What image encapsulates guilty pleasures better than that moment when Eve sinks her teeth into that ripe, red apple? Growing up, for women, is often like that. We all have that bite-the-apple moment where we realise that we’ve been set up, scapegoated, objectified, that our pleasure is inextricably bound with guilt, like the seeds nestled inside the fruit, reproducing itself over and over, and with it this tiny mould for us to bend and break ourselves to fit into. But not any more, and certainly not for Esther-Rose McGregor. As an actor and model working for the likes of Miu Miu, Stella McCartney and more since she was 16, she knows what it means to be the object of the gaze, but she bites into that apple and she stares right back; an artist in her own right.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 49. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
You know what else they say about apples? They don’t fall far from trees. In a meta moment Esther-Rose recently acted as Tetha Grig in Obi-Wan Kenobi alongside her father, Ewan McGregor, telling him, “I was someone’s daughter once, too.” That being said, she isn’t just someone’s daughter. Her practice as a tattoo artist is driven not only through her love of drawing and pursuit of self-expression, but nurturing an intimate, collaborative, safe space between herself and her subject, where the two fuse. The power dynamic between object and subject melts away. When asked about her own tattoos, she tells the story of a pear tree somewhere in Brooklyn. Around now the branches’ll be bare, but come springtime pears will swell from white blossom and fall heavy on the ground. She tattooed herself with a rotting pear before she ever knew this tree and what it’d mean for her, and it makes sense that she is so drawn to that particular artform, because “life can bring meaning to pieces of art, because for me, it makes me want to live even more, because the most mundane, random things I can trust will eventually derive meaning in my life, no matter what.”
Esther is Twiggy chic but nobody’s muse, like a half-French-half Scottish-Bowie if he could stomach LA and sing like Françoise Hardy. And what do guilty pleasures look like to Esther? It’s eating deli meat straight from her bag, putting herself first, and missing her grandmother in Paris. 
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What does the term guilty pleasures mean to you personally?
That’s a big one. I feel like I might have even had this conversation with my friends before. I think that pleasure shouldn’t be associated with guilt in that sense. But I also think that society has taught us that we should feel a little bit more guilty for some things, like eating a good piece of cake. It’s something that doesn’t have the most positive connotations behind it, but you enjoy doing it, like sitting and watching TV for an afternoon. But again, I don’t believe you should feel guilty for any of that. I think that it’s important to do what makes you happy as long as it doesn’t consume everything. There is stuff that I could categorise as guilty pleasures, and as much as I might not feel guilty, I can understand why they would fall into that category, you know? 
What weird indulgencies are falling into that category at the moment? 
I’ve been eating deli meat straight from my bag, and I don’t know if that’s unhinged, but it’s been really fun. It’s a great little snack when you’re running around, and sometimes I put a little ketchup on it too. 
If you’re feeling fancy.
I am feeling fancy! Can it be anything too?
Literally anything. 
I’ve had a lot of free time since I’ve been in LA, so I’ve been sitting watching TV, and knitting. So, I’ve knit about three scarves in the past two days. Honestly, I made two scarves yesterday. So, I guess that’s been something just like, I made sure to get outside, go for walks and stuff, but I do spend a good part of my day on that couch right there and curl up with my cats and my knitting. I guess I would consider that a bit of a guilty pleasure, because I’m not out working or doing things that an adult should be doing.
That counts for sure. I’d love to talk to you about your tattooing, an art form that some might consider a guilty pleasure. 
Tahdah! [Esther shows tattooed arm].
I’m covered up because it’s so cold here, so I won’t be able to show any of mine. 
I’m in a freaking turtleneck. And this is literally TMI, but this is what I slept in. But yeah my tattooing is a really big part of me, I feel like some people don’t really know that about me. But when I moved out, I started tattooing at the beginning of Covid. But it was really difficult because I was in a dorm room you weren’t allowed to have any visitors whether they’re on the same floor or in the same building, it was very, very strict, no go. I had to figure out how I was going to keep doing it as a college student.
