Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford: You know their faces because they were models, but you know their names because they were supermodels.
Now, a new Apple TV+ docuseries about the fashionable foursome who took the modelling industry to new heights in the late 1980s and early ’90s is helping to shape their legacies.
Larissa Bills, who co-directed The Super Models with Roger Ross Williams, says the women remind her of her coming-of-age — a period when the worlds of fashion, celebrity and pop culture collided, creating the conditions for the supermodel era.
“What these women represented to me at the time that I was a young woman was they were powerful,” said Bills.
WATCH | The official trailer for The Super Models:
The four-part series covers a lot of ground — from modelling in their teen years, to the height of their celebrity, to their second coming as entrepreneurs, mothers and humanitarians. It also revisits their famous Vogue cover and the iconic music video for George Michael’s Freedom 90!, in which they starred alongside the late Tatjana Patitz.
The series has a lot to say, but it’s just as interesting for what it doesn’t say and instead shows: that part of the supermodel legacy is the ability to carefully craft a public image.
A curated lens
Being a project that depends on the audience’s nostalgia for its subjects, The Super Models is polished and restrained. Though its oral history of the industry’s uglier sides leaves something to be desired, it documents the highs and lows of the careers of these women.
Evangelista talks about regretting her famous remark that she “won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.“; Crawford gets semi-candid about her failed marriage to Hollywood actor Richard Gere; Turlington talks about choosing professional freedom over a restrictive contract.
Campbell, a trailblazer who became the first Black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue, has a more complex story. She discusses her experiences with racism in the industry, and how her fight to get equal pay and more visibility led to a reputation for being difficult to work with.
“All I can say about this docuseries is that it was meant to be a celebration,” Cambpell said in a recent interview with Women’s Wear Daily. “I don’t think it’s the celebration that it started out to be.”
Still, The Super Models doesn’t include Campbell’s history of physical assault convictions, and other supermodels of the time — like Helena Christensen, Claudia Schiffer and Tyra Banks — are seldom mentioned.
Bee Quammie, a Canadian culture critic and former model, says the strength of The Super Models is how it makes its subjects seem more human — like an emotional sequence where Evangelista describes getting a cosmetic procedure that she says disfigured her body.
“I was still very aware of the fact that, [just] as these women were able to control their images so much in the ’90s, I’m sure they did not let go of that skill and that capability with doing this docuseries,” Quammie told CBC News.
“So I still think we were seeing it through a very curated lens.”
Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple was initially meant to direct the series, but moved into an executive producer role alongside Crawford, Campbell, Evangelista and Turlington.
Michael Gross, an investigative journalist who wrote the book Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, was interviewed for The Super Models. He hadn’t seen the series when he spoke with CBC News.
He said that during the production, he asked around and got the distinct sense that one or more of the models had “objected to the way that Barbara Kopple was exercising her editorial control over the documentary,” leading to her shifting into a different role.
Responding to an email from CBC News, a representative for Kopple said she had no comment.
The power of the supermodels
The supermodel era “was the height of the modeling business,” Gross told CBC News. “It would never get any higher.”
Eventually, those like Crawford, Turlington, Campbell and Evangelista had the power to decide how fashion shows and photography shoots happened, and even how their clothes looked. But the fashion industry eventually reasserted control, as the third episode in the docuseries shows.
“The tail was wagging the dog, the models being the tail,” said Gross, explaining that this led to a new cohort of similar-looking, mostly unknown models leading fashion shows in the mid-1990s.
As Crawford says in the series, “it almost felt like a rejection of the supermodel and everything we embodied.”
Coco Rocha, a Canadian supermodel who rose to fame during that era said that it was only after her career had begun that she recognized the precedent that Crawford, Campbell, Turlington and Evangelista had set.
“We were considered the backlash to the supermodel era,” she told CBC News.
In an industry where women were vulnerable to predatory agencies and individuals, the four top models decided which designers, photographers and editors they wanted to work with. Crawford spoke about exercising control over her image from a young age during a recent profile in Vogue.
“Women like those four changed pop culture, society, the way women could speak up for themselves,” Rocha said. “They have a lot of grit, a lot of story. And they have done a lot for this industry and other industries, as well.”
The Super Models is streaming now on Apple TV+.