send an unsolicited dick pic.

SHM:

I'm also enjoying our weekly SiriusXM show Duff and I do.

MS:

Yes, "Three Chords & the Truth." Do you film straight from here [at home] or depends where you are?

SHM:

Exactly, we're mobile, cause we're modern-day DJs.

MS:

Because you're in Seattle as well.

SHM:

Yeah we have a studio in Seattle; we film there. We just recently started adding video to our audio portion, so that was fun and unique. Then we filmed here [at home], and we filmed on the road in our hotel room while we're on tour. So it's just a really cool and sweet thing we get to do together, another creative outlet. We can formulate the song list, we can play anything we want, and it's on Ozzy Osbourne's station, Ozzie's Boneyard, Channel 38 [on SiriusXM]. It's a lot of fun.

MS:

And again, it goes hand in hand with what you were saying, like doing activities together, and sharing...

SHM:

And we've never done anything really together, business project-wise, so we kind of tiptoed into it. We tried a show, and that was cool. It was very well received. And then they added on some more shows so I guess it's doing really good!

MS:

What are certain tips to make your partner feel reassured when sometimes things could be a little sketchy?

SHM:

Well, to be honest, we're still working on that. And I've always said to him—it doesn't happen as frequently because now we know each other so well, you know; It takes time to reach that point, and the fact that people do have jealousy moments or fights—I always told Duff the day that I don't get mad at you is the day that shows I don't care.

MS:

Right, which can happen.

SHM:

That's the day you should worry.

MS:

Very good point. So guys don't be too scared off, a little insecurity and jealousy is healthy.

SHM:

A little bit, not too much. Because then, it's just not going to work. Basically, if you can't trust your partner, it's not going to work.

MS:

Yeah, not too much.

I wanna talk about his sobriety.

SHM:

He's always there...it's never not there. But he's cool if I drink. He's been sober for so long that...

MS:

That he's comfortable.

SHM:

Yeah, he'll say I've drank enough for everyone in this building in 10 years [for a] lifetime. I gotcha covered.

MS:

What you and Duff have been through, traveling all around, you're the supermodel, he's the rock star...You've seen all this highly sexual, over-sexed environment your whole life. How does that affect your parenting? Did it make you so paranoid?

SHM:

I know, right?

MS:

Because you guys have seen it all.

SHM:

We're like Ab Fab.

MS:

How would you parent them?

SHM:

Honestly, "lead by example" would be the first thing that comes to mind. Because even Mae has said to me, when she was dating before, she's like, "Would my dad do this?" Like if she's dating someone, would he act this way or say that thing? So we've just tried to lead by just being role models as best we could.

MS:

Yeah, not forcing too much on them, just showing love and partnership.

SHM:

Yeah, demonstrating in our day-to-day, being cool people that treat other people with kindness, love and respect, but in a fun way, too, of course. I'm just like the Mama Bear and nurturer. I probably asked them too many questions. I'm more the [type to] question, "So the thing with him, where did you go? What did he say? Where is he from?" I don't know, more in that department.

MS:

Yeah, your journalism is coming out.

SHM:

Yes, the journalist.

MS:

How have you taught them from what you've experienced and seen about body confidence?

SHM:

I wanted to emphasize to focus on being healthy, not thin, because in the modeling industry, a good majority—I'd say the majority—of the models are naturally tall and thin and skinny or whatever. But you hear of the other ones that were battling eating disorders and how they came so close to dying and all that stuff. And hey, we live in L.A. a good part of the year, so they grew up here. This is probably one of the toughest—L.A. and New York are probably two toughest cities I'd say in the whole wide world to raise kids. So I just always wanted to emphasize from day one. I remember always telling them, what you see in a magazine or what you see on Instagram...people edit their photos, stuff's photoshopped in magazines. It's not literal, you know. It's just to project inspiration.

MS:

Almost like a canvas, they add on to, manipulate what they want.

SHM:

Enhance, yeah, so I told them at a very young age, this is not how she woke up this morning. You know what I mean? So they had a strong sense of awareness with the industry portrayal versus real life.

Also, I love to cook, we grew up always cooking. They both are pretty exceptional cooks on their own, and they take pride in sharing recipes with me. Yesterday, Grace and I—she's a pescatarian—and she's like, "I have this new miso, roasted vegetables, and sauce thing." She shared with me because we went to Disneyland the day before for a family fun day, and [now] we're like, "Oh my god, we need to eat healthy!" So, everything in moderation.

MS:

You have the cutest family.

SHM:

And now she's learning and training to be a yoga certified instructor. So she knows to be strong and healthy is key, not skinny and a certain size jean or whatever.

MS:

We talked about growing up in New York, and how scary it is. I'm so glad the girls came out on a great path, but we know how it is around here, the drugs that are around. So some of their peers and people that have grown up with or being in scenes where they're feeling pressured, like how scary is this fentanyl, at least?

SHM:

Oh my god, that is so freaking scary. Just a very small amount is enough to kill you. This is so awful, why is this not the biggest forefront? Even stronger than Oxycontin, cause I know that's a big battle.

MS:

So is it something you kind of had to talk to [them] about, just from what you guys have seen, and obviously from what Duff has gone through. For parents out there, what age do you have that discussion when you see there might be some possible drinking starting? Is that when you introduce the "just say no to drugs" kind of thing?

SHM:

I don't know the exact age. I just remember having conversations with them, especially them growing up in a house where Duff is sober, so they know that he's...you know, he almost died from that addiction stuff. And it can run in your family, it's genetics, too. So, just making them aware and, it doesn't just start one day; again, it starts from like every single day, implementing, demonstrating, showing them, living a solid life, leading by example, making the right decision.

OK, you're going to make mistakes. We all [did], that's part of growing up, we get that. But try to make the lesser of the severe mistakes, and if you do get caught up in that, we're here for you. We don't judge. We always said, you go to a party, call us any time of the night, no questions asked. It's so important.

MS:

That seems to be the best way to do it, from what I've heard, just from all the parents that I've talked to. Because kids can be so scared to go to their parents, scared they're going to get in trouble, and then something happens to their friend or themself.

SHM:

I'd rather have them call us than an Uber at like two in the morning, you know?

MS:

So then growing up with not like an appeared "friend" type thing, but somebody you can always...like a shoulder they can always lean on, tell anything to. Their protection is your number-one goal.

SHM:

Yeah, your safety, security, your health is everything.

MS:

Susan, this is so great. Thank you so much.

SHM:

Thank you so much. This has been a lot of fun.

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