Penny Pickard is one of Aotearoa’s top models, and has been modelling since 1993. She’s been an early childhood kaiako, and studied philosophy and recently completed a master's in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters.
The term supermodel gets bandied about a lot. But the documentary The Super Models, streaming now on Apple TV in four hour-long episodes, suggests that it should only be applied to the OG four: Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell. Because the term was coined for them.
In the documentary the ever-grounded Christy calls a spade a spade and a model a model. Models sell clothes. But these women did something else. They became household names and branded themselves onto the public imagination. They supported each other and made truckloads of money. They took up space.
I grew up in the 1980s and these women were everywhere. On magazine covers, tv ads and music videos. I immortalised them under cover-seal wearing Chanel bikinis on my high-school ring binder. To see these larger-than-life figures speaking about their childhoods in the first episode, being warm, self-deprecating and funny, drew me in instantly.
The supermodels rose to power in what almost feels like an alternate reality now. The 1980s were pre-internet and pre-Instagram; the #MeToo movement hadn’t happened; sustainability wasn’t something that was considered; and in the rarefied world of the fashion industry, there were print models and runway models. You couldn’t be both.
When Christy, Cindy, Linda and Naomi made the crossover from being on the cover of Vogue to being on the runway, that led to lucrative contracts and celebrity. They could command $20,000 for appearing in a single fashion show. In an interview with David Letterman after becoming the spokesmodel for Revlon, Cindy quips that making that kind of money could give her the ‘freedom to do anything I want.’ And for a while it did.
When George Michael wanted the supers to be in the music video for his song Freedom, Naomi told him − while clubbing together in the Roxbury on Sunset Boulevard − that she and her supermodel sisterhood wanted x amount of money and round-trip tickets on the Concorde. And they got it.
Cindy called their time the golden age. Except it wasn’t. The fashion industry was endemically racist. The casting of Black models in runway shows was tokenistic at best and rarely led to being cast for advertising. Campbell “wanted what the white model was getting” and hasn’t stopped fighting for that since. During the reign of the supermodels, she had the support of her sisters; Linda and Christy refused to walk in shows unless Naomi was booked in them too.
Then there was the fashion industry’s #MeToo moment. In 2020 the model agents Jean-Luc Brunel and Gérald Marie – who was married to Linda from 1987-1993 − were accused of raping women during the 1980s and 1990s. Christy lived in Brunel’s apartment in Paris when she was still a teenager. About that time she said, “I can’t believe that I’m okay.”
The supermodels had their protectors though. Indeed, it is the creative relationships these women had with designers and photographers that stands out as a highlight for me in this documentary and speaks to the unique time it was. Naomi had Azzedine Alaïa. Cindy had Herb Ritts.
All of them had Steven Meisel who included them in the process of making a photograph a work of art. Christy calls their relationship with Meisel, “a special family kind of bond”. She says to achieve images that are considered iconic, a sense of trust with the photographer is required. Cindy’s 1988 shoot for Playboy magazine was shot at the same time she and Herb Ritts were on an assignment for French Vogue. In true Cindy fashion, she retained control of the images and could kill the project at any time. The images are so beautiful, it’s hard to distinguish which photos are for which publication.
Inevitably there was a backlash. Despite the power the supermodels had over their careers, there is an argument that women being paid for their appearance plays to the aims of the patriarchy. Feminists like Naomi Wolf argued that fashion magazines disseminate an unattainable beauty standard conceived by the male gaze and ultimately disempower women. This view is given credence by Linda when she says, “I wish we could just see ourselves in the mirror non-distorted, without ever having seen ourselves in a filter, or retouched.”
The backlash was further compounded by the social, economic and political changes of the 1990s. The advent of the internet democratised fashion and pushed back against the elitist glamour of the 80s. The grunge aesthetic emerged, and with it the rise of Kate Moss and the waifs. This new articulation of beauty was further exacerbated by the demise of the Soviet Union.
Model and activist Bethann Hardison, herself the subject of a just released documentary Invisible Beauty, notes that the modelling world was suddenly inundated by skinny white girls wanting to leave Eastern Europe, and willing to work for less money than their Amazonian predecessors. And when Gianni Versace was murdered in 1997, the age of the supermodel arguably died too. Versace championed the supermodels’ distinct personalities and allowed them to shine bright. Naomi was stricken by grief for years after his death.
But this documentary argues that the age of the supermodel hasn’t died. It has evolved, and the fourth episode shows the supermodels ageing. Naomi is going through menopause. Linda is living with breast cancer and the disfiguring effects of a cosmetic procedure. Cindy jokes that she’d have more Instagram followers if she changed her handle to “Kaia’s mom”. I think one of the most beautiful scenes in the documentary is when we see Christy as she is today, cutting her mother’s hair. When Christy tilts her head the grey streaking her temples is revealed.
The most empowering moments in The Super Models aren’t seeing them in the 90s, although watching them link arms and sing along to Freedom on the Versace runway is cool as fuck. It’s seeing them today, in their 50s, speaking about their fragilities and insecurities, and what gives them a sense of purpose.
The fashion world thrives on change. To be a model today, you need to have Instagram, and in five years’ or five minutes’ time, it will be something else. The fact that Christy, Cindy, Linda and Naomi are all still working as models speaks to something hopeful. Women are allowed to change too. They can evolve, transform, age. Last year Linda closed the Fendi show at New York Fashion Week after 15 years in hiding, so it seems fitting that she should close this piece: “Beauty doesn’t have an ending”.
* The Super Models is screening now on Apple TV+