WHAT MAKES a supermodel? It was a question first debated in the bleached wood corridors of Vogue in the 1980s as it became clear that a subtle shift had occurred in the type of woman who was making the cover.
With their long, willowy limbs, searing gaze and perfect skin and hair, they were not exactly the type you encountered every day; but they were, essentially, real people, with opinions, passions, emotions of their own, rather than the result of a photographer’s or editor’s vision. Supermodels on super-salaries, they weren’t afraid to use their personalities to send out a more confident, cerebral message - to convey an attitude, a spirit of the time, that went with the clothes, the hair and the make-up. One of them even made a virtue out of her upper-lip mole: a sign that, whatever your clothes, your independence counted more. How could anyone have considered Cindy Crawford - the ultimate purveyor of brains plus beauty - anything less than a perfect specimen?
What’s more, a supermodel’s looks could transcend the vagaries of the prevailing fashion season, lending integrity in the flighty, zesty, fast-moving world of the designer. Longevity - and with it a referred sense of authenticity - was the hallmark of these gorgeous females. So new supermodels may come along; but an original never really dies, even though her place pounding the international runways might be, to an extent, usurped by a teenage waif.
Does leaving the runways, and the relentless snap and flash of the cameras, mean it’s all over for a supermodel, cast out by a world that notoriously idolises youth? Of course not. Late-Eighties supermodels were in at the beginning of celebrity-dominated culture. Indeed, were its early navigators, recognisable by their first names only: Christy, Linda, Tatjana, Naomi, Cindy. For them, the afterlife was time to pick up the brand name they had nurtured every time they got out of bed, and go places with it. That, surely, was the essence of being a supermodel - the hint of a life beyond.
Christy Turlington, the quintessential supermodel, consummate professional, veteran of hundreds of fashion shoots, worshipped by the lenses of Demarchelier, Elgort, Ritts, Lindbergh, et al, and - it’s no accident - the face of Calvin Klein Eternity, has glided effortlessly into her very own new world order. "Actually, it was right in the middle of my career that I stopped worrying about what I would do after modelling," she told me this week. "In 1994, I knew that I wanted to go back to school. So I decided right then to do it, to quit modelling then, rather than wait for the ‘after’ part. I ended up graduating from NYU with honours, and it’s been the best decision I could ever have made for myself."
Turlington’s other passion was yoga, and it has gone well beyond just looking stylish in leggings. At 26, a heavy smoker with signs of early-onset emphysema and a father dying of lung cancer, she realised she needed to clean up her act. "I guess everything in my life just suddenly came into a different focus. Yoga literally connected my mind, body and spirit at a time when I needed it most. I think because it helped me so much at such an important moment, and made so much sense, it became something I needed to have in my life. From then on it’s influenced every aspect of the way I live."
She shares the benefits yoga has brought to her life in a new book, Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice, published earlier this year. Part autobiography, part educational, it shows how yoga must have been the perfect antidote to all those quick changes and jetlag - and an exercise that helped her to deal with the fashion world’s superficial definitions of beauty. Turlington is certainly nowhere near losing her own looks, but it follows that if you’re comfortable on the inside, you’re less likely to be affected by what critics of the outside have to say - and that has to be good strategy for any ex-model.
Married to actor Ed Burns, and with a daughter, Grace, Turlington has also become a shrewd marketeer in the beauty and activewear industries. Showing just how fulfilling life after the catwalk can be, she brought out Sundari, a range of Ayurvedic skincare products in 1999, and, in collaboration with Puma, launched two lines of yoga gear - the first branded Nuala (which stands for "natural universal altruistic limitless and authentic"), with the second, more technical line called Maha ("movement affords higher aspiration").
"At the moment," she says, "my main focus is my family. I feel very blessed to be surrounded every day by such love and happiness. I am continuing to work on both Nuala and Maha, and between this and being there for my husband and Grace, my immediate plan is to continue to stay balanced, compassionate and trust where I’m going in my life."
If you hold with the notion that a meaningful "afterlife" is necessary to having been a supermodel in the first place, then it’s interesting to follow the progress of some of Turlington’s contemporaries. In 1989, Turlington posed for a striking, black-and-white British Vogue cover, a close-up with Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, shot by Peter Lindbergh. In an interview with New York magazine ten years later, Turlington said: "The supermodel thing started in November 1989 [with that cover]. That propelled us into doing George Michael’s Freedom 90 video. And in 1990 some of us from the video came out at the Versace show with that song playing. I’d heard from editors that the industry was quite dull at that time, and supermodels brought some excitement back into it. Even though the media would talk about the supermodel grouping, that grouping didn’t exist in our day-to-day lives. The truth is, we weren’t really together a lot. We worked alone, had been alone before, and are alone now."
