Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Linda. For a generation of women who were teenage girls in the late 1980s and early 90s, these were our Beatles.
And so the Apple TV+ documentary The Super Models is, to a large slice of generation X, what Peter Jackson’s Get Back was to Boomers. A strangely addictive encounter with four characters who have wallpapered our lives, seen in the one way in which we have never seen them before – as regular human beings.
There are shocking tales of an industry riven with racism, body-shaming and abuse of power, but the most jaw-dropping moments are the anodyne ones. Hearing the women talk, seeing their faces at ease rather than frozen at their best angles.
It is as if Mount Rushmore came alive and the four presidents began making small talk. In all the years of looking at Linda Evangelista’s face I had never heard her voice, so to hear it – high and squeaky, when I had imagined something wolfish and smoky – blew my mind.
Warts-and-all film-making this is not. (Not that there are any warts, just Cindy Crawford’s famed beauty spot.) The stars are beautifully made up, carefully lit and in control of what we see – but where last month’s Vogue cover was criticised for extensive airbrushing, this documentary has more candour.
We see Christy Turlington during the Covid pandemic, visiting her mum to cut her hair in the garden, grey roots showing in her own hair. Naomi Campbell berating herself, as she sparks up a cigarette, for being the only smoker in the group.
Linda in a vast funnel neck sweater and a bucket hat which between them conspire to almost entirely hide her face, showing us the shame and insecurity that surrounds her experiment with cosmetic surgery.
The documentary splices video interviews with the women as they are now with archive footage including Linda backstage at a Chanel show and Cindy presenting MTV’s House of Style. Other talking heads are kept to a minimum, which feels right; this is these women telling their own story. Linda is smart, very funny, who says unfiltered things like “Christy is the most beautiful.” (True.)
Cindy, who was about to start a degree in chemical engineering when her modelling career took off, is businesslike and grounded. She saw the job as being hired to sell a jacket, she says, not being a girl who gets her picture taken because she’s pretty. (Naomi says mischievously that she found a way to stop Cindy being so grownup and sensible all the time: tequila.)
If ever a woman was born into the right place at the right time, to lead the imperial age of the supermodel, it was Naomi Campbell. A natural self-mythologiser, Naomi “has presence. She’s like a magnet,” says designer John Galliano.
Hal Rubenstein, cofounder of InStyle magazine, describes her catwalk aura in a nutshell: “Naomi had a walk that basically said: ‘Get the fuck out of my way.’” Christy, by contrast, wears her beauty and celebrity lightly. She doesn’t even call herself a supermodel, preferring “just model … I call a spade a spade.”
The heart of the show is the genuine bond between the four. “This is my class. This is the group I came of age with,” says Christy. Naomi says that when she was overlooked in favour of white models, the others “absolutely put themselves on the line” to stand up against racial prejudice. “They supported me and stood by me. Linda would tell people: if you don’t book Naomi, you don’t get me.”
But the dark side is the spotlight on a toxic culture which weighs the value of young women in pounds and ounces – the fewer, the better. Stories of fainting on shoots, of extremely thin models being told to lose another 5lb, are told with jaded weariness.
We see Cindy Crawford’s modelling card, printed with her waist, hip and bust measurements to the half-inch, the brutal tagline “EXCELLENT SKIN, LEGS AND HAIR” in capital letters above her teenage face.
Zooming out from Vogue covers, there is a sense in The Super Models of an era that was until very recently the present tense coming into focus as a piece of history. When they talk about flying Concorde, the name sounds almost as quaint as travel by ocean liner.
When they talk about the money they made, we realise that – like Premier League footballers – the top tier of modelling has gone from well-paid to silly money in just a couple of decades. (Linda Evangelista caused a sensation in 1990 when said she didn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. These days there are influencers you have never heard of who get many times that for posting a selfie tagging a new lip gloss on Instagram, without even having to get out of bed.)
The film does not flinch from the nasty underbelly of its world, but it allows us a little nostalgia, too. As Linda says of how airbrushing and technology has changed the world of image-making: “Nowadays all the magic happens in post-production. But in the 80s and the early 90s, all that magic happened exactly in the moment you heard ‘click’.”