Even if you didn’t follow fashion, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington were pop culture fixtures and household names throughout the 1990s. No other group of runway and print models since has captured the public’s imagination in quite the same way. Through new interviews and archival footage, the four-part docuseries “The Super Models” on Apple TV+ looks back at their careers.
Evangelista’s participation in the series is notable. For years, she remained out of the spotlight after a fat-freezing procedure went wrong, in addition to a breast cancer diagnosis. But here she is. I didn’t anticipate how lovely it would be to see her again.
But “The Super Models” is not especially probing, which tends to be the case whenever celebrity subjects are also executive producers. They are interviewed separately and only briefly do we see them interact in the present. They aren’t asked to be particularly vulnerable or introspective, although Evangelista does go the deepest. The series is less about who these women are beyond the surface, and more a meditation on a certain kind of fame that predates social media and the concept of influencers. It’s fascinating to contemplate what that once looked like and how it worked, compared with today, when so many models are the offspring of famous parents (Crawford’s children included).
“There’s so much mythology that surrounds models,” says the fashion critic Robin Givhan. “And the job of that mythology is to kind of hide their humanity.” Footage unearthed by directors Roger Ross Williams and Larissa Bills bears that out. There was a lot of resentment around their success. An old clip of Polly Mellen, the creative director of Allure magazine, is a nasty rant about what it took to book these models: “They demand the Concord. They demand their car and driver. Some of them demand their chef. Some of them demand their suite at the best hotels. They don’t stop making demands. And we have spoiled them and turned them into the supermodels they are.”
Even back then, Evangelista saw things clearly, telling a reporter: “I provide a service and the people I’m working for make a helluva lot more money than I do.” Her fee, she adds, “is only a very small percentage of what an advertising budget consists of. And you should see what they get back.”
Models exist to sell — whether they’re moving product or merely an idea — but these supermodels had personalities that came through, in photos and on the runway, and an aura that created the illusion that they were more than just beautiful faces who existed to shill, shill, shill.
They formed real relationships with designers, including Paris-based Azzedine Alaïa. “He introduced me to so much in the world,” says Campbell. “I met so many amazing people, I learned about art, architecture, design. Most importantly I got to watch him work, I got to be part of his work. And he really treated me like a daughter.” She saw his work as art, not just commerce. Or a job.
The series barely touches on body image and we’re left to assume the women never struggled to conform to the standards acceptable by the fashion world: “We were the physical representations of power,” says Crawford, who oh-so-briefly dips her toe into these waters. “And I think where it gets tricky and hard to talk about is that the implication is that some people don’t fit that — and then they’re made to feel less beautiful.”
But otherwise, there’s no conversation about the pressures around that, or what it means to age, except from Evangelista. “Being in the vain world that I was working in and living in, there were all these tools we’re presented with. And I used some of those tools because I wanted to like what I saw in the mirror.” She wishes they could “really see ourselves in the mirror, non-distorted, without ever having seen ourselves with a filter or retouched. That is what has thrown me into this deep depression that I’m in. It’s like a trap. You’re trapped with yourself that you hate. It’s been years since I worked. And years of hiding.”
Based on the stories they share, they avoided some of the worst abuses in the industry, although Evangelista does open up about her short and violent marriage to her agent. They divorced when she was 27. “He let me out as long as he got everything. But I was safe and I got my freedom.”
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