Feb 20th, 2024, 02:45 PM

Death of the Supermodel

By Isabella Logue
Naomi Campbell for 1994 Italian Vogue, Image Credit: Openverse/Harrysach2010
Shalom Harlow said it best: "Being able to point an iPhone and take a selfie doesn't make you a supermodel. Sorry, not sorry."

The 1990s is often revered as the golden age for couture fashion. This transformative era is defined by many elements, including dramatic catwalks, legendary photographers, and iconic fashion designers. Standing out as the defining feature of this decade is a fashion phenomenon that took the world by storm. Before the '90s, models were silent; their only job was to display clothing. The few who did achieve international stardom, such as Twiggy in the '60s, only worked in print. In spite of that, some women found a way to transcend the bounds of print onto the runway, bringing fame to the catwalk. This never-before-seen fusion of editorial and runway led to a brand new status for models: the "supermodel." Over 30 years later, the industry has evolved into one that would have been unrecognizable to the denizens of that era. With the invention of social media and nepotism running rampant within the industry, are traditional pathways to becoming a supermodel still relevant for the new generation of models? 

The circulation of images and campaigns in today's digital age makes it unlike any other time in history. Previously, brands promoted their products on one-way mediums such as billboards or magazines. Now, social media is the leading tool in marketing. With almost five billion people on social media, the relationship between brand and consumer has completely transformed. Never before have the masses been able to exist in the same field as giant corporations. Whether it’s sharing a selfie on Instagram or posting a video on TikTok, anyone with access to the internet can reach viewers across the globe. Every brand’s goal is to reach as many people as possible in hopes of selling their product. This manifests in modern media by brands partnering with “influencers,” or people who have amassed a large number of followers. While it is true that anyone has the potential to become an influencer, Shalom Harlow said it best, “Being able to point an iPhone and take a selfie doesn’t make you a supermodel.”


A post shared by @supermodels_official

Vogue cover feat. Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington

What defines a supermodel? The Apple TV documentary series The Super Models highlights four of the most renowned models of the '90s: Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Cindy Crawford. These women reached levels of fame never before seen in the industry, eventually becoming household names worldwide. But what made them so special? 

The docu-series chronicles the careers of the four supermodels from their beginning to present day. These women share similar origins: they grew up living ordinary and mundane lives. Cindy was raised in a small town in Illinois by a blue-collar family, Naomi was raised by a single mother who immigrated to London from Jamaica, Christy was raised by middle-class parents in California, and Linda was raised by Italian immigrants in Canada. Entering the industry in the mid-'80s, these women worked for years before earning worldwide fame. Naomi stated in the docu-series, “We had to earn our stripes and take our stepping stones.” They lived in small apartments, took as many jobs as possible, and always took advice from industry professionals. Annie Veltri, a respected modeling agent, stated, “Those girls worked hard. They were constantly seeking, and wanting, and curious, and knowledgeable, and driven.” In order to book jobs and receive an income, these women had to be the best. 

Through their hard work, they achieved success. From Vogue covers, to Calvin Klein ads, to Pepsi commercials, they each made names for themselves. However, at this point in history, models worked in print or runway, but never both. It wasn’t until they broke this boundary, by appearing on catwalks and advertisements alike, that they reached a new and colossal level of fame. Their faces were everywhere: on every magazine, billboard, and storefront. They were more than just the average model, unknown by the masses. They became known as supermodels. 

This new status, pioneered by Naomi, Cindy, Linda, and Christy, changed the modeling industry forever. Models on the catwalk were now getting worldwide recognition, including some of the biggest names of the '90s: Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Amber Valletta, and Shalom Harlow. Undoubtedly, the international fame and success of these women was made possible by the aforementioned trailblazers. 

Kate Moss by Tim Walker for Vogue

If you think of today's top models, you probably think of Kendall Jenner, Hailey Bieber, Gigi Hadid, and Bella Hadid. Whether or not they should be considered supermodels is a heated topic of debate. Looking back to their forerunners, one thing sets the new generation apart from the old: nepotism. Because of their last name or connections within the industry, today’s most famous models didn't necessarily have to work hard to achieve success. 

At the height of her career, Linda Evangelista worked upwards of 40 shows in a single fashion season. In direct contrast, Kendall Jenner, who currently holds the title of the highest-paid model in the world, said in an interview with Love Magazine, “Since the beginning we’ve been super selective about what shows I would do. I was never one of those girls who would do like 30 shows a season.” Nepotism has created an industry that values names and followers over talent and drive, and this is precisely what differentiates today’s top models from the iconic supermodels of the 90s. This divide between the old and the new generation of models offers a basis for controversy regarding whether or not "nepo-babies" can (or should) be considered supermodels.

Kendall Jenner for Love Magazine

With the rise of nepo-babies on the runway, it is important to note that numerous of today's highest-paid models earned their success through the seemingly old-fashioned way of hard work and determination. Gisele Bündchen, Rosie Huntigton-Whiteley, and Adriana Lima are a few of the models that appear on the list of today's highest paid models (as of 2022), and all had relatively normal upbringings. These women are all currently retired (though still occasionally appearing in ad campaigns or on the catwalk), which begs the question of whether or not they should be considered models of the current generation, or those of the past. There is no definitive definition of what it means to be a supermodel. Is it simply a model who has reached a level of international recognition by those both inside and outside of the fashion industry? If so, then the status of supermodel lives on. However, defining a supermodel as someone who achieved worldwide fame solely through hard work and perseverance would mean that today's top models don't meet the requirements. 

The universality of social media has undeniably transformed and democratized the pathway to achieving fame. With anyone having the potential to attain hundreds, thousands, or even millions of followers, the concept of "paying your dues" before achieving success is now one of the past. Rapid acquisition of fame, whether through nepotism or internet followers, proves the careers of today's top models to be based on insider connections and good-luck rather than talent and determination. 

In 1968, Andy Warhol prophetically stated, "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes." Can today's models live up to the supermodel status inaugurated by the models of the past?