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The Rise and Fall of the Supermodel

Seabastian writes about fashion and beautiful occasions, including weddings.

Linda, Christy, and Cindy grace a 1991 cover of "Vogue."

Linda, Christy, and Cindy grace a 1991 cover of "Vogue."

What Happened to the Supermodel?

According to Claudia Schiffer, “In order to become a supermodel, one must be on all the covers all over the world at the same time so that people can recognize the girls.” And she would know; the beautiful Schiffer at one time earned $12 million for being a top model, back in the era when magazines, runways, and advertisements were ruled by glamorous women famous enough to be household names: Claudia, Cindy, Linda, Naomi, Christy, and Kate. This is a look at the rise of the first supermodels, the cultural dominance they reached in their heyday, and the reasons behind the demise of iconic models. The rise and fall of the supermodel spans decades, and reveals much about not only modeling but about fashion and society in a broader sense.

Lisa Fonssagrives, the first supermodel.

Lisa Fonssagrives, the first supermodel.

The First Supermodel

The term “supermodel” was coined in the 1940s, although it did not come into popular use until the early 1990s. Many a famous model has tried to lay claim to the crown of the original supermodel (most noticeably diva Janice Dickinson), but Lisa Fonssagrives is generally considered to be the very first supermodel.

Fonssagrives was a highly sought-after face in the fashion industry from the 1930s to the 1950s. During that time, Fonssagrives appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine over 200 times, which is truly remarkable. The success of Fonssagrives as a model and her numerous appearances in Vogue helped both; the covers made the model a famous face, and Fonssagrives' long career established Vogue as a powerful force in the fashion industry. To appear on the cover of Vogue became the pinnacle of the print modeling world.

Every modeling era reveals its nature by the type of model it chooses to represent itself. The post-WWII era in which Lisa Fonssagrives thrived was the Golden Age of Haute Couture. Christian Dior's “New Look” was the signature style of the day, and it signaled a return to ultra-feminine beauty when women returned to being homemakers at the conclusion of the war.

Fonssagrives was known for her haughty, angular appearance, which was the ideal framework for showcasing the sophisticated creations from Paris. As she once said of herself, she was a “good clothes hanger”, and indeed her look was the perfect portrayal of the “new ideal of feminine artifice” which was the ideal of the late 1940s and the 1950s. Fashion photographers Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Cecil Beaton helped to capture the sophisticated, detached style of the earliest supermodels.

Twiggy, the "it" model of the late 1960s.

Twiggy, the "it" model of the late 1960s.

Twiggy: The Face of '66

The youth revolution of the 1960s heralded big changes in the fashion world, and naturally, models changed right along with it. A 1968 article in Glamour magazine declared Twiggy, Cheryl Tiegs, Wilhelmina, Veruschka, and Jean Shrimpton (among others) to be the new supermodels. The rise of Twiggy signaled a drastic change in the feminine ideal of the 1960s. The voluptuous “New Look” woman idealized by Dior was out, replaced essentially by her daughter. Best known for her thin boyish frame, short haircut and large eyes rimmed with dark lashes, Twiggy was the sensation of the mid-to-late 1960s. Declared the “Face of '66” upon being discovered at age 16, her 91-pound frame was the ideal hanger for the androgynous styles and mini-dresses of the time.

The emergence of the Twiggy look was not important not just in the fashion world, but in the culture as a whole. By 1967 Twiggy was such a global phenomenon that she was covered not only by Vogue, but by news and culture publications including the New Yorker, Life, and Newsweek. If one of the criteria for being a supermodel is becoming an integral part of the fabric of pop culture, Twiggy passed the test with flying colors. Her boyish frame spoke not to the mature woman celebrated in the 1950s, but the youth culture which was to take hold in the late '60s and in some ways never completely fade.

Wilhelmina, Twiggy's contemporary, is notable not only for her modeling career but for leaving the industry-heavy Ford Models to begin her own top-flight modeling agency in 1967.