There’s this girl that I met in art class at NYU. Her name is Marissa Munroe, and she goes by @pinkprincezzz, if you want to tap, she’s awesome. We DM’ed each other for a little bit because with tattoos we were setting up a trade, and while we were tattooing each other we started talking about this business idea and potentially opening a store. We’re two very strong but very different types of females.We talked about struggling in the tattoo world as a female artist and we just had a lot in common and found that we really wanted to curate a similar space. So we went headfirst and opened our own shop called Pink Ether. The concept was to build a luxury space where females and honestly, anyone, especially in the queer community, feels comfortable being tattooed; feels like they’re in a safe space, like they’re being listened to, and heard, and everything that a lot of traditional tattoo shops are not, basically. So we painted the whole thing pink from top to bottom, and put butterflies everywhere. I obviously had to interject it with some of my spooky black things, and we curated this little tiny shop that is a really safe space to be in. And that’s where I worked for the next two years. And then I started getting into modeling, traveling every two weeks. And it was just like a crazy, crazy experience. 
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It’s so important that marginalised people have safe spaces like this. 
Exactly. My customer base went from students to most of New York, and it just became way bigger than I ever imagined it which has been incredible. But at the same time, my modeling career was also becoming big, and I was also still in school and was acting, too.. I was going to film in LA during my finals week, and my school wasn’t very lenient with giving me time off or credit. So, I just felt like I was really drowning and having to tell people the day before they are getting their tattoo when they've been waiting like a month for it that I'm flying to Paris is shitty. So, I quickly realized that I needed to pace myself, because I love doing it all but it's not humanly possible. And that’s when I started making my tattoos just like a little bit more exclusive. I’m still figuring that out too, because I just moved back to LA so there’s still a lot of stuff in the air. That was like my whole tattoo story right in there for ya! 
The whole hog! What made you go straight to tattooing?
That’s my thing, I’ve been illustrating ever since I was tiny. And whether it was like my notebook where it was supposed to be taking notes, but I was doing fucking crazy drawings or even in school like I would come home – which is why I only have one arm tattooed – every day with drawings all over my arm and my mom would be like, “I'm glad that you learnt something” and I actually did. I’ve got really bad ADHD, so drawing was like the only thing that would kind of stop me and slow me down so that I was perceptive to what I was being told and taught. I didn't go straight into tattooing without knowing how to draw first, that’s for sure. 
You learn how to draw and then when it comes to actually exploring your practice you forget everything you’ve learnt and find your own way. Do you have any guilty pleasure tattoos?
Oh, I think they probably all are! Half the time I’ve got no idea what I’m getting. I think for me – because I think everyone has a very different relationship with tattoos and their bodies – the main thing that I found recently is that some of the tattoos that I’ve felt the most meaningless, have ended up having way more meaning. There’s this little rotten pear that I did on my arm a few years back. Random. Just a drawing I liked that I did, and I got a new gun that day and I wanted to try it out. In that same year, maybe a few months later, I met my boyfriend and he had a place out in Greenpoint. Looking out from his window was this huge pear tree, and all the pears would just rot and fall, there was just like a garden, a array of rotten pears that just layered the floor. That space is so special for me and for us and all of that. Life can bring meaning to pieces of art, because for me, it makes me want to live even more, because the most mundane, random things I can trust will eventually derive a certain meaning in my life no matter what. 
It must also be such an interesting, intimate experience with another person, having a piece of you with them forever. 
Oh my god, yeah. And you have to have a circle of trust. You have to trust the person that you’re tattooing, that person needs to trust you. It is an intimate space. You’re touching someone’s body, and leaving a mark on their body in a meaningful way. I think it's that transaction of trust between the two that is so beautiful, sacred, and important.
One of my first tattoos I got, though I love the tattoo, I wanted to cry when I was walking out. I just felt like I was being belittled and scoffed at. I'm a small girl, I’m not very tall or big and I just felt even smaller than I’ve ever felt. That was a huge reason why I wanted to build an environment where you can hold that trust in where you can and be perceptive, make sure they’re feeling safe, and it’s not very hard to do. When that’s a part of your job, you can do it. It’s ridiculous that a lot of traditional tattoo shops still find it okay to treat people with disrespect, when they’re literally giving you a part of them. It’s a big fucking deal, you don’t take that trust and throw it away, you’ve got to carry it like it's the most special baby in the world. 
Definitely, because it’s a collaboration at the end of the day.
100%. One of the first tattoos I’d ever done was on my father. Holy fuck the design, it took about six hours! I had not been in that space with my father for that long of a time. It healed a lot. There’s people that have come to me with like Medusa tattoos, I’m not sure if you know, but that represents being sexually abused. Being trusted with that is insane. I always say, I don’t need to know what happened. But if you want, I’m here to talk if you want, this is a shared experience for you. I just think it’s a very, very beautiful art form that has been kind of taken advantage of sometimes with the male communities, there's just a lot of bullshit that happens. But it's changing; the world is changing.
