Twilight for the Supermodels
When did the supermodel die? And what killed her? Was it the publication of Naomi Campbell's deathless literary effort, Swan? Was it the opening of the relentlessly unfashionable Fashion Cafe? Was it when Christy Turlington slipped off the scene and took up residence with Jason Patric in L.A.? Was it the season in Paris when editors started whispering that Linda Evangelista, nearing 30, had gotten too thick-waisted for Chanel's new silhouette? Or was it the release this fall of a photobiographical Festschrift celebrating the illustrious career and many moods of 21-year-old Kate Moss? Whatever the probable cause, it was bound to happen. Modeling is a business that eats its young. Talent in the beauty industry has a sharply limited shelf life, and adult women are very routinely referred to as having "use by" dates. Groomed for the maw of the consumer culture, supermodels are destined for obsolescence the moment they're discovered. "Supermodels are over -- dead, passe, perhaps," Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman announced to The New York Times this summer, at about the time that French publishers La Sirene brought out Le Livre Anti Top Models or the Anti Top Models Book. This month's Allure goes La Sirene one better by printing a list of brand-name models and then slagging some as "wannabes" and "never-bes." "It's a given that when you have this feeding frenzy, and every show is doing them -- Hard Copy, and the mass media, and whatnot -- that, at some point, backlash will set in," claims Allure columnist George Wayne. "You get tired of the faces and the backlash festers." None of this is to suggest that we won't be seeing familiar beautiful faces during the spring shows at Seventh on Sixth this week. Sexpot Helena Christensen, newly brunette Rhinemaiden Nadja Auermann, glacially vacant Scot Kirsty Hume, hip-swiveling Naomi Campbell, and Linda Evangelista, she of the permanent sneer -- all should be on hand. "Supermodels still get more pictures and more attention," James Scully, of the fashion production firm Kevin Krier and Associates, explains. Still, the days of models who don't "get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day" are numbered. The reason is simple. Fashion business is bad. "In the lag after the market crash, when the business was going in 100 directions at once," says Michael Gross, the author of this year's Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, "the one sure thing was the girls. The business promoted them relentlessly and we all creamed our jeans." Recently, however, "designer numbers have been down," explains Valerie Seckler, a financial reporter for Women's Wear Daily. "Apparel sales have been horrible," and Commerce Department statistics showing a small rise in department store sales for September were offset by one of the worst summers in years. With the exception of industry leaders Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, who countered the downward trend by introducing lower-priced bridge lines, American apparel has gotten so weak that, as Gross observes, "People are not going to factor the cost of a supermodel into the hang tag on a jacket anymore." What, exactly, is a supermodel? For members of the gay fashion claque who were early acolytes in the Temple of Style, she's a supreme diva -- a beautiful, empty vessel whose silence can be read (if you've been imbibing Wayne Koestenbaum) as a stifled scream. To the ponytail-wearing arbitrageur, she's an elegant trophy to skewer and stuff on your way to the top. To fashion editors, she's the perennially renewable myth of newness. To sittings editors, "it's the stupidest word in the world." The speaker is a magazine editor who once ran an agency that groomed a generation of '70s celebrity models (Rene Russo, Lisa Taylor, Jerry Hall) to follow in the footsteps of the '60s celebrity models (Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Veruschka), who took the place of celebrity models of the '50s (Suzy Parker, Dovima, Dorian Leigh), the decade when the mannequin cult took hold. "Now," says this woman, insisting on anonymity, "we've hyped these girls to the heavens and we've got ourselves a race of Frankensteins. It's our own fault, you know. We did it to ourselves." Tales of Frankenmodel abound in certain fashion circles. Most of the stories detail a kind of postadolescent silliness you'd expect from spoiled, overpetted creatures who're hired for their beauty, surgerized to improve it, starved thin on regimes of Marlboros and coffee, and then paid outrageous sums to peform what is, without doubt, one of the most tedious jobs in the world. Tantrums and an attitude of toxic self-enchantment aren't exactly rare in the fashion business. It may be that models are just more susceptible to the contagion than most. "The business gives (the models) a distorted outlook on life," explains Tony Longoria, designer Todd Oldham's business and life partner. "It's the Absolutely Fabulous tip that we all like to stand back from and laugh at. You pay people all this money and then you start to treat them differently because you're paying them so much, and then it all comes back to bite you on the butt." Everyone has heard the stories. A. stamps her hoof at Stresa, demanding not Dover sole but a club sandwich, which she then refuses because "the crust is scraping" her gums. B. turns on her Prada heel at a fashion show when she's not offered first pick of the clothes. C. categorically turns down any runway job that doesn't guarantee her placement among the first five models. D. doesn't seem to care where she stands in a lineup, since backstage time gives her a better chance to jam pilfered clothes into her Hermes Bugatti bag. E., a model who commands advertising rates in the high thousands, has a habit of showing up at bookings toting a laptop that clocks her time on the job to the minute. Isn't this, you might ask, just good business? "Not in this business," says Ann Veltri, director of Elite Model Management, the agency that boasts of a roster that includes Linda, Nadja, and Cindy. "I mean, come on! The girl is making a zillion dollars a day, let's not look at our watch every two seconds. Word