Christie Brinkley in 1979 "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit issue.

Christie Brinkley in 1979 "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit issue.

"Sports Illustrated" Swimsuit Issue Popularizes the "California Girl"

One of the women declared to be a supermodel in 1968 by Glamor was Cheryl Tiegs, whose career ran well into the 1970s. Tiegs gained fame not only as a model but as the updated version of a pin-up girl. Much of Cheryl Tiegs's popularity came not from the fashion world, but from her status as an all-American sex symbol.

She is best known for her association with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, for which she was the cover model in 1970, 1975, and 1983. One of the fascinating things about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is that a sports magazine set the standards for ideal feminine beauty. Beginning as a few pages in 1964, the swimsuit edition was essentially a way to sell magazines during the less sports-intensive winter months.

In the early '70s, a decision was made at SI to select models who embodied a healthy “California girl” look. Twiggy had retired in 1970, after only four years as a model, and the new sportier aesthetic embraced by Sports Illustrated turned the tide away from emaciated androgynous models.

The list of women who have appeared on the cover or within the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue reads like a “who's who” of supermodels; Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Paulina Porizkova, Elle Macpherson, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, and Naomi Campbell. In addition to their natural beauty, all of these models had a healthy womanly physique, a far cry from the boylike figure of Twiggy from the 1960s.

Mega Models

Many other noteworthy models emerged during the 1970s, and models were finding themselves in a position to make enormous sums of money, especially from cosmetics contracts. Lauren Hutton, who was a favorite of Diana Vreeland's and appeared on the cover of Vogue twenty-five times, was one of the first models to earn a mega-contract. She took her supermodel status and turned it into a $1 million contract to be the face of Revlon's Ultima II line in 1974. The Hutton-Revlon association was groundbreaking, in that it started the trend of a product line selecting one model to be its primary representative. Hutton's landmark contract was quickly followed by a mega-deal between Margaux Hemingway and Fabergé's “Babe” perfume. It was very telling that by the mid-70s models were so well known that companies were willing to base an entire advertising campaign around them.

It Became Okay to Break the Mold... a Little

Something else very important happened with models in the 1970s. In addition to the rise of supermodels with the “California girl” look, there was becoming a gradual acceptance of models who did not fit the mold. Lauren Hutton was known not only for her pretty face but also for the very noticeable gap between her two front teeth. Just as Cindy Crawford would later decide to keep her trademark mole, Hutton resisted all urging to have her teeth “fixed”. That sort of naturalistic beauty would never have been tolerated in the era of Lisa Fonssagrives, but as models became more and more well known, it became not only acceptable but also appealing for a model to develop her own unique persona.

Beverly Johnson was the first African-American "Vogue" cover model.

Beverly Johnson was the first African-American "Vogue" cover model.

Iman was the first supermodel of color.

Iman was the first supermodel of color.

1970s: First African-American Vogue Cover Model

The fashion world in many ways mirrors the world at large, and just as faces of color were finally being seen on television in the '70s, the first African-American supermodel appeared on the scene. A model named Donyale Luna was the first woman of color to appear in an editorial in Vogue, but it was Beverly Johnson's 1974 cover that really made an impact in the fashion world. As the first African-American model to achieve the ultimate gig, Johnson's Vogue cover paved the way for models of color to appear both in print and in runway shows.

By the following year, African-American models were becoming commonplace in fashion shows, and in 1976, Iman made her debut. Widely considered to be the first African-American supermodel, Iman became an instant sensation and worked closely with legendary fashion designers such as Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent, one of the first models to serve as “muse” to a designer. Just as Christie Brinkly crossed over from the modeling world to the entertainment business with her 1985 marriage to Billy Joel, Iman married fashion and music when she wed David Bowie in 1992. The early African-American supermodels Beverly Johnson and Iman paved the way for later stars such as Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks.

Czech beauty Paulina Porizkova.