Speaking of patriarchal bullshit, another thing that sprung to my mind when thinking about guilty pleasures, as women, is how our sexuality is tied up in guilt, shame, and it’s really something we have to unlearn. The reason for this being that people are still so desperate to make women objects of the male gaze, I was wondering how you navigate this, as an actor, and especially as you’ve been modeling since you were quite young.
The whole thing is the male gaze at the end of the day, the whole fashion world is still caught up and all of that stuff. I don’t even know how to say it, it’s crazy how little I used to think. I always knew I wanted to be an actress growing up, it was always about the craft. And then as you grow up you start getting sexualized in certain ways. I’m still unlearning that to this day, honestly, but I feel a huge part of interactions with men is knowing that they expect something on the other side, literally regardless of their age. My mindset has been groomed into thinking that men are always going to want that thing from me. But now I feel like I’ve established more of a queer identity, which isn’t like the whole femme thing, so it changes the narrative a little bit. I always felt better with shorter hair and all that. When I was in fifth grade, I cut all my hair off and was called lesbian all over town. It didn’t feel great back then, but not I’m like, Fuck yeah, she was cool! 
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As if lesbian is an insult, honestly, it’s the highest praise. 
ERM: Right? But it’s difficult, it’s an active battle when you don’t want to be sexualised. I was doing this shoot for another magazine, and the producer and everything is Italian and he’s like, “No, we need more skin! We need more skin!” And there was one point I stopped at them and I was like, you know what, no, you don’t need more skin. You didn’t hire me for like a piece of my ass. This is me, and I am only going to do what I feel completely comfortable with. But it’s so funny because that is a position that no matter how you represent yourself, even though everyone around me knows that I feel way more confident when I feel more androgynous, they still try and push that femme, hyper-sexualizing image.
Then it doesn’t feel like a collaboration between model and photographer/designer etc, if you’re unhappy with the way you’re being presented or the role you’re being asked to play. 
Even with my body image, I feel like as a woman, a lot of people struggle with body image. Ehen you’re constantly being photographed or on screen – I didn’t realise how much that was going to affect me. And then how much work I was going to have to do to undo all of that bullshit, it kind of came so fast. And I think that’s also so tied to the male gaze too. Because in the fashion industry it’s still a huge thing to represent really thin, thin ladies, which was an idea that was pushed by male designers, and that’s still on the agenda today, it hasn’t gone away at all, as much as there’s been a lot of changes. So that taught me a lot about myself, about taking care of myself, and about not letting that mindset, that parasitic thought takeover your brain, you just have to really stay fucking grounded, stay true to the earth, remember what’s important in your life, which is why I’m not doing as much modeling anymore. I’m going to move back to LA and put most of my focus on my acting and my tattooing.
I’m so sorry that you had to go through that, it’s so hard to stand up for yourself in those spaces.
ERM: It took me years! That shoot I’m referring to was like two weeks ago. I’m 22 now, and I’ve been shooting since I was 16. There was no way, no way I could stand up for myself back then.
And you shouldn’t be put into a position where you have to, but it does make you wonder why they still work with models who are so young. 
It’s very strategic. There are certain things they can’t do when you’re that young for legal reasons, but there are a lot of ways that they can try and exploit that, too. My mum came with me on shoots when I was younger, that was a big thing for her. It’s not that she didn’t want me to be a part of that world, but she knows what it comes with. And I had no idea, I was like, god dammit mum it’s fine! But I’m glad that I can say that shit didn’t break me, it just taught me a lot. Then you have the other side of it, about not being taken seriously. I remember, when starting the tattooing business, the phone calls we were making and weren’t getting answered, so I’d literally put my partner on the phone and those got answered. Isn’t it interesting how it all works. 
I was especially touched by the story that Cara has told a few times about coming into her queerness as inspired by you, because I had a very similar experience with my little sister, so I’d love to hear about your side of that story.
Oh my, we’re like twins! From my experience, I think generations have changed a lot of things. Me and Cara are like 6 years apart, but so much can change in that time, I can see it with my own little sister, too. Growing up, there were still so many adversities. I remember having conversations with girls being like I’d never be with a girl and all of this stuff. But then as I got older, first of all I always knew it. I remember in fifth grade I’d have these thoughts, and then be like am I fully a lesbian? Then I grew up a bit more and realised that I did like guys, but I liked girls too. It was all a bit confusing for a while, and to be honest, I didn’t tell anyone. It’s not that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t feel the need to. I did end up telling some of my close friends, but I didn't want to do a big coming out thing just because I personally don’t think that I needed that for my journey. I totally respect the people that do. But if I was straight, I wouldn't come out, so I don’t need to come out, but that was just my mentality. My mum was totally fine with it. My dad was too. He said some weird thing like, “Well, I’m still straight” [laughs]. But everyone was super chill and really accepting.  
