How a Reluctant Motorcycle Ambassador Saved Female Biker Culture

"Imogen is such a badass on and off the bike," says 'Walking Dead' star Norman Reedus

" I don't like riding with groups if I don't know who is riding. I've known so many people over the past several years that have lost their life or been badly hurt on a motorcycle," says Imogen Lehtonen. Credit: Eric Hendrikx

Imogen Lehtonen tears past me on her way into Italy's Apennine Mountains, ducking under a canopy of trees that shaded the gravel-strewn asphalt. Decked out in black with a ghostly helmet, Lehtonen looks, simply put, really fucking cool. She's seated on a Ducati Scrambler Café Racer. If you trail behind her, negotiating tightly curved ess-turns at speeds that made would make any rider skittish, it becomes clear that you're chasing a tried and true biker – noteworthy, at a time when motorcycle culture suffers infiltration by weekend warriors and selfie-seeking millennials in their quest for a two-wheel version of Coachella. Lehtonen undoubtedly stands tall among the authentic women, and men, who ride.

Those who may have seen Lehtonen on AMC's RIDE with Norman Reedus are keen to her lovely New Zealand accent and charming disposition. But it was her maverick soul that stirred Reedus to invite Lehtonen to co-star in the season's inaugural episode. "Imogen is just such a badass on and off the bike," says Reedus. "She's such a free spirit, but still balls to the wall – all the way." Reedus reached out to Lehtonen in summer of 2015, while she was crossing the country on a motorcycle. They first met in Georgia, where Reedus was living and filming for The Walking Dead. Six months later he asked Lehtonen to take part in RIDE, for an episode where he visited her family's jewelry shop on Melrose before the two began a four-day journey along the Pacific Coast. "It's been really cool for me – with this show that I'm doing – to have Imogen come on and inspire all these girls to get into riding or join a group of girls that ride."

When she's not out riding motorcycles, Lehtonen works tirelessly in the back of the Great Frog's workshop – a long-established family business for handmade and bespoke rock and roll jewelry. A second-generation silversmith, Lehtonen spends her days firing torches, grinding metals and chemically treating newly sized skull rings – practices she first learned from her father, and expanded on with her uncle and co-Frog-founder, Paterson Riley. Since 1972, the Lehtonen-Riley family radically pioneered a market for heavy skull-infused men's jewelry made popular by bands like Motörhead and Metallica.

After riding café racers past Italian castles and centuries-old villages through the outlying hills of Bologna, Rolling Stone sat down with Lehtonen where she discusses how she aligns her two passions – riding motorcycles and making jewelry – and shares some behind-the-scenes stories about filming with The Walking Dead star.

You've inadvertently become an ambassador for women who ride motorcycles. How do you feel about the recent trendiness of moto-culture and rise of all-female motorcycle events?
I'm a reluctant ambassador with mixed feeling about that. In the beginning, we had a great crew of fucking cool and strong women. But it's become overrun with 'babes on bikes' who show up to take selfies and run around in bikinis – and that's really dangerous. I don't like riding with groups if I don't know who is riding. I've known so many people over the past several years that have lost their life or been badly hurt on a motorcycle – people really close to me.

But you do have a tight crew of girls that you ride with?
Riding out here in California has really opened up my world. I've established great friendships with some powerful and cool chicks. I've met girls who do leather work, or create footwear, or work with special needs kids – but they all ride motorcycles and they're fucking cool. That's what I respect – not these girls who wear little Seventies biker chick clothing because they want to hook up with some guy who rides a bike. It's like, 'Fuck off – get your own bike.'

Your dad introduced you to motorcycles at a young age. What was that experience like?
I’ve always been around motorcycles—it was a huge part of my dad’s life. I would get on the back of my dad’s bike and he would take me to the university, which was something we always did. Then learning to ride with him for the first time was the coolest experience, because my aunt lived out in the middle of nowhere and there was no traffic on the road, no gradient, and no helmet laws. As soon as I got comfortable on the motorcycle I just wanted to have fun and learn stunts on the bike.

