Every person in attendance at the Balmain show in February whipped out their smartphone as Helena Christensen, 51, took to the catwalk. The rare sight of a bona fide supermodel returning to her natural habitat prompts one of two reactions from even the most poised of fashion editor audiences — stunned silence or riotous applause. Always, these days, it’s an I-must-get-a-picture-of- this moment.
The last time the original, mononymous “Supers” — Naomi, Cindy, Claudia, Helena, Christy — were photographed in the same room together was at the Versace Spring/ Summer 2018 show, creating an image so powerful, it received a standing ovation, went viral and secured money-can’t-buy exposure for the brand. Have they still got it? For these women, it never went away.
Since the advent of fashion photography in the 1930s, when unnamed models first replaced illustrations on the cover of Vogue, modelling had been considered more like a performance-led sport than a strategy-led business. Its star players tended to bow out at around the age of 28, when their physique was considered “past it”. The fashion industry relentlessly championed the young — “hot new faces” were scouted as pre-teens, names would launch, dazzle for a few seasons, and then fizzle into obscurity. There was little work for an ageing model, no matter how in demand they had been at their peak.
Until recently that is. Beauty is still every supermodel’s raison d’être. But the industry view on what counts as beautiful, and who is therefore employable, no longer excludes those who don’t boast wrinkle- free faces and prepubescent measurements. Personality is king, and age diversity is now valued by brands that are increasingly waking up to the fact that women of all ages buy their products. Many older models have, in the last decade, been able to spin their dismissals as career hiatuses. It is, however, the ageing of the original 1990s supermodels that has perhaps secured the new standard and prompted a more permanent change. The “girls” now hitting their 50s represent the first generation of models who have worked non-stop for three decades, with no plans to retire.
“We’ve seen a marked change in the last few years against the ‘perfect’, thin, young, airbrushed model, towards something that is closer to reality,” says Natalie Robehmed, market analyst and former editor of Forbes’ annual wealthiest models list. “A lot of brands are embracing it. It’s coming from consumers who want to see their reality reflected in advertising, and from Instagram, which has democratised modelling for people who would have once not met model agency standards, yet who now have huge followings.”
Naomi turned 50 in lockdown on 22 May and celebrated virtually with her nine million Instagram followers, before announcing a new beauty campaign with Pat McGrath Labs and sharing previously unseen pictures from her last Valentino shoot, in which she wears only a handbag. As for Claudia Schiffer, who marked her 50th birthday in August, she told me: “I think age should be celebrated and revered. I am so happy to be turning 50 and have never felt more confident or happy in my life. I don’t try to look or feel younger, I embrace now.”
Cindy Crawford, 54, gets offers as impressive as those pitched to her 18-year-old model-daughter, Kaia Gerber. Helena Christensen, Linda Evangelista, 55, and Christy Turlington Burns, 51, are all in high demand for magazine covers and interviews. All spin several plates — designers, beauty entrepreneurs, photographers, film directors — but all still model, occupying the advertising market, and taking turns as often as they fancy on the catwalk.
Supermodel mania first peaked at the turn of the 1990s as fashion shows and ad campaign images became a part of pop culture. The then-rising star models became global celebrities; they were big characters with signature walks, commanding pay cheques to match their status. They advocated glamour at all times, quaffing champagne backstage before shows and attending exclusive red-carpet events at night. They appeared in movies and music videos, and dated actors and musicians. The Supers were no longer just faces for magazine covers, they had voices and were interviewed for the inside pages, too.
“The supermodels were created in an era when fashion was larger than life,” considers Derek Blasberg, head of fashion at YouTube and a journalist who has been friends with Naomi, Christy and Cindy for over a decade. “Who cared about actresses? The Supers were glamorous, gorgeous, over-the-top, fabulous. I look back on the pictures of the Trinity [Naomi, Linda and Christy] at the Versace shows in the 1990s and ask, ‘How could you not be obsessed with this?’”
Linda was only half-joking when, in 1990, she famously said “we don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day”. Naomi’s former agent Carole White would later say it was more like £300,000 ($542,000) a job. The “money girls” amassed fortunes and forged partnerships with the biggest fashion and beauty brands — Chanel and Revlon — but also Pepsi.
“Forbes did its first-ever celebrity 100 list in 1999 and on it there were five models: Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Niki Taylor and Kate Moss,” explains Robehmed of how model earnings boomed. “Over the years some of those people dropped off, but some are still making big money. People like Naomi became iconic — she can speak to people across generations and she has a different kind of star power.”
Before it had really occurred to editors that they could endlessly Photoshop a woman’s image, before social media and photo filters, or scripted-reality television shows, the supermodels exuded real, in-person beauty. Fashion shows were not shared all over the internet within seconds, they were savoured for months in newspapers and magazines.
The fans, Claudia remembers, were as enthusiastic as any who would have pledged allegiance to Backstreet Boys at the time. “It was insane,” she says. “Like being a rock star. You couldn’t get to your car. We had security at every fashion show — even employed to guard my underwear! When I was out on the runway I’d come back and my underwear would constantly be gone.”
