Who's that girl?: Lisa Armstrong meets Kate Moss, tipped as the new British supermodel

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The Independent Culture
NEW YORK, Spring 1992. Steven Meisel, fashion photography's answer to Greta Garbo (he doesn't say much but the public loves his pictures) is giving a new model the full treatment. Meisel likes silence - so his entourage have learnt to appreciate it too - but he watches intently. And then he plays: with the girl's hair and her make-up; he starts to tweak her into position, tilt her face. It was Meisel who first made Linda Evangelista throw back her head and open her mouth half an inch so that she looked more like a cat and less like a shrew. Recently he worked the same alchemy on Shana Zadrick. A big, rangy girl with good bones, under Meisel's tutelage she lost 20 pounds and resurfaced with attitude and a contract worth a fortune as the new Guess jeans girl. When Meisel does his Svengali act on newcomers, nobody complains. They know he'll make them stars.

He likes this girl. The wide openess of her face and the slightly lazy eye give her a quirkiness that has become crucial for models who want to stand out in a suffocatingly overcrowded industry. But she's short for a model. 'Don't you find being small a problem?' he asks her. The rest of the studio holds its breath, waiting for his don't-call-me-I'll-call-you brush-off. 'Well, you want to work with me,' bounces back an unmistakeable south London twang. He hires her for the prestigious new Dolce e Gabbana catalogue.

A few months later, Patrick Demarchelier, another star photographer, books her for Harper's Bazaar in New York. He hasn't had such a feeling about a model, he tells colleagues, since Twiggy. And as Demarchelier has just landed the plum assignment of a Calvin Klein advertising campaign, he is itching to show Klein his new discovery. So it was that, five weeks ago, Kate Moss, an 18-year-old from Croydon, found herself being scrutinised by a roomful of men anxious to find exactly the right face to perpetuate the image of Klein's multi-million jeans empire. Once again, Kate got the job.

This is not just any old job. Klein is one of the world's great image makers. Work for him and you're on the way up; recent faces include Christy Turlington and Carre Otis. The money's not bad either. Even as a relative unknown, Moss is said to have earned over pounds 10,000 for two days of jeans-wearing.

Back in a run-down but self-consciously hip part of London, a warning sign about rat poison flaps against a battered black door. Upstairs, in the brightly painted, been-to-Kathmandu-and-back rooms, the phone never stops ringing. The milk's gone off, there's nothing in the fridge and Steven, Patrick and Calvin's new star, a tiny exhausted-looking girl, five feet seven high and about two inches wide, with pale brown hair limply hanging down from what was once a centre- parting, absent mindedly smokes her way through a pack of Marlboro while waiting for a messenger to arrive with a cheque for a job she did ages ago.

'Sometimes,' she ruminates, 'I really don't like this job. I mean, do you know how many times I've been on a plane this week? Nine. London to Milan. Milan to Paris. Paris to New York. New York to Paris. Or was it Milan . . . anyway, it's knackering and it's given me spots.' She scrapes back her hair to reveal a blemish-free complexion. To compound the trauma, Harper's Bazaar's make-up artist plucked out most of her eyebrows, dyed them blond, then black, and she's spent the last week trying to get them back to their natural mid-brown.

Steven Meisel was, she says, 'cool. He has this way of concentrating totally on you so that you end up craving his attention'. On the whole, however, it's the people in the fashion world who cause her most anxiety, since they can be 'terrifyingly tense and calculating'. She was on a week's work abroad recently and no one talked to her. 'Well, they were French and maybe they didn't speak English, but it would have been nice to have the chance to find out.'

Anyone less tense and calculating than Moss would be hard to imagine. At 18 she seems - extraordinarily in a world where successful models of 15 drone on about how they only drink Moet or Roederer - even younger. Even after four years in the business when 'no one but the Face would use me', there remains a spontaneity about her which you hope won't be moulded into something sophisticated and synthetic. So far it hasn't - even with the skilful make-up and lighting of the Calvin Klein campaign, she still looks arrestingly childlike, and in person she chirps away unselfconsciously. Of course, when supermodel Naomi Campbell was discovered at the age of 16, everyone said she was adorable; six years later she's said to be about as sweet-natured as Leona Helmsley.

'There's something quite special about Kate,' says Jo Matthews, bookings editor for British Vogue. 'There's an intelligence there - and not just the shrewdness about money that quite a few of them have. She's actually not very materialistic. I can imagine in the Sixties she would have been hanging around Woodstock sticking flowers in people's hair.'

Moss has been showing Vogue her portfolio since she started when, according to Matthews, she looked a little odd. 'She hadn't grown into her features yet. We've been desperate to use her for ages but we've waited until her face looked a little older.' It also lends itself perfectly to the Seventies look that's so important in fashion at the moment.

Sarah Doukas, Moss's agent and head of Storm, Moss's model agency, spotted her four years ago, in the London stand-by queue at Kennedy airport. 'She did look a little strange,' Doukas says, 'but you get good at recognising a certain something. When we got on the plane I was kicking myself for not getting her name. Then, finally, the last person to board, she reappeared.' Like any sensible teenager, Moss was sceptical about Doukas's 'I can make you a model' proposal, but a week later she showed up at the Storm offices with her mum. 'I'd always wanted a job where you travel - God help me.'

'Even if she doesn't become a supermodel,' Doukas says, 'with worldwide deals Kate could be looking at pounds 750,000 a year.' Moss is not so sure. To make it big she will have to leave London. As it is, she already misses her boyfriend, Mario Sorrenti, a Levi's model, when she goes away. In an ideal world, she'd lodge forever in the colourful house in Kensal Rise.

As for money, she'd just like this damn cheque to arrive before she has to catch her plane to New York this afternoon. 'At least they're paying for me to go business class this time. I know it sounds prima donna-ish but I pleaded with them. I was so tired and if they make you work the minute you get off the plane they can't expect you to travel in the hold.'

Kate Moss, top model, is on her way.

(Photographs omitted)