Never say never again

Bye-bye Cindy, Linda, Christy and now Naomi... They say the supermodel era is over. What can they mean?

Naomi Campbell: The Last Supermodel?" ponders the March issue of American Vogue, in a more measured fashion than the majority of the press, which has been revelling in melodramatic tales of Campbell's demise this week. It is not insignificant that it is this particular magazine that publishes the full story: a model's status can rise and fall in its glossy pages overnight. What American Vogue says, goes.

According to Vogue, then, Campbell, who has been modelling for 13 years, has just signed her first worldwide cosmetics contract - with Wella - which will doubtless turn out to be more lucrative, and certainly a whole lot easier, than working the international runways, despite the fact that she reportedly earns $41,000 (pounds 65,000) a show. She has recently finished work on a film, the Canadian independent Prisoner of Love, due for release later this year. For the past two years, Campbell has also worked with Nelson Mandela to raise awareness for his Children's Fund. He has described the model as his honorary granddaughter.

It may all sound like the stuff of a particularly cliched TV mini-series but Campbell has also - and to her credit - continually spoken out against racism in the fashion industry: compared to her (white) supermodel sisters she has graced far fewer covers and has failed - until Wella came along - to sign up with a cosmetics company. As a catwalk model, unlike some of her less politically aware contemporaries, she resists being lumbered with the token "exotic" outfit.

So why does the world love to hate Naomi Campbell? There are the legendary tantrums, of course. She famously attacks unsuspecting women who cross her path, from other models who are allocated outfits she'd like to wear, to her former personal assistant (of nine days, last autumn) Georgina Galanis, who is filing a $2m lawsuit against her, claiming Campbell grabbed her by the throat, punched her and hit her on the head with one of her many mobile phones. These are hardly enough to justify the glee with which the media reports that she and the likes of Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, are headed for troubled times.

At the end of last year, People magazine splashed the words "Supermodel Meltdown" across its cover - the British press followed suit. The story was that magazines were relying on celebrities rather than models to boost circulation. American Vogue had Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton; arch- rival Harper's Bazaar preferred girlfriend-and-boyfriend team Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon. In the UK, Martine McCutcheon is Marie Claire's March cover girl, soon to be superseded by Monica Lewinsky shot by Patrick Demarchelier, the man responsible for the British Vogue cover of Diana, Princess of Wales.

That is only one side of the story, however. This month, Kate Moss who, like Campbell, is often described as the last of the supermodels, is on the cover of every magazine from W to Dazed & Confused, and from ES to The Face. Cindy Crawford, Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington were on the cover of last year's best-selling issue of American Elle.

It is ironic that the most recent Fall of the Supermodel story was generated by a reported rift between the designer Donatella Versace and Naomi Campbell. Campbell - who has appeared in every Versace show since Gianni Versace died in July 1997 - was conspicuous by her absence at the Versace shows in Milan last week. The pair have by now made their peace, however, which is entirely predictable. The twice-yearly collections held in New York, London, Milan and Paris are famous for generating just this type of spat. Campbell has seemed on fine form on the catwalks for both Antonio Berardi and Louis Vuitton.

It must have been tough on her, none the less, despite claims that it was her own decision not to appear and especially as Gianni Versace was the man responsible for the rise of the supermodel and their celebrity status in the first place. Versace realised that if he boasted even one big-name star on his catwalk exclusively, the column inches it would generate would be worth far more than their weight in gold.

The moment that encapsulates the supermodel phenomenon at its most brazenly glamorous is best attributed to Gianni Versace. When he sent Campbell, Turlington, Evangelista and Crawford down the runway en masse, miming the words to George Michael's "Freedom" (they had recently starred in the video) in March 1991, he made fashion history. Here were four women who were as self-confident as they were beautiful: model role models, they exuded money, power and self-confidence in a milieu that is famous for its exploitation of young women.

This precedent was set in the Sixties. Whereas in the Fifties, modelling was the preserve of aristocratic women making a respectable living as a prelude to finding wealthy husbands, by the next decade, cheeky chappie photographers such as David Bailey and Terence Donovan introduced sex to the equation - often, it seems, at first hand. Their aesthetic was less wholesome: they preferred the look of underdeveloped, even prepubescent women.

The model fared no better in the Seventies. The fresh-faced, girl-next- door looks of the Shrimp and her ilk were replaced by the more decadent likes of Jerry Hall - discovered when an agent placed his card in her bikini bottoms at Cannes - and Marie Helvin. This was the decade of the shark agent, when drugs took hold of the industry - in particular, cocaine.

It was not until the Eighties that the supermodel was born - and the media's love-hate relationship with her began. Designers recognised their potential, the media couldn't get enough of them and, as still very young girls, they unsurprisingly lapped up the attention. The supermodels turned the image of model as (fashion) victim on its head, demanding inflated sums of money and terrorising designers, agents, photographers, hairdressers and make-up artists alike. They said things like "I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day" (Linda Evangelista, 1990). Her friend Christy Turlington claims to this day that this throwaway comment was intended to be ironic.

None the less, only a few seasons later, a backlash ensued and the very people who made these women stars in the first place (Versace is a notable exception) couldn't wait to slap them down. They were simply too young, too beautiful and too rich to be tolerated. They had risen to fame in the Eighties, the most ego-driven, power-thrusting era of them all. By the mid- "caring sharing" Nineties, the less in-your-face superwaif Kate Moss was hot property. She was less obviously manufactured, skinny, stringy- haired and looked prepubescent (again). The supermodels still loomed large, however, even if the media's excuse was negative publicity. Naomi Campbell, in particular, continues to do so.

By the time President Clinton called attention to the heroin chic controversy a few years later, fashion had moved on again. For the past few seasons, more anonymous models are the order of the day. Karen Elson, Erin O'Connor and Devon Aoki - the latter (pictured left) is the new face of Donatella's Versus line - are neither as expensive as Naomi Campbell, nor as difficult. They represent a less predictable sort of beauty than their supermodel predecessors.

Fresher on the scene, however, the more obviously lovely Gisele and Carmen Kass do more resemble the Campbells and Crawfords of this world. None is likely to become a household name, however - the Zeitgeist wouldn't accommodate it - which is why magazines, both here and abroad, are retracing the celebrity route.

That leaves Naomi - and only Naomi - as the last supermodel to regularly appear at the shows in person. Her contemporaries prefer to leave the collections to young blood, taking the world by storm with the odd, exclusive, photographic appearance.

Campbell said this week that, these days, she sometimes feels like "Grandma" on the catwalk, a poignant observation for a woman who's still only 28. Despite that we simply can't get enough of her - warts and all.

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