Linda Evangelista: This year's model

The term 'supermodel' was invented for Linda Evangelista, but she hasn't stalked the catwalks for some time. Now the original 'Glamazon' is back... to raise money for Aids, as she tells James Sherwood

When Linda Evangelista stalked the catwalk at this season's collections, she was sharing the limelight with models young enough to be her daughter. Daunting? You bet. But at 38, Evangelista's star has never shone so brightly. When she walks down that raised platform, there's a frisson of excitement even in the jaded front row. It's a fashion moment, and Evangelista still guarantees front-page coverage.

When Linda Evangelista stalked the catwalk at this season's collections, she was sharing the limelight with models young enough to be her daughter. Daunting? You bet. But at 38, Evangelista's star has never shone so brightly. When she walks down that raised platform, there's a frisson of excitement even in the jaded front row. It's a fashion moment, and Evangelista still guarantees front-page coverage.

Pretty and demure in a navy skirt-suit, high heels, immaculately coiffed hair, and minimal but perfect make-up, Evangelista is in her prime as Corporate Barbie (she's in town as a cosmetics company representative). Her feline bluey-green eyes are wary but confident as she sits in a suite at Claridge's hotel. No one since the 1940s and 1950s model Dorian Leigh - the first to become a personality - has been able to strike such consistently elegant and original poses over almost two decades. Evangelista's now-legendary professionalism underlines her longevity.

The March issue of the fashion-forward i-D magazine photographed Evangelista for its cover and an 18-page portfolio entitled "Here She Comes Again". She is the face of Fendi for spring/summer 2004, and she's back on the catwalk - most recently at Chanel couture, Dolce & Gabbana and Hermès, where she stole Jean Paul Gaultier's debut show for the Parisian house.

"I still get nervous," she says of catwalk appearances. "I'd be crazy not to with so many lovely young girls coming up. You get a little rusty. But I'm grateful there's a place for me in the business. I'm here to stay this time." In her whispery Canadian lilt that is almost inaudible on tape, she continues, "What can I tell you? I don't know why I'm still here. I like to go to work. I love fashion. I love change. At one time, I thought I'd had enough, but I discovered being idle didn't suit me."

The comeback in question was a September 2001 American Vogue cover, plus 22 pages of mouth-watering images of Linda shot by the photographer Steven Meisel, something of a Svengali to supermodels. The previous three years Linda had spent in self-imposed exile at her home in St-Tropez after an appearance at Fashion Week Portugal in Porto in 1998, when she admittedly didn't look her best.

After Porto, I interviewed Evangelista and she gave a very raw, honest answer to headlines that were suggesting that she was everything from drunk to pregnant. "I've heard so many people in the business saying that they don't care what people say about them," she said. 'I've got to tell you something. They do care. I care very much what people say about me, but I try not to dignify the bad stuff with a response. But at some point, you have to exercise your right to reply."

Evangelista had her say, but a somewhat mischievous broadsheet editor chose to run the story with the headline: "Linda's Lament: I'm past my sell-by date at 33". What she had actually said was: "I know I have an expiry date. I can be either happening or history. That's not my decision. It's up to the business."

Linda Evangelista is in town as spokesperson for the ultra-hip make-up company MAC. She's one of five celebrated icons of cool for the MAC Viva Glam V campaign, in which 100 per cent of the proceeds from the sale of a lipstick go to the company's Aids Fund. To celebrate a decade of Viva Glam campaigns, the MAC president John Demsey chose role models who had an insider, cult edge: Christina Aguilera, Boy George and Missy Elliott for music, Chloë Sevigny for movies, and Linda E as fashion's favourite face.

When I ask Evangelista whether she relished being a MAC spokesperson, considering that models are usually seen but not heard, she looked me straight in the eye and said, without skipping a beat: "I hope I can do my bit but, you know, you'll say something you're really proud of and, unfortunately, journalists pick certain sentences and print what I say out of context." Point taken. "But I've come back at a different pace," she continues, "and I've never felt better."

"The world wanted you back," says Demsey, who is sitting in and seems to be besotted by his Viva Glam girl. "I know Anna Wintour (the legendarily forceful editor of American Vogue) was pretty aggressive about wanting you back." When American Vogue ran a gatefold cover of the great models of the 20th century without Linda in 1999, the magazine received an avalanche of letters asking where Evangelista was. "I think I was in semi-permanent retirement then," she says, arching an eyebrow.

Evangelista demurs when asked if younger models are intimidated by her. "They probably don't know who I am or what I'm doing there." Demsey cuts in. "Are you kidding? You're the reason all those little girls wanted to be models. They had your tear sheets on the wall of their bedrooms, and they dreamed of being you." Evangelista has the grace to accept compliments like a Washington political hostess. She should be used to it by now, considering that Karl Lagerfeld called her "a Stradivarius of modelling"; John Galliano gushed that "inspiration hasn't been the same without her"; and fellow-supermodel Amber Valletta said: "Linda probably loves modelling more than anyone I know."

Try as the press might to attack the "Last of the Supermodels" (a word she hates), endlessly repeating her notorious "I won't get out of bed for less than $10,000" remark, Evangelista has nothing but respect from her fashion-industry peers. Last season, Domenico Dolce, one half of the design duo Dolce & Gabbana, declared: "Linda is the teacher. She inspires us. In the early days, when we couldn't afford to pay the big girls, it was Linda who called them up and told them the [significantly lower] rates that they should offer to model for us."

