The Ascent of the Supermodel

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The 1995 film “Catwalk” is a vérité-style documentary about the fashion world during its carefree, hedonistic glory days of the nineties. It explores this world primarily by following Christy Turlington, one of the era’s most recognizable and bankable supermodels. The film, directed by Richard Leacock, is shot largely in black and white, and it features the sort of footage, set to dreamy music, that might make modern-day viewers pine for the unencumbered glamour of celebrity in the pre-social-media era. Turlington and her cohort—fellow-supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Carla Bruni—are pictured in a constant state of air-kissing and waving ciao while gallivanting backstage at Fashion Week or on the set of a photo shoot. In one scene, a young Moss smokes a cigarette and sips what appears to be champagne while having her hair done. In another, the women sway to the music in a dark night club, grinning in bliss. When Turlington checks into a hotel in Milan, she peers out the window. “See? You don’t get that view at the Savoy,” she says.

At the time, “Catwalk” was panned by critics who dismissed its vapidness. “The models spend long hours admiring their reflections,” wrote Janet Maslin in the Times. “The Greeks had a word for this, but they never saw narcissism carried to the extremes that Mr. Leacock’s camera captures.” And yet even such a gauzy, allegedly two-dimensional film as “Catwalk” manages to hint, albeit lightly, at the internal conflict that seems to have plagued most models throughout history: a desire to be seen for more than just physical beauty. At one point, Turlington’s Italian driver is pictured complaining about the irrational power that supermodels hold. “Something is wrong in this society, that’s what I think,” he says, dismayed. In another moment, a woman asks Turlington if she’d rather be complimented on her intelligence or her physical appearance. “I think women should be all of [those qualities],” she says. “It’s nicer to be complimented on your whole person.”

In September, Apple TV+ released “The Super Models,” a four-part documentary series about the women who dominated the fashion industry during its early-nineties heyday, including Turlington. It’s a project designed with the express purpose of complimenting models on their whole personhood. Executive-produced by the subjects themselves, the slick series focusses on a core group of women who were responsible for defining the shift from simply “model” to “supermodel.” These four women—Turlington, Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Linda Evangelista—are now in their fifties, and they are the latest cultural figures to enter the fray of the celebrity-documentary industrial complex. Here, they’ve ostensibly been given a platform through which to reclaim their images and ruminate on the blizzard of cultural forces that drove them to the top. “The Super Models” is an attempt to humanize, and to add texture to, a group of women whose success was built on untouchability.

It’s a task that winds up being rather difficult to achieve, as the models and the filmmakers unblinkingly slip into clichéd Cinderella narratives that might make you crave the mindless pleasures in “Catwalk.” In the first episode of the series, which is loosely dedicated to the theme of “The Look,” the directors Roger Ross Williams and Larissa Bills lay out the women’s humble beginnings, none of which foretold the extravagant world that they’d eventually join: we hear, via the women’s voices, and witness, in the archival footage, the tales of Midwestern innocence, strict immigrant parents, and of serendipitous run-ins with photographers and agents. We hear of dubious adversities like the ones faced by Crawford as a teen-ager: she was tall and gangly at a time when the petite-cheerleader type was in fashion; she once felt “traumatized” by a hair stylist who lopped off her ponytail without permission.

“The Super Models” demonstrates that these women’s cultural power was often much more interesting than whatever struggles the series tries to explore in the name of image enhancement. Part of the reason we are so perennially nostalgic for the nineties is that we long for a recent past when celebrity was loud and clear, and icons were undeniable. No genre of nineties celebrity was more striking, perhaps, than the supermodel, in particular the “fab four” celebrated in this series. The four women, who would quickly begin to cross paths on fashion sets and forge lifelong friendships, would eventually create a paradigm shift that brought models to life. They stepped out of catalogues and editorials and onto runways; they hosted shows on MTV; they helped launch young new designers with the Midas touch of their interest and attention. Their star power is so palpable in the archival material of “The Super Models” that the constant exposition of the various talking heads is hardly necessary.

Of course, since these seemingly uncomplicated glory days, the very idea of modelling has been clouded with concerns about unsavory or unethical practices. Blue-chip fashion photographers such as Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, and Terry Richardson have been accused of sexual abuse. (All three men have denied the allegations against them.) Mistreatment of models has been so commonplace that many laws have been proposed aiming to protect young models from the routine exploitation and trafficking they’ve long experienced; beauty standards have become so scrutinized that “no-dels” (not-models) are now being cast on runways and in campaigns alongside agency-stamped glamazons.

And so any documentary dedicated to the subject of modelling would necessarily have some dark clouds looming in the distance. Viewers will spend most of the four or so hours of “The Super Models” waiting for the other stiletto to drop. And it does, meekly. The series includes a few brief turns toward the unpleasant. In a sequence about unethical modelling agents, Linda Evangelista—perhaps the most tortured-seeming of all the women featured—explains that, at the age of twenty-two, she married her own agent, who would later be accused of serial sexual abuse of women. (The agent has strongly denied the allegations.) “He felt like a great guy,” she says in an interview. Later, the docuseries breezes over the dissolution of their marriage: “I learned that maybe I was in the wrong relationship,” Evangelista explains. “It’s easier said than done to leave an abusive relationship. I understand that concept because I lived it.”

And yet elsewhere there is often a scene or an anecdote that demonstrates how much these women were protected by, rather than exploited for, their rarefied status. At one point, Campbell tells the story of her relationship with the designer Azzedine Alaïa, who took on a paternal role in her life and protected her from handsy men. When Turlington reflects on the occasions when she was housed in the Paris home of modelling agent and alleged sexual predator Jean-Luc Brunel, she can only express relief. “Most of the time he wasn’t really even there,” she remembers. “I can’t believe that I’m O.K.”

These women became so powerful that the backlash soon arrived. The documentary quickly scans over what could be considered, in some alternate film not produced by the models themselves, the “downfall” period: the days when grunge infiltrated fashion and cast doubts on the women’s staying power; the aftermath of Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth,” when readers began questioning unreasonable beauty standards. This section of the series discusses the murder of Gianni Versace and the press war between Naomi Campbell and her agent, John Casablancas, who accused her of being abusive in a public battle that “messed [her] work up for many, many years.” Meanwhile, the emerging popularity of the waif threatened to undermine the supermodels’ status. Everything, it seemed, was stacked against these women: even Anna Wintour was ready to knock them down a peg. “The whole sort of supermodel thing . . . it certainly got a little bit out of control,” she is filmed saying at one Fashion Week in the nineties.

It’s the sort of sentiment that someone like Wintour might not be caught expressing on camera today. (In fact, Wintour’s present-day voice is not featured in “The Super Models.”) The series itself is such an adoring affirmation of the persistent privilege of celebrity, and in particular these women, that any attempts to enrich the narrative with strife or hardship fall flat. The models have, somehow, retained their superpowers. ♦


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