Karen Graham was born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1945. After studying French at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, and at the Sorbonne in Paris, she moved to New York City to pursue a career as a French-language high school teacher. In 1969, however, her life was changed forever when she shopped at the Bonwit Teller store in Manhattan one day. Becoming impatient waiting for the down elevator, she took the stairs instead, where she met modeling agency owner Eileen Ford. As Graham remembered in a 1999 interview, she had started chatting with Mrs Ford on the stairs, and by the time they were outside, Mrs Ford handed Graham her card and suggested that she think about becoming a model. Because Graham had not found a teaching job yet and was working as a bookkeeper, she decided to try modeling for a few years to make extra money to furnish her small apartment.
Graham's early work as a model included a photo shoot for Irving Penn, who found her to have a lovely look and was interested in photographing her for Vogue. Diana Vreeland, then the magazine's editor-in-chief, found her too small, but reluctantly agreed after Penn persisted. Graham first appeared in Vogue in 1970, and suddenly found herself in greater demand when Grace Mirabella replaced Vreeland as editor-in-chief. Between 1970 and 1975, Graham would appear on the magazine's cover twenty times.
Her status as a legendary model was set, however, with the Estee Lauder advertising campaign. The company began employing her intermittently in 1970 and 1971 to appear in their print ads, and she worked with Chicago photographerVictor Skrebneski. She was employed so frequently that by 1973, she became Estee Lauder's exclusive spokesmodel. It was a job she would do for the rest of the decade, appearing in print and television ads that presented her in tasteful, elegant, generously appointed tableaux - a parlor, a drawing room, a veranda - to represent the high-class image the Estee Lauder company created for itself.
In these ads, Graham was never identified by name, which Estee Lauder herself frankly admitted was deliberate. Mrs. Lauder did not want to dilute attention on the product by focusing more attention on the model in the ads. Many people, unfamiliar with the fashion and modeling world, thought Graham was, in fact, Mrs. Lauder. Ironically, the ads were a reflection of Mrs. Lauder's own idea of a woman of taste and sophistication. Skrebneski was happy to oblige, decorating his sets with Chinese vases, Pablo Picasso ceramics, and well-stocked bookshelves. Because the Lauder company aimed its products at upper-income women, at expensive prices, the ads had to project luxury. Various props were used - dolls, horses, and, curiously, a framed photograph of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, in a 1981 ad. The ad campaigns were mainly meant to project traditional, Old World elegance. A stunning exception was an ad campaign for the Lauder company's "Swiss age-controlling skincare program," in which Skrebneski photographed Graham standing among edged cylinders in a futuristic tableau and wearing her hair back, adorned with what looked like a plastic stereo headset and worn as if it were a space-age tiara.
Karen Graham inevitably gained attention from many men, including Delbert Coleman, a tycoon who ran the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, and was known for his controversial financial deals. He married Graham in 1974, but the marriage did not last long.
Far more successful was a romance with British television icon David Frost but, bowing to familial pressure, she returned to Mississippi. It was there she rekindled her relationship with Sam Mavar. They had a son named Graham, after Karen's maiden name.
Karen Graham was joined by model Shaun Casey in the Estee Lauder campaign in 1981, and for the next four years the Lauder company was thus represented by two spokesmodels. Graham quit in 1985, when she turned 40; as she told People magazine in 2000, she decided to leave modeling while she was still on top. Casey only briefly appeared in magazine advertisements before being fired and replaced with future news anchorwoman Willow Bay.
Graham remained in New York City for another six years before she moved to Rosendale, New York, where she pursued her favorite hobby, fly fishing. She had taken up the sport in the seventies after her brother had given everyone in her family a fly rod. Her passion for fly fishing led to a second career as a fly-fishing school operator and instructor, when she co-founded, with veteran fisherman Bert Darrow, Fly Fishing With Bert and Karen. The school offers two-day instructional courses, and furnishes all equipment.
In 1999, she returned to modeling for Estee Lauder's "Resilience Lift" face cream, aimed at older women and designed to help female skin reproduce the skin nutrients that prevent wrinkles. Graham was happy to return to modeling for the campaign, which lasted for a few years, and Victor Skrebneski returned to shoot the print ads for the Lauder company after leaving in 1993. Graham also did a few seasons of ESPN2's fishing series "In Search of Fly Water," and now lives in the foothills of North Carolina. In addition to fly fishing, she takes a great interest in horseback riding.