The golden age of supermodels is over, but it was great while it lasted, writes Niamh Hynes
Where the term ‘supermodel’ emerged from is anyone’s guess. Fans of America’s Next Top Model are no doubt aware that former model Janice Dickenson vociferously claims she coined the phrase during her career in the late 1970s. During the 1960s and 1970s when it became a regularly used term in many popular American publications to describe girls such as Twiggy, Cheryl Tiegs and Jean Shrimpton. However, utter the word and more than likely the first images that come to mind are the girls of the eighties and early nineties – when the term became a prominent part of popular culture and representative of a group of long-legged beauties that were household names. Naomi, Christy, Linda, Cindy, and Claudia dominated the runways of Paris, New York and Milan, acting as powerful marketing tools for the designers and brands they represented, and were admired the world over by women who wished to emulate the glamour and excess of their lifestyle.
So just what was it about these girls that made them so alluring, and has seen their profiles endure to this day? Looking at their physical attributes; they couldn’t be more different to what we have come to expect a modern-day model to look like. Each one was fit and toned, healthy looking – with big hair, and big smiles. What resulted were big contracts, with Christy Turlington being paid $800,000 for twelve days of work with Maybelline, Cindy Crawford landing contracts with Revlon and Pepsi, and Linda Evangelista proclaiming in one infamous Vogue interview, “Christy and I wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000!” They flew Concorde, visited several different countries in a week, dated famous actors and musicians and, most significantly, for the first time they out-earned the male participants in their industry, making themselves the most powerful players.
According to fashion author Charlotte Seeling, the models of this time helped to hide the fact that fashion was in crisis, keeping its glamour alive. They were supported in this by the editors of international fashion magazines, designers and photographers such as Steven Meisel and Peter Lindburgh. Gianni Versace paid the biggest models bonuses to walk exclusively for him during Milan fashion week, meaning their fees for a thirty-minute show had reached $20,000. He sent ‘The Trinity’ – Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista – and Cindy Crawford out onto his catwalk singing along to George Michael’s ‘Freedom’, the 1990 music video for which featured all four models. It was symbolic of a moment in time when supermodels had become the ultimate celebrities, and every part of their lifestyle was coveted.
However, the tide began to turn against the supermodels, who in some ways were victims of their own success – their personas became so large that designers felt they were distracting from the clothes. In 1992, a new model, Kate Moss, walked for Marc Jacobs’ grunge collection. At the time, her skinny frame and angular look did not receive the most positive of reactions. A year later, Kate fronted the Calvin Klein campaign, and as the fashion world embraced the ‘heroin chic’ look, the ‘anti-supermodel’ was born. Actresses began replacing models on the cover of magazines, a trend perpetuated by the newly appointed editor of US Vogue, Anna Wintour. The profiles of fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs began, some would argue rightfully, to outshadow those employed to be mannequins. The golden age of the supermodel was well and truly over.
However, for a brief moment it appeared as if the dawn of a new supermodel age could be on the horizon. When the tanned, toned Brazilian bombshell Gisele Bundchen began making waves in the fashion business, it seemed to mark the fact that the industry had turned against the pale, ultra-skinny, drug-addicted look of the late nineties. If the original supermodels’ beauty was unattainable, it was still desirable. In this respect it seemed as though the fashion world lost touch with ordinary women, many of whom were alienated by the unhealthy ideal portrayed in fashion magazines, where ‘commercial’ had become a dirty word. Gisele secured her supermodel status when she signed a contract with lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret, and has since gone on to earn more than all the aforementioned models combined – it has recently been reported that she is on course to become the world’s first billionaire supermodel.
The biggest change in the modelling industry in the years following the supermodel age is the distinction between those modelling high fashion, the turnover rate of which has accelerated at such a pace that many of its models are anything but household names, and those who feature in huge commercial campaigns for companies such as Victoria’s Secret, who invest heavily in making their models celebrities. Only those who successfully bridge the gap, satisfying both markets, can become the next supermodels – something which no longer happens on the scale of their golden age, and which is why the popularity of the original supermodels endures today, ensuring that Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford still feature on magazine covers and front fashion campaigns.