The Super Models, the four part Apple TV+ documentary released today, is, for anyone who has seen pictures of them at their height (most of the globe, surely), compelling.
It has unparalleled access to the foursome who now, in their late 50s, talk more candidly and with more perspective about the industry and their careers than they ever could at the time. I know, because at various points, I interviewed Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford and, over the phone, years ago, Linda Evangelista. I also got to see them first-hand backstage and on shoots.
Watching the original Supers glide down a catwalk in the early 1990s was extraordinary. It wasn’t just that they were becoming properly famous – as opposed to fashion famous – and acquiring The Celebrity Sheen. Down to the tips of their toes, they looked perfect – a concept that has fallen out of favour now that a more diverse interpretation of beauty has become fashionable.
I didn’t realise then quite how exceptional they were because I’d just started working as a fashion journalist and couldn’t know that at some point, their species would become extinct. I assumed fashion shows had always teemed with these gorgeous, flawless creatures and always would. That was half the point, wasn’t it?
Wrong. Before their era, most models either did “editorial” (i.e. photographs for magazines and ad campaigns) or catwalk. Some were even more niche –hand models, foot models, hair models, lingerie models (underwear wasn’t considered a prestigious booking back then) and so on.
Catwalk models were thin, tall (obviously) and possessed 1950s levels of poise and posture. They could twirl on a pinhead and unbutton and remove a jacket with one hand. But they weren’t necessarily sexy or beautiful and certainly not famous. It really wasn’t that glamorous. In Milan, the shows all happened in an industrial conference centre. Editorial “girls“ (models were invariably called girls) were paid more, looked more relatable (read more conventionally “pretty” and sexy) and were considered over the hill at 26.
The Supers could do it all – collaborating with photographers, who like them, were becoming increasingly famous (Mario Testino, Peter Lindbergh, Stephen Meisel, Arthur Elgort, Patrick Demarchelier) and hairdressers (Julien d’Ys, Garren, Serge Normant, Guido Palau, Sam McKnight), to create indelible images, as well as doing the catwalks, which became increasingly more lucrative as designers began to understand their ability to make some dreadful clothes look acceptable.
Today it often seems that lighting, make-up and styling sometimes collude to make models look ill in the name of edginess.
The Supers could be as creative as the photographers and hair team. When I was still at Vogue, it was Cindy who suggested a story with her as Frida Kahlo (this was before Kahlo had become a regular fashion trope). That was a big departure for Cindy, who was generally conscious of keeping her look more commercial than the others.
Meanwhile, “Naomi consistently gets the duds of any collection,” Michael Roberts, the late Vanity Fair stylist once told me, “because she transforms them”.
The Supers looked as flawless on a catwalk as they did in their (retouched) pictures. Why magazines felt the need to retouch so heavily back then is a topic for another day – but it speaks to the distorted standards that were just as prevalent then as now, if not more so. And their work ethic was Stakhanovite. Vivienne Westwood started out working with punks and always liked anarchic looking rebels, but once she began working with the Supers, she too was in their thrall.
Larissa Bills, co-director of the documentary, has previously worked with presidents and says that was “way easier” than scheduling the Supers for their interviews. It was worth it, though. “The way these women were able to bridge the gap between pop culture and the fashion world was unique,” she says. “I don’t know if it could ever happen again.”
Here’s what you may not have known before.
They weren’t necessarily born that way.
Childhood pictures of the Supers reveal they could look as geeky and gawky as the rest of us. Combine features that hadn’t grown into themselves with 80s hair, and at the outset of their career, even Christy, the most classically beautiful of the four, and Linda, who had the utmost hauteur, looked like catalogue models.
Bills says that she and co-director Roger Ross Williams combed through “around 15,000 assets – photos, and film and clips. It was a monumental task.”
What becomes clear from the documentary is how instrumental that handful of talented hairdressers and photographers who acted as their Svengalis were. It wasn’t until Linda had her hair cropped short by Julien d’Ys in 1988, at the behest of Lindbergh, that her career went stratospheric.
It wasn’t perfect
One of the pervading myths about the Supers is that they were “real women” with real bodies – the implication being that somehow they were more relatable than the waifs who followed and didn’t suffer the same pressure to be skinny.
I’ve been in the room with all of them and believe me, they were incredibly slender. It just happened they also had curves, which made them seem even more of a super breed. Even when they supposedly wielded all the power, they felt the pressure to be thin.