You lost your father a few years back after a long battle with cancer. How has that impacted your relationship with riding motorcycles?
When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, they had given him a year and a half to live  –luckily we got seven. I really loved riding with my dad, and I can't ride motorcycles now without it being a connection to him, which is something I love. I still have conversations with my dad – I talk to him in my helmet while I ride. I also have this necklace my cousin made for me – it's a bullet with some of my father's ashes inside of it, and I don't go a day without wearing it. I can't imagine riding without it.

Moto life landed you a co-starring role in the inaugural episode of RIDE with Norman Reedus. How did that come about?
Norman got wind of our trip, where I was riding across America with four other girls. He invited us to meet up when we were riding through Georgia, since he lives there while filming for The Walking Dead. I actually had to Google him to see who he was—I have no interest in television and had never seen the show – but he's a good guy and doesn't give a shit about all that. So Norman came to The Great Frog and we filmed and took off on a four-day ride up the coast. We've been buddies ever since.

Did anything change for you after filming the episode?
Norman has a really crazy fan base – people flooded our shop for months after the episode aired. Most of the people were lovely and wanted to come in and chat or buy some jewelry. But I’ve had some weird fan-stuff happen that’s kind of hilarious – scary at the same time – so yeah, I had to protect myself a little bit and hide in the back for a few months. [Laughs]

Aside from modeling and moto, you also have a career as jeweler at your family’s shop The Great Frog. Where and how did you learn to work as a silversmith?
I lived in the attic of our family’s London shop while I was learning to use tools and prep the waxes for casting. It’s such a cool place – a creaky old building along a cobblestone street that overlooks Carnaby Street. I lived in what they called the rat's nest – a peaked-roof attic, four floors up from the shop level with no windows – I suppose some rats were running around. I got really pale and strange during that time, but it was a huge inspiration to me. I got to work with my uncle Paterson, who is very much the same as he was in the Seventies. The rest of the world has changed, and he has not. He shuns technology, never owned or used a computer, and never had a cell phone. Paterson was jamming and partying with guys like Lemmy [Kilmister] back in the day and he’s still a character in his Seventies: long hair, big boomy voice, snakeskin boots. He’s covered in jewelry and typically sports a shirt that says, 'Great Fucking Frog' or 'Fuck Off' – he's definitely a stylish man.

How did all this lead you to opening and running the Los Angeles shop on Melrose?
Ever since I left London, I ached to get involved with the Frog again. My cousin Reino, Paterson's oldest child, had since taken over the family business. Reino put us online, curated our greatest designs, and refined classic pieces – he's an artist. All of our collaborations we do with Slayer, Iron Maiden and Motörhead are all his carvings. It was definitely a journey, but when people began to learn about the family history and that all we do is hand-designed and handmade – a family business that's all fucking rock and roll – it's really come together.

"A Prima Vista" featuring Imogen Lehtonen from Stone Hendrikx on Vimeo.

We just rode Ducati Scrambler Café Racers through the twisting roads of the Apennine Mountains in Italy. What was the experience like for you?
For me, it was a dream. I live in Los Angeles, but I feel my roots in Europe. And I love rich history – I grew up thinking I was born in the wrong era. To be able to ride past old houses and castles on vineyards on top of hills in Italy –properties that are hundreds of years old – well, it was awesome and I loved it. The city of Bologna is the home to Ducati, and a Café Racer is something they’ve never done before, and it’s really cool. It was the perfect bike for Italy's twisting and curving mountain roads – all your weight is at the front of the bike, and they've raked in the front forks so it’s a very different ride than when you're laid back and sitting on a chopper. But honestly, you could invite me anywhere in the world to ride motorcycles and I’d be down.

What do you feel is the biggest lesson you’ve learned through all of these incredible experiences you’ve had?
Something I learned when I was nineteen, while backpacking throughout Europe, was to let go of expectations and follow my intuition, my gut and my heart – do things that make me happy. Ultimately, that was something I learned from my dad, even more so after he was diagnosed with cancer. Ever since I followed that mantra, things have happened for me that I wouldn't have dreamed of when I was living in New Zealand. I feel so lucky that I can carry on my family’s legacy with The Great Frog – using my hands, improving my skills – and then I get to ride motorcycles. I live for adventure and new things. I don't ever want my life to become stagnant.