Friday, February 23, 2024

The Bittersweet Lessons of the Most Beautiful Women in the World

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Models, Naomi Wolf (not Klein) theorized 33 years ago in The Beauty Myth, are “the heroines of adult women’s mass culture,” the embodiment of everything girls are taught to aspire to: physical perfection, discipline, the appearance of strength, silence. The same year that The Beauty Myth was published, five of the most beautiful women in the world appeared on the cover of British Vogue, in an era-defining image shot by the photographer Peter Lindbergh. Tasked with finding a model to represent the New ’90s Woman, Lindbergh declined to choose just one; beauty was changing, he reportedly told Vogue’s editor, and couldn’t be categorized so easily. Of the models he chose, one was blond, one was Black, one had Italian heritage, one was half-Salvadoran, and one was a brunette from the Midwest. He dressed them in Levis and close-fitting bodysuits, as if to cast off the power suits and angular ambition of the ’80s. “Managing five women jostling for position cannot have been easy,” Cindy Crawford recalled a few years ago, “but Peter is a dream to work with. He knew how to control us.” And with that, the decade of the supermodel began.

Watching The Super Models, Apple TV+’s new four-part documentary series about four of the women from that Vogue cover (the fifth, Tatjana Patitz, died in January), is a spry, hagiographic, occasionally thrilling, not remotely surprising trip through a moment in fashion history when these particular models seemed to occupy the universal collective imagination. Growing up in the ’90s, I saw them everywhere: I remember Crawford on my mother’s home-workout VHS, Linda Evangelista in Pizza Hut advertisements, Naomi Campbell promoting her novel, Christy Turlington on my brother’s bedroom wall. These women took the reigning definition of model—basically a living hanger, as the fashion critic Robin Givhan puts it—and detonated it with the force of their personalities and their peerless, poreless physical selves. Still, an unspoken tension cuts through the series. “You see our photo, our image, so you feel that you know us,” Campbell says at the very beginning of the first episode, titled “The Look.” “But there’s no words that go with our pictures.” A minute later, Crawford puts it another way: “We were the physical representations of power.” But, you might wonder, what kind?

Fashion, as a creative form, is about constructing myths to sell things to people who don’t need them, and The Super Models is fully on board with the mission. It rifles through the metaphorical closets of the ’90s while only lightly acknowledging the skeletons. The directors, Roger Ross Williams and Larissa Bills, don’t probe their subjects; the four women control how much they share, often dropping offhand comments that led me frantically to Google. The first episode, for example, explores how the models’ careers took off; three worked early on with the same agent, Elite’s John Casablancas, a playboy who, Crawford vaguely says, did “date someone my age” when she was a teenager starting out. (Casablancas is somewhat notorious now for dating Stephanie Seymour, whom he met when she was just 15 years old, and describing the “incredible sensuality that a woman-child has … something like a forbidden fruit for both of us.”) But to focus too much on the transgression and alleged predation that are embedded within the modeling industry would blunt the triumphant momentum of a story that’s supposed to be about women changing the game. Crawford, in one scene, recalls how some teenagers in her hometown of DeKalb, Illinois, plastered a bra ad she’d posed for all over her high school. The intention was to shame her, she says. But “do they know I made 120 bucks? … I didn’t care. Better than working in the cornfields.”

Again and again, the series lets the women define the parameters of their story, a decision that could be interpreted as empowering or as a way of allowing them to skirt certain unpalatable truths. Campbell, who faced relentless racism during her career—one photographer recalls how for Campbell’s first British Vogue shoot, titled “Land Girls,” she was the only Black woman shot on a former plantation alongside six white models—has long been vilified in the press for being “difficult,” a term Campbell says Casablancas decided to use when he fired her for rejecting a cosmetics deal because it paid her less than her white counterparts were getting. So it feels like a necessary corrective to get a sense of her colossal charm, her sharp wit, her career-long campaign to open fashion up to African designers, the loss she still expresses at never having known her father. And yet, the inclusion of so much footage of Campbell being lovingly embraced by Nelson Mandela, coupled with the elision of, say, her four assault charges, reads as selective. For a series that touches on the pressure of being among the world’s most recognizable women to not even try to explore how that pressure can distort a person seems like an oversight, if nothing else.

The Super Models does have fleeting moments of profundity, which makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn’t further explore them. In one moment, Crawford notes that when some women are lauded, enriched, and celebrated for their appearance, there are also “some people [who] don’t fit that, and then they’re made to feel less beautiful.” (Or, in the words of a Body Shop campaign that ran during the ’90s, “There are 3 billion women who don’t look like super models and only eight who do.”) At 15, Turlington was modeling wedding dresses, a fact that contains more buried insight into the state of fashion photography, desire, and American culture than all four episodes do. Turlington, who was represented by the straitlaced and protective Eileen Ford, seems to have had a more sheltered trajectory than most models, yet she recalls, nonchalantly, that at a portrait session following a Vogue shoot when she was 17, the photographer, Patrick Demarchelier, kept entreating her to drop her arms “a little bit lower, a little bit lower,” until her breasts were exposed. (He subsequently sold the topless image of a teenage Turlington to a French magazine, which ran it on the cover.)

With Evangelista, though, the series can’t avoid the cruelty of a career path that prizes physical perfection over everything else. A few years ago, Evangelista opted to have cryolipolysis, a “fat-freezing” procedure that left her with what she describes as brutal disfigurement. “I wanted to like what I saw in the mirror,” she says, heartbreakingly. “And the commercial said I would like myself better.” Instead, she says, she lost not just her job, which she loved, but also her livelihood. Evangelista’s story invites us to scrutinize all the ways in which women are bombarded with imagery telling them they’re too fat, too hairy, too dark, too pallid, too wrinkled, too saggy after childbirth, too fatigued by the wretchedly Sisyphean struggle of trying to embody everything a woman is supposed to be. We might consider, too, the irony that these women who were part of that deluge of commercial propaganda gained tremendous power as a result of their participation, but at a cost. If Evangelista wishes she’d never seen retouched pictures of herself or felt the weight of their perfection, then how are the rest of us supposed to feel?

This isn’t to say the series can’t be joyous. There is something about extraordinary beauty, whatever its form, that feels almost divine, as though it can help us transcend our earthly troubles. And it’s inspiring, I suppose, to remember the power of the supermodel era, in all its vibrancy and buoyancy and health, before the industry decided to elevate as the womanly ideal the silhouettes of 14-year-olds who seemed to exist on cigarettes and diet soda. The rise and fall of the supermodel—all four women were sidelined when the “heroin chic” moment demanded a different aesthetic—ends up feeling like a microcosm of women’s progress in general: a triumphant, lucrative ascent for a select group, and then the inevitable backlash when that group is perceived to have gained too much power. The final episode ends with Crawford praising platforms such as Instagram for expanding perceptions of what beauty can be, a statement so narrowly optimistic in light of what research suggests social media actually does to girls that I laughed. “Given few role models in the world,” Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth, “women seek them on the screen and on the glossy page.” And now they seek them in uploads and posts so filtered, so tweaked and Facetuned and digitally altered, that beauty hardly seems human at all.

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