How the word supermodel became synonymous with celebrity
The definition of a supermodel is roughly a highly paid fashion model who balances a worldwide reputation with appearances on the runway in haute couture and multiple commercial modelling gigs. The term supermodel became popular during the 1980s, when models started to become celebrities in their own right and demanded higher pay packets.
By the 1990s, the supermodel was a prominent feature in the media and the title quickly became the model equivalent of a superstar. Suddenly models were more than just leggy clothes horses – they had a voice, appeared on talk shows, were written about in gossip columns, partied in the trendiest nightspots, landed movie roles and earned themselves millions often outside of modelling.
This new period began in 1990, as trend-setting British Vogue brought out an era-defining cover in January 1990. The magazine displayed a black and white photograph of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Tatjana Patitz looking effortlessly windswept and fresh. Each of the models pictured had gradually gained fame since the mid-1980s and were, at that point, among the industry’s top paid stars.
The photograph was taken by Peter Lindbergh, whose fashion and beauty photography added a sense of realism in a time of excessive retouching. His humanist approach was inspired by documentary and street photography and he wanted to change the notion of perfection. Looking back at the cover, he was once quoted as saying:
“Using black-and-white photography was really important in creating the supermodel. Every time I tried to shoot them in colour, because their beauty was close to perfection, it ended up looking like a bad cosmetics advert. With black and white, you can really see who they are. It toned down the commercial interpretation that colour gives. What’s so striking about black and white is how it really helps a sense of reality to come through.”
Another image that captured this new generation of models is the famous nude photograph taken by Herb Ritts for Rolling Stone and included Patitz, Crawford, Campbell, Turlington and Stephanie Seymour (below). This high contrast, black and white image was actually taken in 1989 but it was only after Lindbergh’s image that Ritts’ work also led to these models attaining worldwide fame and fortune.
The world went wild for these models and they were known by their first name alone. Today Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista, Patitz and Turlington are still regarded as the "Original Supermodels”. Many became the faces of cosmetics brands and perfumes, had their own television programs and physical-fitness videos and their own lines of lingerie.
Some models also made history – Campbell became the first black model to appear on the front cover of Time, French Vogue, British Vogue, and the September issue of American Vogue, traditionally the year’s biggest and most important issue.
For a while this group of models were known as “the Big Five”, but the term slowly evolved to describe Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista, Turlington and Claudia Schiffer (who replaced Patitz). This became “the Big Six” when a young Kate Moss came onto the scene.
Discovered in 1988 at age 14 in JFK Airport, Moss came onto the supermodel scene during the mid-1990s, as part of the “heroin chic” fashion trend. This was a look popularized in the fashion world and was characterized by pale skin, dark circles under the eyes, skinny body and angular bone structure – essentially models looked like they’d been on a several drug-fuelled nights out. The look had an air of androgyny to it and was a reaction against the “healthy” and polished look of models like Crawford and Schiffer. The look was directly inspired by the waifish look of Moss from her 1993 ad campaign with Calvin Klein yet the trend eventually faded due to its seedy associations and the drug-related death of fashion photographer, Davide Sorrenti.
Tastes shifted and a return to a slightly more glamorous aesthetic became popular again with models like Californian Tyra Banks and German-born Heidi Klum appearing on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Vogue dubbing Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen as the “Return of the Sexy Model” in 1999. This new era of sexy signaled an appetite for the risqué and is reflected best on the runway with the dawn of the Victoria’s Secret Angels.
The underwear brand’s Angels made their runway debut in 1997/98 and Banks, Klum and Bündchen were all Angels up until the late 00s. The Angels were and remain, contracted spokesmodels for the brand and maintain an air of unattainability and allure. Even today, Victoria’s Secret shows still cause a stir with the media and often attract big music stars to perform during the show, including Taylor Swift and The Weeknd.
By the late 1990s, a trend for actresses, pop singers and other celebrities to appear on the runway and modelling in magazines began to appear, for instance Renee Zellweger who Vogue used as its first non-model cover star in 1998. While they didn’t necessarily replace the supermodels, it did mean many regular models found it hard to break the scene and achieve the same limelight as their supermodel predecessors.
A conspiracy theory that still gets bandied about in regards to the decline of the supermodel is based on a quote from Big Six model Linda Evangelista, who apparently said: “We won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day”. This entitled attitude, supposedly grew weary for designers and fashion editors and by using them and writing about them less, they made sure no small group of models ever had the same power of the Big Six again.
This is echoed by former Vogue editor Charles Gandee, who said high prices and bad attitudes contributed to the decline of the supermodel. Adding that as clothes became “less flashy”, designers wanted models who were less glamorous, so they wouldn’t overpower the clothing.
Despite this supposed fall of the supermodel, the term has still been applied to many a model since the 1990s, including Yasmin Le Bon, Amber Valletta, Eva Herzigová and Helena Christensen among others. The shift in models becoming celebrities in their own right highlights our fascination with these mysterious creatures and our idolization of beauty.
The 1990s was a golden era for those who were able to make that transition from clothes horse to superstar. While some models still command salaries in the millions – last year reality star-cum-model Kendall Jenner took home a record-breaking $22 million – it’s clear there hasn’t been a group of supermodels that matches the influence and power as the original Big Six. And maybe there never will – not if the designers or editors have anything to do with it anyway.