Classic dad move. 
So one day in June, during pride month, I was just hanging out with my sister and I was like you know what, I want to post something to say happy pride month. Not as a big coming out, but to say that I’m supportive, and I’m part of the community, too. I think she saw that, and was like, “Oh, it’s pretty cool that you just do that.” And I was like, yeah, it’s not a big deal, who cares? So she posted one. And it was like a little dual sister coming out moment! My sister’s taught me so much about just being true to myself, but I think we both knew that it wasn’t a big deal. It doesn’t need to be a secret or anything. It should be talked about the same way that anything else is talked about. Especially because we do have a platform and audience, it’s a good thing to also be representative and proud of that community, because it’s all that I am, so why would I want to hide it? 
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Absolutely! So your band French Thyme released your debut EP back in 2020, are you planning on releasing any more? 
I still make music all the time. For me, music is definitely a passion. And I don’t want to make it a job at all. So, every opportunity that I’ve had, I’ve turned down because it’s like therapy for me. I do it because it makes me really happy, but I can only do it when I feel like I’m in the right mind space and inspired. You know, that doesn’t come all the time. Sometimes I’m in a little bit of a rut. I don’t want to have any deadlines or people telling me when to do stuff, so I’m just going to do my own thing with it.
I'm actually going to be working on a little bit of an album right now with one of my friends just while I’m here because she’s been making a lot of music. Because it’s all fun, it’s all when I’m feeling like it and feeling good. It helps me deal with all my internal brain stuff. Processing my feelings, processing my thoughts too, because thoughts aren’t always feelings. But it’s something that I just really want to hold space for in a pleasure way, without any type of pressure. Because some of my music sucks, trust me, I pressured myself to make music and it sounds like crap-o-la. It’s also for the ears of the ones that want to listen, it’s better for it to just stay like that. I’ve got a few things working under French Thyme right now, they’re actually all done. We go in the studio and we knock something out in like two hours and then we're like, all right, sick, see you in a few months! But it comes out when it comes out. 
You can definitely hear that laissez-faire approach in the music.
Exactly. There’s no perfectionism. Sometimes you can hear the giggles in the background, it’s just a good time. Because he’s [Leo Major] French too, and I grew up French, bilingual, and French literature has also been a huge part of my life. So being able to write fluidly between French and English in a space where there’s someone who also understands, and we’ll banter back and forth too, is great for me to learn how to write my own stories, how to articulate my own life. It’s been really good for me.
With having a dual-nationality, do you ever feel guilty about not exploring certain sides of yourself or your heritage? Or are there certain pleasures that you do revel in, like with writing and making music?
It’s already an incredible privilege to be able to call some of the greatest cities in the world your home and have family there. It definitely is so difficult being so far away from my family, though, I think that’s definitely a big guilt that I hold. My grandmother’s getting older, and I want to spend as much time with her as possible, but I obviously can’t because I’m in the States and she’s in Paris. Distance is just the hardest thing, and I haven't seen my cousins in like, three or four years and that's crazy to me.  I love French food so much. I don't know if that’s a guilt I should have, but croissants, baguette, butter, cheese! I will indulge all the time. 
As is your right! So finally, you’ve said that you’re wanting to focus more on acting and tattooing; how does guilty pleasures fit into your future?
I guess a big guilty pleasure was leaving this space. I had been living with my two best friends for like three or four years in New York City. It was just the best situation, all of us get along so well.  But I knew in my core that I was getting way too sucked into the fashion world here, I was traveling way too often to the point where I wasn’t getting my self tapes done, I wasn’t doing the work that would feed my soul. I was living here, but I was hardly here. There was a full year where I was in a different bed for like, every three nights and that was just really difficult. I came back from some big work projects in modeling again, which is why I felt very depleted, so they knew just as much as I didn’t want to know that I should probably be going back to LA. That was really difficult, but I'm really, really happy that I did because I am doing the work that I've been wanting to do, and I'm giving myself the space and the time. It's been great for me to live alone, but that definitely was a guilty pleasure of mine when I knew that I had to be selfish; I knew what’s going to make me happy in the long run.
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