Part of the appeal of the Supers was that they came as a gang. While they operated as individuals, they were also friends. Claudia was synonymous with Guess Jeans and Chanel, while Naomi was with Azzedine Alaïa and Yves Saint Laurent, and Christy with Calvin Klein. But they might equally be found doing group shoots for Vogue, joining forces for a Versace campaign or starring together in George Michael’s Freedom video. The unity made them at once likeable and untouchable — in terms of market domination (Kate Moss, 46, later managed to break into the pack) but also in the sense that brands, directors and photographers respected their collective power.
“The group of girls I started modelling with and continue to over the years are unique in their physicality and mentality. Everyone came from different backgrounds and everyone worked really hard,” considers Helena of the way each managed to find their own place in the industry. “We also are a very tight-knit and supportive group of girls, with each other and with our families.”
Claudia agrees with the sentiment. “We were on the cover of every magazine and in every campaign. We lived and breathed it and we developed unprecedented control over our careers. Although we could be competitive, there was a lot of camaraderie between us too. We looked out for each other and we weren’t afraid to speak up. If somebody had a bad experience, we would call everyone and say, ‘By the way, this just happened.’ We thought, ‘We have the power all together and we should use it, because this is wrong.’ We made things change.”
As well as continuing to model over three decades, the Supers have continuously expanded and diversified their portfolios as businesswomen. Long before influencers endorsed their own ranges on Instagram, they were experts at selling. Some ventures were less than successful (remember the ill-fated Fashion Café chain of 1995?). But others flew — such as Kate Moss’s ranges for Topshop in 2007 and Helena’s co-founding of Nylon magazine in 1999.
“I don’t think any of us even considered the stigmas surrounding the business regarding longevity or staying power,” says Helena, who also co-owns fragrance company StrangeLove NYC, as well as swimwear brand Staerk & Christensen. “We just found ways to evolve, explore and expand our minds and lives, with families and other job opportunities that might have sprung from our careers.”
The Supers have always been masters of their own PR. When the social media era arrived in the early 2010s, it bore a new generation of Insta girls — Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss. These were models with digital personas, negotiating even bigger pay cheques thanks to having their own readymade audiences to post ads to. Their arrival changed the rules, filling the market with new personalities. Some 1990s names bowed out, but the biggest stars adapted to the change and seized the opportunity to amplify their own personal brands.
“It’s impossible to talk about models and what’s happened in the last 30 years without talking about Instagram,” says Robehmed. “Often when we think of supermodels we think of them walking the runway, but that’s not actually where the money is for them. The biggest money-making campaigns now are the huge deals that are across print advertising, video and social media.”
Claudia lists current modelling, design and curation projects with Etre Cécile and Bordallo Pinheiro, in addition to being the face of Chanel’s new J12 watch. “I’ve never worried about being relevant,” she says. “Nor have I been one that craved the limelight or to be the centre of attention, and my husband is very similar. I love what I do, but I value my privacy and I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to concentrate on collaborations I’m passionate about.”
“Fundamentally the industry is the same, it’s just grown enormously,” she continues. “There are more collections, the pace is faster and social media has had a huge impact. It’s been great for marketing fashion and beauty products, as well as providing a very effective way to manage your own exposure, which you see particularly with the big models of today. What was great in the ’90s though was not to feel the pressure to share everything with everybody; you could still have a private life and create a mystique. I miss that clear line of the public figure versus the private one, however I do love sharing fashion moments of my life on Instagram.”
Last spring, Blasberg convinced Naomi to launch a YouTube channel, giving her the opportunity to put her own message out there and share glimpses of her unique, highly entertaining lifestyle with her fans. From her trolley dash at Whole Foods, to her airport routine video, in which she thoroughly Dettol’d her first-class plane seat before take-off, her dry sense of humour has endeared her to new audiences, clocking up over 10 million views.
“Of course, Naomi has had other offers to open her life,” says Blasberg. “But I think what appealed to her about YouTube was the ability to be in control. She is her own producer, director, editor. She decides what to post and when to post it. I reckon Naomi has always wanted to be a TV host but, being a supermodel and all, she’s never been in one place long enough. Until the Covid-19 crisis. For three weeks in April, she did a daily live show from her New York apartment. I should mention: Naomi was on time to every single live show.”
As much as people love to see new content created by the original Supers, there is also fresh appetite to look back at “major moments” from the past. Instagram fan accounts, like @The90sSupermodels, with hundreds of thousands of followers, are like shrines to those 1990s Versace catwalk appearances and now-vintage covers.
It helps, of course, that the Supers have aged gloriously. The legendary parties and champagne breakfasts have long since been replaced by expensive wellness movements — in keeping, really, with fashion’s overall switch to a cleaner image. Ask any supermodel their beauty secrets and they’d say they exercise every day, apply organic creams religiously (Schiffer’s choice is Bamford) and drink lots of water. But they’d also say that it’s about attitude, not age.
“These women still suck the air out of the room,” says Blasberg, a self-confessed, eternal superfan. “Christy Turlington is still the most beautiful woman in whatever room she’s in. Today, they’re still beloved because fashion loves reinvention and nostalgia, not to mention these women still look incredible. To this day, when Naomi turns the corner and comes out on a runway, boom! You feel electricity.”
Text by Telegraph Magazine \ The Interview People