Czech beauty Paulina Porizkova.

Big Hair And Big Contracts: The 1980s

By the 1980s, the age of the supermodel was ramping up. Just as cosmetic companies had signed exclusive contracts with models in the '70s, in the '80s, famous models were seen as the ultimate marketing tool. There was an explosion of fashion advertising on billboards and television, and the top models of the day were seen as an excellent way to promote a luxury brand. Beauties such as Cheryl Tiegs, Carol Alt, Christie Brinkley, Paulina Porizkova, and Elle Macpherson began marketing everything under the sun. No longer anonymous “clothes hangers”, supermodels had gained popularity and status which rivaled and in some cases eclipsed that of movie stars. Brinkley was famously the face (or perhaps the hair) of Prell shampoo, and Paulina Porizkova's 1986 Diet Sprite tv ads are classic.

The late 1980s into the early part of the 1990s were the true heyday of the supermodel. They had graduated from a way to display designer clothing, to a marketing force, to a full-fledged celebrity phenomenon. Supermodels were everywhere; they appeared on talk shows, were bestsellers in the gossip rags, had roles in movies (though not all were well received), and hosted tv shows (Cindy Crawford hosted House of Style on MTV from 1989 to 1995). In their official role as the most glamorous people in society, supermodels were often photographed living the high life at trendy nightclubs and even launched their own clothing and fashion lines. Their immense fame gave the models of the '80s and '90s the ability to turn their careers into multi-million dollar enterprises.

Cindy Crawford in 1994 Pepsi Ad

Linda, Cindy, Naomi, and Christy take the world by storm.

Linda, Cindy, Naomi, and Christy take the world by storm.

Supermodel Claudia Schiffer made $12 million in 1995.

Supermodel Claudia Schiffer made $12 million in 1995.

"We Don't Wake Up For Less Than $10,000 A Day"

The first trio of ultra-supermodels was the Trinity: Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington. Each of the models was a mega-star in her own right, and together, they were a force to be reckoned with. They were the go-to girls for fashion designers like Versace, every fashion magazine, and advertisers. The popularity of the Trinity meant that they could virtually name their own price. In 1991, Christy Turlington landed a Maybelline cosmetics contract that paid her $800,000 for only twelve days of work! Perhaps it was sweet deals like that which led Linda Evangelista to utter her notorious comment, “We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” to Vogue in 1990. Whether Evangelista's remarks were as spoiled and bratty as they were taken to be at the time (her comment caused a huge uproar) or she was merely trying to jokingly make a point, the only inaccuracy was that her base sum was too low. Although her observation did not come across well, it was valid: the power had shifted in the fashion realm, and it was all in the well-manicured hands of the models.

In addition to the original Trinity, three more models make the final cut of what is known as the Big Six, the official and universally accepted list of the top supermodels. Besides Campbell, Turlington, and Evangelista, there was Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, and (later) Kate Moss. These were the women who appeared on all the magazine covers, were in the highest demand by fashion designers and advertisers, and were the best known by the public at large.

These women had tremendous earning power; in 1995 Claudia Schiffer earned $12 million, a sum to rival the income of most of Hollywood's biggest stars. As Michael Kors once said of Crawford, “Cindy changed the perception of the ‘sexy American girl’ from classic blue-eyed blonde to a more sultry brunette with brains, charm, and professionalism to spare.” Crawford's 1994 Pepsi commercial captured the mass appeal of the charming beauty.

The immense celebrity of the supermodels allowed them to get away with things that would have been disastrous to lesser careers. When Linda Evangelista cut off her long hair in 1988, it set off shockwaves which resulted in designers and fashion editors dropping her left and right. By the next year, not only was Evangelista back on top, but her short hair sparked a trend among legions of average women. This led to her being crowned “the Chameleon”, one of the few models in the world who was so striking and powerful that she could drastically change her hair length and hair color while still maintaining her status as one of the world's elite models. On a more serious note, the career of Naomi Campbell has been marred by ugly legal incidents, notably several accusations of assaulting her employees with phones and a Blackberry.

