It’s all too easy to look at pictures of Hollie Witchey—with her wheat-blonde locks and Atlantic-blue eyes and willowy frame—and pin her down as your classic all-American beauty. Perhaps you’ve seen her on the covers of magazines such as Fitness, toned and tanned, sporting a teeny-weeny polka dot bikini. Or maybe you’ve spotted her in a beachy fashion portfolio—strutting on the sand, lounging on a sailboat—or in her advertising work for beauty brands such as Garnier and L’Oréal. In each image, there is a cocked head and a sunbeam smile, and you’d be forgiven for assuming she’s every upbeat American archetype, from the girl-next-door to the cheerleader, rolled in one.
Visit her tucked-away home in the woods of Jeffersonville, New York, however, and you’ll find yourself thoroughly surprised at the scene that unfolds before you: Up a winding dirt road sits a 1790s old stagecoach house, clad in rustic live-edge siding and ringed by ferns and a mossy stone wall, that couldn’t be further from the ingénue image projected in all those editorials. What you discover instead is a magical, slightly dark folkloric world of secret nooks, arched windows and hammered iron that conjures up any number of fairy tales and fables, from the Brothers Grimm to Tolkien. Next to the main house, a small storybook cottage with diamond-paned windows serves as a garage. An 1840s barn is crammed with antique yokes and harnesses, relics of a bygone farming life. And wandering about it all is Witchey herself, a beautiful and elegant presence, but one rendered in a more somber minor key than her wholesome public persona.
Hollie Witchey, it turns out, is an unlikely combination of different shades and tones. She has a bit of the fresh-faced farm girl in her, but she’s also a fearless world traveler and spiritual old soul. Perhaps it’s not so surprising for the aptly named Witchey (which happens to be her real name), who grew up feeling like an outcast in her football-loving small Ohio town. “I was actually not good at sports,” she explains. “I was painting in my bedroom, listening to Radiohead, Nick Drake, the saddest music I could find.” When she got the chance to model, fresh out of high school, she saw her ticket out of town and promptly fled to New York.
The following years saw her crisscrossing the globe—driving across the Australian Outback in a 1969 Ford Falcon Ute, hiking up the Andes in Bolivia, scuba-diving off the Gili Islands of Indonesia—all the while building an impressive modeling portfolio (not to mention a collection of folk art and objets, from Javanese puppets to Native American portraits).
“When I saw this place, it was more me than I ever could’ve imagined. I was still in my 20s, and you know, at that age you’re still figuring yourself out. I didn’t even know a house like this existed up here, but I was like, Oh my god, this is it, this is who I am.”
Scattered amongst these sojourns were frequent upstate visits with her best friend, the artist Marianna Rothen, whose darkly atmospheric photographs often feature Witchey as a muse (while tapping into a moody spirit that is not always obvious in her commercial work). It was on one such jaunt that Witchey discovered this Hansel and Gretel house. The moment of introduction, as she describes it, was nothing less than an epiphany. “When I saw this place, it was more me than I ever could’ve imagined,” she says. “I was still in my 20s, and you know, at that age you’re still figuring yourself out. I didn’t even know a house like this existed up here, but I was like, Oh my god, this is it, this is who I am.”
Here, the past is allowed to live, and it blends seamlessly with Witchey’s present. For years, she resisted tossing out anything belonging to the home’s previous inhabitants, a German-Jewish refugee and old-school survivalist named Wilbur Riff and his wife, Gladace. Riff’s old hunting and marksmanship books still line the shelves (“he was understandably paranoid,” she notes), and his tokens of love to Gladace (including license plates with her initials) are on display. Witchey treasures them almost as talismans. Wilbur’s many gun cupboards now hold her own baby clothes, and his closets overflow with her collections of vintage frocks. “It’s so important to me to honor everything that came before,” she says. “My style and the house’s style are so inseparable, you might have a hard time guessing what was here and what I brought in.”
Likewise, when she’s upstate, the seemingly contrary sides of Witchey—the soul-searcher and the thrill-seeker—come together in a way that makes perfect sense. She meditates, spends time with her boyfriend, Todd Bogin, and in the summer, swims daily in her pond with her pit bull, Rocco. She tends her garden, gathering medicinal plants such as bergamot, horehound and motherwort and distilling them in a copper alembic still to make floral waters and essential oils for her holistic skincare line, Witchey Handmade (she is certified in nutrition, green medicine and homeopathy).
“In the city, it’s all about career, it’s all about being successful, making money. And when you come up here, it’s like, you’re an ant. You’re a part of everything around you.”
But it’s in the woods that she also indulges a need for speed, through Western pleasure riding—guiding horses on trails, jumping creeks and riding up mountainsides. Until last year, she was a devoted student of Stuart Rybak, who ran the Rybak Horsemanship ranch in nearby Damascus, Pennsylvania. “There was all this crazy stuff going on there, like mustang challenges,” she says. “We would play soccer with the horses; we would do these jumps. There was a teeter-totter that you ride over—when the horse steps on it, it flips up, and you have to keep your horse on it. It’s all about building trust between the horse and the rider for the trail.” Rybak has since decamped to New Mexico, and while Witchey has ridden at other ranches, including Bridle Hill Farm in Jeffersonville, she now has her sights set on buying and keeping her own horses on her land (“Either that, or I’m going to get dirt bikes, because I like going fast”).
It is when she’s at her wooded retreat that she feels a true clarity of self, Witchey says, because she’s found a home for all the different facets of her personality. “In the city, it’s all about career, it’s all about being successful, making money. And when you come up here, it’s like, you’re an ant. You’re a part of everything around you.”
Body: white tank top and bikini by Onia, white perforated bandau by Lan Gili