In 1996, I was in Paris, writing up a couture story for Vogue and Christy had put on weight. She still looked ultra slim, but she told us she couldn’t fit into the sample and felt awkward. Lucinda Chambers, then Vogue’s fashion director, told her not to worry, they’d make it work. But in the documentary, Christy reveals that some designers cancelled her that season.
They were ridiculously young
It was still the 1980s when the Supers’ careers were getting going and the industry’s mainly non-existent duty of care towards the teenagers in its charge is queasy making by today’s standards. Christy Turlington was 14 when she started.
“I was doing bridal when I was 15,” she says now. “Often,” she says, “I’d rather be doing something with my friends”.
But the financial independence was intoxicating. Christy was fortunate because she worked for the Ford agency, which was ruled over by the ultra protective strict mother figure of Eileen Ford. She was only asked to be an underage pretend bride.
I remember the day I was on Vogue – before magazines introduced a minimum age for models – when the fashion team realised the stunning swimwear shoot that had just come in had been shot on a 13 year old. It wasn’t ditched.
Instead we were instructed not to bring up the subject of the model’s age. That’s when I realised how futile it was to beat yourself up about not looking like the models – they were, truly, children. Most readers wouldn’t have realised this however.
Just as bad were the number of men who would swarm backstage after the shows – retailers, journalists and, worst of all, unfettered paparazzi who would stick their lenses in the Supers’ faces, often while they were semi naked.
Linda’s reputation for being difficult was unfair
Once when I was standing backstage with Linda, she announced she couldn’t talk any more because she was concentrating so intently on her first entrance. That kind of response made some think she was a diva, but she took the work very seriously.
Unlike Naomi, who trained as a dancer, Christy, who went on to take a degree at NYU and Cindy, who was a born businesswoman, modelling, as Linda often said, was all she ever wanted to do. She even went to modelling school, “and no one needs to go to modelling school” she says now. Arguably, it turned her into the most versatile model of all time.
Her infamous quote about not getting out of bed for less than $10,000 a day makes her crazy, she adds. “I’ve apologised all around the world. And yet if a man said something similar… it’s a very, very small percentage of what we made for the brands”.
Of all four Supers, Linda’s post peak career has arguably been the unhappiest. Married at 22 to Gérald Marie, a powerful model agent 15 years her senior, she finally left him when she was 27.
She now says Marie, who in 2017 had a string of sexual assault cases brought against him (later dropped because under French law they exceeded the statute of limitations) was physically abusive.
“But he knew not to touch my face”. She also says she was so depressed that for years, the only time she left her home was to visit the doctor.
Standards were so rigid, a beauty spot could be contentious
Cindy’s mole was regularly airbrushed before American Vogue finally made the “radical” decision to leave it where it was on one of their covers.
“The industry at that time was very much about men dictating how women should look,” she says. When Christy decided midway through a Calvin Klein contract to cut her hair into a shoulder-length bob, “he went mad”.
There were the Supermodels, and then there was The Trinity. In the early 90s, Linda, Christy and Naomi became the closest thing culture had had to a female Rat Pack – although less drunk and debauched.
The three of them ran together, socially and frequently, at work. Cindy, although a friend of all of them, was busy diversifying from her Vogue image into non fashion ads for Diet Pepsi, hosting a show on MTV, producing and starring in her own underwear calendar, and launching beauty line and later a successful furniture line, all of which made her the richest Super of all – but not necessarily the coolest.
They may have got rich but their power was an illusion
When the foursome started, like all models, they had zero power. Cindy recalls being asked whether she would cut all her hair off for one specific shoot and declining – it was too much of a risk. They booked her anyway, and while she was in the chair being made up for the shoot, the hairdresser tied her hair back and lopped it off without asking.
As they became increasingly famous, their requests for higher fees and Concorde flights became more strident. But the brands and magazines put up with it because the models made them money. The Supers’ mutual solidarity made them a genuinely potent force.
“When you go through something so intense, so young – they were teenage girls, and they bonded,” says Bills. “Those ties don’t really sever. To see them in the room together now all these years later, it’s like seeing the Super Friends.”
Naomi speaks candidly about the support the others showed her. “If I didn’t get a booking because of my colour, Christy, Linda and Cindy would say, you’re not getting us either,” she recalls.
Eventually the mainly male run industry decided they didn’t like it. Handily the former Iron Curtain countries were opening up to reveal legions of wannabes with high cheekbones and lower expectations. The era of the supermodel was coming to a close.
The Super Models is on Apple TV+