When is a CoverGirl not a cover girl? When she is an actress. Drew Barrymore is one of many actresses to get cosmetics ads and magazine covers.

When is a CoverGirl not a cover girl? When she is an actress. Drew Barrymore is one of many actresses to get cosmetics ads and magazine covers.

Actresses Eclipse Supermodels

As white-hot as the Big Six were, by the late 1990s, the tide was turning against supermodels. There were several reasons for this. One was the inevitable change in fashion trends, away from glamor and into grunge, minimalism, and street style. The larger-than-life models who were a pivotal part of the fabulous runway shows at Versace, Chanel, and Isaac Mizrahi had too much personality for the drabbed-down clothing of the late '90s. The designers had decided that they wanted their clothing to reclaim its place as the star of the show, rather than the models wearing it.

There is also a theory that the flamboyant and demanding behavior of the supermodels had started to wear on the magazine editors and couturiers who decided which girls were in and which were out. The theory goes that the powers-that-be in the fashion industry decided that as the careers of the Big Six began to wind down, no other group of ultra-successful models would be groomed as their replacements.

In the late 1990s and into the present day, magazines and advertisers began trending away from models for their print campaigns in favor of actresses and pop stars. In fact, the most recent edition of Vogue features not a model, but actress Tina Fey. The month before? Another actress, Jessica Biel. The issue before that? Actress Rachel McAdams.

When the publication which was known as the ultimate launching pad into supermodel fame declines to feature models on its covers, there has definitely been a serious shift. Conspiracy theories aside, perhaps one of the reasons for this is that the current crop of models is mostly anonymous, and that is of the design of the couture houses. Angry, emaciated waifs from Eastern Europe have become the favored look for runway shows, leaving few models who are aspirational enough to merit celebrity status.

One of the largest parts of the success of the supermodels of the 1970s-1990s was not only that they were beautiful, but that average women admired their style and desired to look like them. It was the perfect storm of men loving the supermodels for their beauty and sex appeal and women loving them for their wholesome good looks and terrific style. Few people look up to the current batch of models, which could be a large part of the reason why publications such as Vogue do not routinely feature them on their covers: they just would not sell as many magazines.

Kate Moss's Calvin Klein campaign started the waif movement in the early 1990s.

Kate Moss's Calvin Klein campaign started the waif movement in the early 1990s.

Gisele Bundchen, a Victoria's Secret "Angel" is one of few current supermodels.

Gisele Bundchen, a Victoria's Secret "Angel" is one of few current supermodels.

Kate Moss And Gisele Bundchen

Our present time is not entirely without famous models. Kate Moss is certainly instantly recognizable enough to be considered a supermodel. Much like Twiggy did before her, it was the discovery of Kate Moss that brought in a renewed trend of ultra-thin waif-like models and was the beginning of the end for the more curvaceous ones.

Discovered in 1988 at the age of 14, Kate Moss and her pencil-thin form were downright shocking when she became the focal point of a Calvin Klein campaign in 1993. Although Moss is put into the category of the Big Six, her style was really the opposite of the other five supermodels, and her rising fame was the beginning of the end for models who looked like Claudia or Cindy.

Despite some hits that her career has taken from reported drug use, Moss remains one of the most recognizable models of our time. She is also widely considered to be a true fashion icon. One shot in a magazine of Kate leaving a shop wearing ballet flats or skinny jeans, and stores will sell out of them by the next day. She does not have the same down-to-earth natural beauty as the models who preceded her, but Kate Moss is nonetheless a force to be reckoned with in the international fashion scene.

One other present-day model meets the criteria to be called a genuine supermodel. According to Claudia Schiffer, only Gisele Bündchen qualifies as a supermodel in today's fashion scene. Since 2005, Bündchen has been the highest-paid model, although without the same support of the fashion magazine industry granted her predecessors, the Brazilian beauty is unlikely to reach their heights of stardom.