Evangelista's rise to her position as the supermodel was not meteoric. Spotted by a scout from the Elite model agency when she lost a Miss Teen Niagara pageant at the age of 16, Evangelista languished in Paris for three years before the photographer Arthur Elgort booked her for French Vogue in 1987. That year saw the birth of the supermodels and the unholy alliance of Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, which the industry christened the Trinity. When, in October 1988, Evangelista had her long chestnut hair cut to an urchin crop, she said: "My life just went into fast-forward."

With the photographer Meisel, the late make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin, and the session hairdresser Garren, Evangelista earned her title as the definitive fashion chameleon. Between 1988 and 1992, she scored the Grand Slam - four consecutive covers of UK, US, French and Italian Vogue. Encouraged by Meisel, Linda's ever-changing hair colour earned her an unprecedented six UK Vogue covers in a year. On the catwalk for Versace, Chanel and Galliano, Linda led the supermodels. Perhaps her greatest fashion moment was working a John Galliano canary-yellow tulle ballgown with yellow feathered bustier for his Paris catwalk show, then the cover of Harper's Bazaar.

"It's my favourite, favourite dress," she says, and her eyes sparkle at the memory of modelling in those Galliano production numbers. "Do you know, I have that dress in my bedroom. It's on a mannequin next to my bed. It's the first thing I see when I wake up, and it makes me smile every day." Indeed, Linda truly loves fashion. Her peers all attempted to escape the supermodel box. Naomi attempted to act, write and sing. Christy went back to college, then launched her yoga label, Nuala. Cindy Crawford became the new Jane Fonda with her workout videos. Even Kate Moss, the baby of the supermodel era, is rumoured to be taking singing lessons. Not Linda. She's clearly satisfied with her lot.

Evangelista's three years in the wilderness was, inadvertently, a great career move; giving the fashion industry just enough time to realise that they missed her. She's brutally honest about her career. "When I started, they told me that my career would last a year, or two at the most, and I believed it," she says. "I thought the clock was ticking from day one.

"I just think it's nice there is still a place for me," she says with a cat-that-got-the-cream smile. "I won't fit in everywhere. I can't be cast in everything, but I am proud to have broken the age barrier in modelling. I'm not the first to do it [Carmen Dell'Orefice, Iman and Lauren Hutton did], but I've done my bit."

She has grown older alongside the cosmetics company that she is now representing. MAC, created by fellow-Canadians Frank Toskan and Frank Angelo, has grown into a global brand (like Linda, says Demsey: "People were screaming with joy when her name was announced. She's an icon.") And together they are raising awareness for an important cause.

Evangelista performs her ambassadorial role superlatively. When I muse that it's admirable for the ostensibly fluffy fashion and beauty industry to tackle such a foul disease, Evangelista says: "No disease is pretty. My very first booker died of Aids. I used to go the hospital to see him. I didn't even understand what Aids was then. It was this new danger," she says, with misty eyes. She "goes there" without sounding mawkish, and can pop out statistics such as: "50 per cent of new diagnoses for HIV and Aids are women."

When Demsey says the $32m raised to date by the MAC Aids Fund is a drop in the ocean, Evangelista picks him up. "Excuse me - I think $32m is a lot of money. What's so great about Viva Glam is that you're going to buy a lipstick anyway. It's fun. It's glamorous. So why not do a little good?" If she perceives an opportunity to deflect the conversation away from herself, Evangelista will do so.

Despite a tempestuous marriage to the Elite Paris chairman Gerald Marie (they divorced in 1992) and relationships with the actor Kyle MacLachlan and the footballer Fabien Barthez (miscarrying his child in 1999), Evangelista has managed to keep her private life out of the newspapers, and has never used glamorous consorts to further her career, as some of her peers have done. She is currently dating the oil baron Ugo Brachetti Peretti, but her private life is totally off limits.

Occasionally, there are flashes of the vulnerability of a little girl who grew up in the fashion industry, which, to a teenager, must be a world combining The Wizard of Oz with Party Monster. When I mention the late Kevyn Aucoin, Linda's make-up-artist mentor, she whispers: "Every day, on every shoot, I ask myself, 'Would Kevyn approve?' The man was a genius. He..." She lets the whisper die.

Evangelista is one of those women who bring out the protective urge in men, without alienating other women. On the evening of the MAC party, which Linda co-hosted, there was a buzz when Chloë Sevigny entered the room, and a muttering of discontent when Missy Elliott's late arrival held up dinner. For Evangelista, there was nothing short of awe. Dressed in spray-on jeans and an emerald satin top, she holds herself like a star.

As I prepare to leave, I say that it's lovely to see a glamazon such as Linda back in business after so many years of skinny, "edgy" teenagers on the catwalk who can't model $1m dresses with any kind of conviction. After the fall of the supermodels in 1993, only Kate Moss and, latterly, Erin O'Connor have brought any kind of star quality to the collections. "I hate the whole skinny or fat thing. Healthy. That's what we should be promoting," she says, before a farewell kiss on both cheeks.

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