Chronicled in the Apple TV+ docuseries The Super Models, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington walked the top runways and were on the cover of the most prominent magazines in the 1980s and 1990s. But these four women had something special: They gave us the origin of the phenomenon of the supermodel.
"You just say those four names, Christy, Cindy, Linda, Naomi, you automatically know who they're talking about," co-director of the four-part series, Larissa Bills, told Yahoo Canada.
"It's sort of a dream job, not without its challenges, but I too sort of grew up with them and knew their images back and forth. But I was interested in exploring who they were as women and also what was going on culturally that contributed to the phenomenon that we call supermodels."
With Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista and Turlington are all credited as executive producers of the series, in addition to being the subjects, you may expect things to be curated or watered down for the camera. But Bills stressed that wasn't the case.
"When you have your subjects also as executive producers, there is that risk of, how much are they going to try to control the narrative," Bills said. "I think that they understood that this was an opportunity to really shed some light on who they are and what they've been through."
"I have to say, they were really great in the way that they collaborated and helped obtain access, but they also recognized how important it could be to be very open."
She explained that her co-director, Roger Ross Williams, has a specific "sensitivity" and "empathy" in his filmmaking, which came with a particular way to engage with the four women. Meeting with them individually for a meal, no cameras.
"I think that set us off on this plan where there's a relationship there," Bills said. "It may not be super deep, but there's a layer that can start putting some trust between us, which I think is really important in a documentary that you're dealing with, with the subjects themselves."
She highlighted one of the interesting things about these women is how relatable they are, which many may not expect.
"They've been the subject of so many images and it really was amazing to hear their voice, where they're not in a commercial or not being interviewed on the red carpet," she said.
"That was surprisingly relatable, telling stories that were ... the emotions behind some of this stuff. Going to a big city at a young age, facing some of the challenges that each of them faced, was very eye opening to me and really had a lot more depth than I would have thought at the beginning."
'If a man said it, it’s acceptable to be proud of what you command'
Throughout The Super Models, Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista and Turlington let us dive into their careers, from when they were first "discovered" to being the most in-demand talents in their industry, and eventually completely taking over the fashion world as bona fide celebrities.
There's one narrative in The Super Models that's particularly infuriating, and that's the sort of backlash or pushback these women got for simply having opinions, speaking their mind and asking for the money they deserved.
Famously, Evangelista was crucified by the press and the public for saying she "wouldn't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day." In The Super Models she recognizes that isn't something she should have said, but it also begs the question, if a successful business man said the same thing, would that be newsworthy? Would his peers think less of him, or would it work to his advantage?
“If a man said it, it’s acceptable to be proud of what you command," Evangelista points out.
That moment is followed by various designers talking about how these models would be too opinionated and demanding, including expressing their displeasure with what order they were walking in for a runway show. John Galliano remarked that if Campbell didn't like a dress he had for her to wear he would have to make another one in 24 hours.
Crawford also pointed out that some designers would get upset these models were the big promotional, newsworthy element of their runways shows, and sometimes their brand overall.
"There was so much money put in to these ad campaigns, to all of the endeavours that they were participating in, and their work was a fraction of what was being spent, and an even smaller fraction of what was coming back," Bills said.
"So I think it was bold to be able to say, 'I am worth something.' Just because there's beauty there does not necessarily mean that it should be diminished financially. They're reaping the rewards for the brands that they represented. So I hope that's changed in our current era."
'I think she's had a lot of misrepresentation'
The model at the centre of a lot of this pushback was Campbell, who had to fight to succeed in a system that was incredibly racist.
In fact, Evangelista revealed that when she would book shows and Campbell wouldn't, even though she has a "better strut" and a "much more rockin' body," Evangelista would say she wouldn't do the show without her.
Others who were staunch supporters of Campbell were the late Gianni Versace and Azzedine Alaïa, who she calls "papa."
Campbell also revealed that in a meeting for a Revlon contract, she knew the pay being offered to her was less than her counterparts, which she called out in front of everyone in the room. But that contributed to people calling her "difficult," "crazy" and a "nightmare."
"I do think that she was up against so much," Bills said. "I think she's had a lot of misrepresentation ... and what I appreciate about her is that she speaks her truth, and she has owned up to the mistakes that she made."
"She's an incredible presence to be around and thinking about the loss there, the loss of [Azzedine Alaïa], the loss of Gianni Versace, these people became like her family. I think there's an enormous amount of pressure too that comes with that role. It was just compounded by the racism in the industry. So I will say too, she's incredibly generous and was very funny, ... and it was not my expectation of Naomi Campbell at all. It was a very interesting experience."
Is the supermodel phenomenon dead?
The Super Models starts with a simple question: What is a supermodel?
But it proves difficult to define, even by the supermodels themselves.
Turlington puts it right out there, saying that she doesn't define a supermodel at all.
“I like to be simple about things, like call a spade a spade. A model a model," she says.
“You see our photo, our image, so you feel like you know us," Campbell says in a separate interview in the docuseries. "But there’s no words that go with our pictures.”
Crawford identifies that these four women were the "physical representations of power."
"We looked like strong women and we would look in the mirror and we started believing that," she says in the series.
The Super Models ends with another question: Could we ever have supermodels again?
"The term supermodel is more of a phenomenon and less of a title," Bills stressed. "I think it was more about that time where fashion, music, culture, and these women converge and they represented something."
As Crawford points out in the docuseries, with her daughter Kaia Gerber a famous model now, social media has made modelling very different, specifically more "accessible."
"If you have a daughter over the age of eight she’s modelling, because modelling is now accessible to everyone," Crawford says.
But for the same reason, Bills believes that the phenomenon of the supermodel may never return.
"I don't know that we'll go back to that, as long as we are in this very big, open ended ocean of social media, and where everything is accessible all the time," Bills said. "They brought the world to us."
"I'm in London. I walked down the street, there's an H&M. There's an H&M back where I live in New York, there's an H&M in Tokyo. ... It's become so diluted now. Everything is accessible to everyone all the time and they had such a unique special place that I don't think can be recreated."