As magazines like Vogue have turned away from promoting new models and fashion designers have embraced an anorexic aesthetic, another venue has showcased models with more womanly curves, and that is Victoria's Secret. The lingerie giant has launched many careers, and becoming one of its “Angels” can provide a great career boost for a model, just as it did for Bündchen. Gisele has been the star of campaigns for most of the fashion giants, including Dior, Balenciaga, Versace, and Louis Vuitton, as well as watchmaker Ebel and Apple Computers.

Just as Iman and Christie Brinkley did before her, Bündchen married a celebrity from the entertainment world, in her case New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady.

Former model Tyra Banks searches for "America's Next Top Model."

Former model Tyra Banks searches for "America's Next Top Model."

Is a New Era of Supermodels on the Horizon?

Who knows what the future of high fashion models will hold? If history repeats itself, Victoria's Secret may well launch a new era of beautiful aspirational supermodels to replace the grunge waifs just as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue did in the 1970s. There are also modeling-related television programs like America's Next Top Model (hosted by Tyra Banks), which seek the new face of a generation. Certainly, within the very pages of the magazines which no longer promote special models to superstardom, there have been articles lamenting the decline of the supermodel. Without the glamor and style of supermodels like the Big Six, fashion just isn't as fun or interesting as it used to be. As Claudia Schiffer once said, “Supermodels like we once were don't exist anymore.” But perhaps one day they will again.


Dana Tate from LOS ANGELES on March 22, 2017:

I thought the article was informative and a great read.

ll on May 05, 2014:

I thought I was watching movie

BTH on June 27, 2012:

Vogue has and always will discover new talen and work with models to turn them into top models and turn unknown deisgners into fashion stars..this article is totally bullshit because the era of the supermdeol is still alive and quite evident just not in the way that it was in the 90's. The girls of today or making their Supermodel status known simply by doing runway show after runway show and having the will power to book 64 shows in a single season from NYC TO LONDON TO MILAN TO PARIS and then do 8 photo shoot in between. So whomeever wrote this article is deifntely not a fashion journalist or fashion insider. Tyra wasn't considered a Supermodel and never wil be she did not gain notoriety untuil she landed her VS contract in 97 and her Covergril capaign in the same yea. She never was on the cover of French, Italain or French Vogue and never will be and was only on the cover of Vgoue Espana once, and got the Vogue paris cover due to her retirng and was an article about her ANTM and Tyra Show success.

sara on June 14, 2012:

Women's Fashion a rising trend is increase day by day

J on December 02, 2011:

I don't know why people keep talking about Kate Moss's bringing in the the ultra-thin look.Fashion models have always been thin.They were never normal,healthy,full figured women.

Anyway,thanks for the article,Seabastian.It's a good one!

Yena Williams from California on November 17, 2010:

What an amazing article covering all the bases through the years. I'd have to say that Linda and Cindy are personal favorites. (I like big hair) But I've never been into the uber thin look that Twiggy was sporting. (And Kate Moss)

Rate Beautiful!

LSH on September 04, 2010:

The only profession where women earn more than men and no brains are required.

Seabastian (author) from Raleigh on March 09, 2010:

I agree about the high price that comes with being a model, Tim-Tim. Have you ever seen the movie "Gia"? In fact, one of the saddest things about the disappearance of supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley is that the new "ideal" is such an unhealthy one. The previous top models may have had unrealistically perfect figures, but at least they appeared healthy, instead of scrawny.

Priscilla Chan from Normal, Illinois on March 07, 2010:

Being beautiful comes with a hafty price! There is a lot of not so glamorous eating disorder to maintain the weight besides the use of drug and alcohol. The period to become the supermodel is usually limited. There is always a new one whom is dicovered. Great hub and very informative! Thanks:)