So what became of the cover girls in that epoch-defining photograph? Linda Evangelista, now 39, made two George Michael videos, modelled for Versace, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and Chloe and became a spokesmodel for Clairol. Her estimated worth in 2000 was 29.8 million (16 million), when she had apartments in New York City, Paris and Ibiza. The girl who originally said she "didn’t wake up for less than 10,000 a day" was married to the president of the Elite agency, Gerald Marie, for six years, and subsequently dated actor Kyle MacLachlan and footballer Fabien Barthez. She devoted three years to charity work, and recently returned to the catwalks.
Cindy Crawford is probably the most commercial model of all time, having appeared on over 400 magazine covers, fronted an ad campaign for Pepsi in the late 1990s and hosted the MTV show House of Style for six years. She cemented her stardom by marrying fellow A-lister Richard Gere in Las Vegas in December 1991, prompting People magazine to call them the "sexiest couple alive". The pair divorced in 1995. Although Revlon replaced her as its spokesmodel in 2000, she hasn’t been short of work since. She got into calendars and exercise videos - over five million copies sold - and has lent her name to a jewellery line. Her own company, Crawdaddy Inc, is solely devoted to managing her career - to leveraging the "Cindy" brand. A skincare line is in the offing. She married bar owner Rande Gerber in 1998, and they have two children. A neighbour at their very swish Upper East Side apartment once told me, "She’s not only beautiful, she’s very smart, and very nice."
Of the other two models in the 1989 Lindbergh shoot, 34-year-old diva Naomi Campbell has not yet reached her "afterlife" - still regularly seen on the catwalks and out and about in the fashion capitals. Tatjana Patitz - she of the piercing cat’s eyes - briefly worked in film, and became spokesmodel for Longines watches; but she is rarely seen modelling now.
Pre-licensing, pre-global media, the faces that distilled the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies did not enjoy the golden opportunities that came later for lucrative endorsement, publishing and TV deals, which would keep a model’s face in the public eye well beyond her normal use-by date. For them, the catwalk and the magazine cover qualified them for virtually nothing. Their skills rarely translated well to the acting profession. In some cases, the system chewed them up and spat them out. Take Dovima, for example: the subject of one of the 20th century’s most famous fashion photographs, Dovima and the Elephants, taken by Avedon in 1955. The Irish-Polish daughter of a New York policeman, Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba enjoyed incredible success throughout the 1950s, but she was ahead of her time. She ended up as a waitress in Fort Lauderdale, and died of cancer in 1990.
Veruschka, the Countess Vera von Lehndorff, daughter of a Prussian count, was, at 6ft 1in, one of the most striking and unusual beauties of the 1960s, famous for appearing as herself in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, alongside David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. Apart from very rare catwalk appearances, she retired almost completely from the fashion scene and works as an artist in New York; but a black-and-white still from Antonioni’s cult film was recently a major draw at an exhibition, Veruschka in Vogue, put on by Gallagher’s Art & Fashion Gallery in downtown Manhattan. Her eerie, pale looks and high forehead were the inspiration for Michael Kors’s 2003 advertising campaign for Celine.
Jean Shrimpton, for many the embodiment of the 1960s, with her outsize, kohled eyes, porcelain skin and peek-a-boo fringe, was still a convent girl when first spotted by a photographer in 1958. She met David Bailey at 18 - the start of a personal and professional relationship that would produce some of the most lasting images ever. She later lived with the actor Terence Stamp, but ultimately wasn’t comfortable in the acting/fashion milieu and moved on. After a spell as an antiques dealer, she went to run the award-winning Abbey Hotel in Penzance, with her husband.
Another group managed to bridge the gap. Their continued presence in our collective consciousness is testament to their tenacity. Twiggy, Jerry Hall, Marie Helvin - we’d recognise them if we saw them in the street. Hawaiian-born Helvin came to London and met David Bailey, whom she subsequently married. In the late 1970s, her face was all over British Vogue, but eventually she ended both her career and marriage. Now single, she remains a familiar face on the London social scene.
Twiggy, real name Lesley Hornby (not a good start for a supermodel), became the "Face of ’66" aged 16, when she first appeared in the Daily Express. She was ahead of her time in achieving international fame beyond the fashion merry-go-round, and, at 55, with unglittering forays into acting behind her, is married to Leigh Lawson and again has become a role model for her generation as the face of the charity Age Concern. "Maturity and confidence have a unique beauty of their own," she has said.