gets around! In this business, you have to have a good attitude on the set. If Patty Smith is a bitch, you better believe that every makeup artist, hairdresser, and photographer is going to know. And then Patty Smith won't be getting bookings pretty soon." But they do get bookings. For quite a while, as the go-go '80s peaked (and crashed, and then peaked again as the retro go-go '90s) supermodel status helped some women extort the kind of contract guarantees that stipulate Concorde tickets, suites at Milan's Four Seasons, masseurs, personal chefs, and a variety of perks it's not safe to record. "You had to do it," one insider says of the two-hit cocaine "shooters" that were once as common backstage as sticks of Erase. "It was expected. Believe me, you dare to treat a model the way you feel normal people ought to be treated and you run the risk of losing her. So people end up becoming slaves and baby-sitters and shrinks and dealers" to spoiled 18-year-olds. "We take care of everything," adds Veltri. "I've gotten them doctors, apartments, financial consultants, hypnotists, and drug rehab." Ford Models went so far as to introduce a separate division to accommodate the needs of the select big-ticket talents--Christy Turlington, Vendela, Bridget Hall--who give the agency a public profile and in turn help lure new beauties. "The opportunities in terms of licensing supermodels," Katie Ford told the Times in May, "have barely begun." Rather, they may have begun and ended at the same time. When Richard Kirshenbaum, of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, the agency handling Snapple's hugely successful ad campaign, briefly considered using a supermodel, he found that industry surveys showed supermodel fever had run its course, and opted for a "regular" person instead. Afterward, he got "thousands of letters from men and women all across the country saying thank you for showing us a real person." What the correspondents were most grateful for was images of people who weren't perfect. "What's perfect?" sniffs Paul Rowland, co-owner of Women Model Management, the agency whose stable includes Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Carolyn Murphy, a beestung lovely whom Women's Wear Daily recently ordained the "hottest young model" around. "There is no one kind of beauty. That's the point. A model is a palette, it's a hanger, it's a blank. It's an image you pump to the culture at large." It is also, apparently, an impersonal pronoun in a business whose relationship to product is often composed of equal parts worship and contempt. "This business is full of bullshit," shrieks rubber-faced model Kristen McMenamy one morning from Paris. Although Allure certifies McMenamy as "supreme," her fame has so far derived mainly from a willingness to take highly creative, though low-paying, editorial work. It's only in the year or so since the Pennsylvania native turned 30 that she has begun to show up in major advertising campaigns--Prada, Versace, Absolut, and Chanel. "Supermodels never made what the media claimed," says McMenamy. "Never! Nobody has a fixed rate! People say Linda (Evangelista) makes this much, but her rate is not a set rate: it's up and down. Okay, Christy Turlington has options on her lips and her toes, but the rest is all bullshit. Only the contract girls make millions. And there's only six or seven women who are making big money." As Amie Bongay, president of the newly formed Models Guild, an AFL-CIO-affiliated union, points out, "It's a totally unregulated business. Most of these girls wind up with nothing," and no idea of where the money went. "The most I ever made for an advertising job was $15,000, and I only did that about four times," asserts McMenamy. "I'm telling you, if these other girls make what people say, I'm going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge." "Tell her to wait until after the shows," laughs a well-known stylist, a man who resembles a John Held cartoon figure redrawn in Gucci clothes. Like many of those interviewed for this article, his views on the supermodel phenomenon took contradictory forms. Sick of the hype, he was also still compelled by these exceptional beings on whom nature has showered such a rare assortment of blessings that people in the business tend to call them "beautiful car wrecks" or "genetic freaks." (It was once explained to me that the ideal model isn't merely a beautiful face: the ideal model is a beautiful face "on the smallest possible head, attached to a small torso, on top of insanely long legs.") "Of course, it's overdone, the supermodel thing," says Oscar Reyes, a longtime booker at Elite. "But it's the same people who attach these labels that, two minutes later, are over it." As Michael Gross explains, "We created a monster and the monster got bigger than the business." All of this occurred at "the same time that the designers went off their minds and simultaneously the mass media discovered fashion," claims Gross, who sets the defining moment in April 1988: "Suddenly it was not just two seats at the fashion shows for the Times, it was eight. It wasn't four seats for Vogue, it was 17." Model celebrity was grotesquely magnified as designers lost direction and "clothes got so fucking boring." These days boringness has morphed into retrenchment. With the success of the played-down, uniformlike clothes that currently provide Gucci and Prada with an excuse to mint money, fashion is following the rest of industry in a move to diversify and microsize. "What's happening in the business as a whole," says Gross, "is a return to scale." And, while fashion promoters like Keeble Cavaco & Duka still hopefully insist that "we're as interested in supermodels as we have been in the past," it remains to be seen how many will turn up on this season's runways and beyond. Models, of course, will always be with us, at least until Kodak finds a way to capture inner beauty on film. But, like many retrograde ideas revived in the '80s, the "supermodel" now seems not merely goofy, but a charming artifact of a distant time--fashion's Edsel. "The fashion industry is facing the same problem U.S. Steel had," Michael Gross says. "It's got to go back and retool the factory."