The median 90s supermodel is a 15-year-old, six-foot-tall, strong-jawed globe-trotter with small nose, translucent skin, excellent teeth, all arms and legs; she wears size 10 shoes, has the personality of a seven-year-old, loves teddy bears, and never had a 'real' boyfriend until she was 'discovered' in her small-town mall, and the skimpy, gawky, gangly ugly-duckling became an international symbol and trophy date. She endures starvation, catty competitiveness, has won a Face of the Year award, a Super Model of the World of the Year award, has graced covers of fashion magazines in Europe and America, relishes the adrenaline of the catwalk and can sit still, in stiff makeup and absurd hairdo, for 15 hours. Sometimes she feels guilty for making more in a week than her parents do in a year, sometimes she feels she'd like a greater challenge out of life and dreams of Method-acting, but the money, the fussing, the glamour, and the adoration keep her hooked. She is the latest embodiment of the American dream. (An illustration: Milla Jovovich, daughter of Russian immigrants, was making $3,000 a day at age 11, had a rock band and album at 15, modeled for Versace, Dior, and Chanel at 17, married, divorced, and just married Luc Besson in whose film she plays 'the perfect being.' She's 22 years old.)
Models are what the word means: examples, like model airplanes, prototypes of fashionable attractiveness. Supermodels are comets, shooting stars. They first exploded on the sky of our commercialist discontent in the '60s. The best-known among that initial crop who transcended being an anonymous prop used to sell a commodity and became themselves the commodity, was Lesley Hornby: a cockney matchstick, static, ever scared, with cropped ashen hair and limpid vapid eyes, nicknamed Twiggy. Then came Jean Shrimpton, 'the mod,' a doe-eyed, false-eyelashed, pouty-mouthed, symmetrically-faced waif, and Verushka, 6 ft at age 14, featured in Antonioni's film Blow-Up and anointed by Richard Avedon 'the most beautiful woman in the world.' In the '70s they were followed by Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Lauren Hatton, Jerry Hall: preppy, apple-skinned, patrician WASPs who in the '80s got a 'California' tan. By the mid-'80s, the Aryan paradigm was overexposed; 'ethnic' became 'in': the Somalian-born bird-faced Iman, the Indian-skinned Yasmeen Ghauri, the Roman-nosed Isabella Rossellini led the way for a motley set posed alongside the Claudia Schiffers and Stephanie Seymours. The cardinal buppie was Brooke Shields, 'Nothing comes between me and my Calvins' thick-browed virgin. Out of Shields's phoenixy ashes rose Cindy Crawford, the chick-next-door with the beauty mole. Cindy and Linda (Evangelista) defined supermodelhood: reluctant to grow obsolete with adulthood, they marketed themselves so assiduously that by the '90s the supermodel was an unrivaled capitalist tool; the ditsy airheads became cottage industries with worldwide first-name recognition. Twiggy earned 15 pounds a day; the '90s equivalent makes 2 million pounds a year from Calvin Klein. Today, the 12-inch shoes that sent Naomi Campbell sprawling at a Vivienne Westward show are a top exhibit in London's prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum.
Supermodels were born out of the seafoam of social necessity. After the shocking mid-60s assassinations and Vietnam-Watergate revelations, America was paranoically suspicious of anything clandestine, hidden, greasy, blubbery; overnight, it wanted its women rail-thin, their skeletons visible, their flesh reassuringly transparent. Youth was innocent, adulthood corrupt. In its quest for purity, America glorified the kid-breasted nymphet (but demonized actual teen sexuality). Also, the new realism sweeping over Hollywood left a glamour vacuum, a dearth of tabula rasas. Ergo, the supermodel, fruit of a capitalism that promotes both craven exhibitionism and draconian self-control, that urges us to consume pleasure and renounce pleasure. In this confusion, exacerbated by AIDS, voyeurism emerged as the only 'safe sex'.
Besides, the breastless hippie chicks were the first generation to use the birth control pill. Not having to be judged by breeding qualities—child-bearing hips, milk-producing jugs, fertile belly—girls were judged by prevalent aesthetics—sleek figure, nicer overall design—like cars. Since the 50s, health improved exponentially, life got sedentary, American obesity increased by 30-40% per decade (Kate Moss wouldn't have looked so good during the Irish potato famine). Beauty criteria that survived 3,000 years shifted—from the pale, voluptuous, fluffy look of aristocrats to the lean, muscular, tense look that had belonged to peasants. Being unnaturally thin required leisure time to train or diet, money to pay for plastic surgery or spas, and year-round access to the outdoors; thinness became a sign of affluence, fat a moral weakness, weight a measure of success rather than mere heritability. Politically, the supermodel cult helped the North curtail the fecund South and patriarchy to trim feminism. For marketing reasons, the West doesn't want each developing region to retain its local ideal of beauty in harmony with its sociological make-up; corporate giants use entertainment, fashion and advertising industries to globalize the traumatic Anglo-Saxon model: long legs, narrow hips, ascendant cheekbones are foreign to Asian, Indian, African, South American, South European, Middle Eastern peoples. As beauty (acquired through genetic accident) became society's highest-priced commodity in terms of value-for-effort, the trait women were most rewarded for, feminists became compulsive, self-absorbed, self-objectified. Today 90 percent of young white women, according to Newsweek, 'hate' their bodies. Beauty is fascistic: it's what we're told it is. Like sumo wrestlers or basketball players, models represent a tiny segment of the population (the average American woman is 5'4", like Liz Taylor). Beauty is defined as that which average women lack.
The beauty Grail goads us: the more unattainable and hailed beauty becomes, the harder we'll work to overcome our genetic disadvantage by acquiring success. If we were all Fabios and Paulinas, we wouldn't have invented the Net to surf for naked photos of Kristy Turlington. Without the personal drive to hide our aesthetic inadequacy in the beauty of our achievement, we might still be hunting and gathering and dying young and disease-ridden in an X-rated Blue Lagoon.