Jerry Hall was only 15 when she packed her bag and moved to France looking for work as a model, and subsequently posed on the cover of Roxy Music’s Siren album, which led to a liaison with Bryan Ferry. Post-marriage to Mick Jagger, she received approval, if not massive critical acclaim, from her peer-group for having the chutzpah to appear naked on stage in London in The Graduate. She also served as a judge for the Whitbread Book of the Year award.
Now, at 48, she has been signed as the new face of jewellery chain Goldsmiths, in a campaign photographed by David Bailey that, with heavy and deliberate airbrushing, makes her look like Grace Kelly as she was in the 1950s. Hall has said she will continue to model as long as she’s in demand, and will wear a bikini until she’s 80. Go Jerry. Her model genes have been passed to the next generation - perhaps granting her the greatest longevity of all - in the form of Lizzy Jagger, lately the face of high-street fashion chain Mango.
Another model who fits with this group is Sandra Paul, who disappeared from the public eye but has re-entered it again for very different reasons. Paul, who appeared on two covers of American Vogue in succession, was a socialite, married first to Robin Douglas-Home and a regular on the Swinging Sixties Belgravia party scene. Three husbands and three children later, she finds herself married to the outgoing leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard. Although he’s the one of Romanian extraction, it is she who added a quirky whiff of Bohemia to the Tories’ general election campaign.
Two models in particular - Lauren Hutton and Iman - could be identified as precursors to the 1980s supermodels: both had perceived "imperfections", yet were paid unprecedentedly large sums in the 1970s. They could do attitude, and they seemed more aware of their own power.
In 1973, after almost a decade in the business, Hutton was the first to sign an exclusive modelling contract with a cosmetics company for a groundbreaking 200,000 a year. Despite the gap between her front teeth, she became the face of Revlon’s Ultima range. She sat for two dozen Vogue covers, starred opposite Richard Gere in American Gigolo when she was 36, and returned to modelling at the age of 46, persuaded by Steven Meisel to pose for a US department store. The photos were not airbrushed, and the inevitable crow’s feet received massive approval from other fortysomething women. She also has her own make-up brand, called Lauren Hutton’s Good Stuff, aimed at women over the age of 35. Now over 60, she appears in Central Park West on US cable TV.
Although Beverly Johnson was the first African-American to appear on a Vogue cover (1974), Iman was the first black model to achieve super-status. The daughter of a Somalian diplomat, she was discovered by photographer Peter Beard in 1975 while a student at the University of Nairobi. She turned to acting in the 1980s, before marrying David Bowie in 1992. In 1994, she went into partnership with Procter & Gamble to launch two ranges of cosmetics for "women of colour", called Iman and I-Iman. In a similar vein, Johnson lent her name to a range of wigs and hair extensions aimed at multi-cultural, multi-racial women. Almost 30 years after she became a model, Iman was the launch face for De Beers’ new diamond retail campaign in collaboration with LVMH. She also endorses Donna Karan, H&M and, along with Bowie, poses for Tommy Hilfiger. They have a four-year-old daughter, and she has a grown-up daughter from a previous relationship.
Of the heiresses to the legacy of the 1989 supermodels, Helena Christensen, Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer, only Christensen has not (yet) landed a superwealthy man. Ex-love of Michael Hutchence, mother of a small son, but currently single, she switched sides and became a photographer herself, although she has recently appeared in a series of advertisements designed to make clothing from Marks and Spencer look gorgeous. At the age of 36, the Danish model whom Gianni Versace once described as having "the most beautiful body in the world" took to the catwalk again at Barcelona Fashion Week as a favour to a Spanish designer, proving she still has what it takes.
In 2005, there is one player as famous for her diversification as for her original career as a curvy, German swimsuit model. Heidi Klum, 32, is the ultimate model-turned-mogul - but it has come at a price. Her stringent contract with the Victoria’s Secret lingerie chain required her to be trim and ready for a photoshoot just 34 days after giving birth. Her pregnancy had also been viewed as having a potentially damaging effect on the brand.
Pregnant again with her second child, Klum has worked her way up the hard way, from catalogue model (her former agent John Casablancas, at Elite, described her as being somewhere between Pamela Anderson and a top model, with the heart of a shark) to something of an international marketing phenomenon. She has an eponymous fragrance, a footwear line with Birkenstock (she designed some for Bill Clinton), clothing and jewellery endorsement deals, and a slot on an American reality show Project Runway. Klum is the inevitable end-result of what started in 1989 - now commercial to the point where great editorial photography no longer really matters.
It’s telling to note that when Conde Nast launched its most recent magazine title in March, Easy Living, aimed at women aged 35 to 59, it was not Klum they chose to put on the cover. It was, of course, Christy Turlington.
• Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practic by Christy Turlington is published by Penguin, 12.99.