Birth of the cool, as shot by Super Mario

There she is, looking every inch the supermodel, glowing on the cover of the latest issue of Vanity Fair. We've seen Princess Diana looking like the Sloane Ranger-next-door and like a future queen. But Mario Testino, fashion's super-photographer, and every fashion editor's darling, has managed to make her look like she has just stepped off a Paris catwalk. They call him Super Mario, and not without good reason.

Testino is the photographer most in demand from fashion houses, advertising companies and magazine editors alike, capable of commanding anything from pounds 750,000 to pounds 1m for a single ad campaign. One week he's on Copacabana in Rio, shooting Kate Moss for American Vogue, in Mexico for French Vogue or in China for Glamour, and the next he's photographing Madonna for Vanity Fair, or the Fifth Element star, Milla Jojovich for an advertising campaign for The Gap. Princess Di was just another celebrity on the end of a long list that includes Joan Collins, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Deneuve, Elton John and Isabella Rossellini.

To become one of the most esteemed and sought-after fashion photographers in the business, and therefore worthy of snapping Princess Di, is a long and arduous process. However, Mario Testino's career has been golden from day one when he began working in 1980 in London on the pages of British Vogue, Harpers & Queen, and The Face. He came to London at the end of the Seventies from Lima in Peru, where he was born, to attend a private photography school. In 1983 he moved to New York to conquer Glamour magazine and US Vogue. He is now based in Paris, but spends most of his time on the road in some exotic location; just as well then that Mario is multi- lingual.

His shoots for Vogue or W run to casts of hundreds, including his Peruvian cook, and as far as he is concerned, budgets are made to be blown. It is rumoured that he is a tax exile and that all the money is kept in the family: his brother, Giovanni, is his agent.

Mario Testino is a charmer with handsome sun-kissed looks and, of course, the all-important talent that enables him to make a sack of potatoes look sexy. It's a killer combination that lures the most elusive of stars to pose for him. When Mario turns up at a party, he is a model magnet. They all want to be photographed by him. And the moment an unknown young model is photographed by him, like the three British teenagers who were dubbed the Gucci Girls after Super Mario's campaign for Gucci last year, a star is born.

The last time Vanity Fair, with a circulation in America alone of well over a million, had such a money-spinning, mega-selling coup of a cover was with Madonna as Evita in November 1996. And who had they commissioned for the job? Not Annie Liebowitz, nor Richard Avedon, but Super Mario. He had, after all, started a self-fulfilling prophecy when he photographed her for a Gianni Versace campaign as Mother Earth with a bevy of babies. After the Evita cover, he said the only other celebrity he longed to photograph was Princess Di. Oh, and the Queen. Judging by the gloss he has given Diana, Her Majesty could do worse than to book the photographer next time she needs a new portraitn

Tamsin Blanchard