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'The Super Models,' in their own words

Linda Evangelista, left, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington in <em>The Super Models.</em>
Apple TV+
Linda Evangelista, left, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington in The Super Models.

The Apple TV+ docuseries The Super Models will, for some, be an introduction to the very idea of supermodels, who don't exist in the same way they once did. In the '80s and '90s, they were not influencers, they did not have Instagram, and many of them were seen often and heard rarely. Even to people who didn't follow fashion, they were celebrities, but rarely were they fully in charge of their own images.

There were more than four of them, but certainly the series focuses on four of the very most famous: Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell. They knew each other, back in the day, and they've stayed connected for many years. They speak of themselves as members of the same "class," models who emerged at the same moment, competed in some respects, and often walked in the same shows. They headlined ad campaigns, they made TV commercials, and they wrote books. How big were these four women in their field? Along with Tatjana Patitz, who died in January of this year, they were the featured lip-sync performers in George Michael's iconic "Freedom '90" video. If the idea of your video was "supermodels," this was who you would get.

The four models are also executive producers of the series, which primarily tells their stories through interviews with them and people who know them, meaning they largely control the narrative. Such self-produced or self-directed projects, which some have reasonably suggested should really be called memoirs, have become ubiquitous, with plenty of other celebrities producing their own stories including Taylor Swift, Michael Jordan, Naomi Osaka and Beyoncé.

A documentary produced by its subject can be blank and dull if it comes off like too much of a hagiography. ... But 'The Super Models' feels more like a corrective produced by women who were rarely given the opportunity to be seen as complete human beings.

A documentary produced by its subject can be blank and dull if it comes off like too much of a hagiography, like it's too committed to establishing greatness or sanding down every edge. But The Super Models feels more like a corrective produced by women who were rarely given the opportunity to be seen as complete human beings, and whose images — as they recount in harrowing detail — were managed and leveraged by others from the time they were teenagers. Now and then, some element of their personal lives would circulate, as when Crawford married Richard Gere, when Campbell was accused of being "difficult," or when Evangelista made a remark about not getting out of bed for less than $10,000 a day that dogged her for years (and that she talks about here). But for people who followed their rise in the media, they are more pictures than voices, and what we know of what they had to say was often grabbed in bits and remixed.

The Super Models seems committed less to arguing that its subjects are heroes or role models than to taking a step back, decades later, and talking about what it was like to be in this extraordinary position in which they were idealized and villainized, told when and how they would cut their hair or travel, and, in some cases, subjected to abuse. Evangelista has a particularly painful story to tell about the agent she married when she was very young, who she says was abusive to her and who was later the subject of sexual abuse and assault allegations from other women.

But this is also an interesting document about the long friendships among these women and the relationships they've had with their favorite designers and photographers — who were as close as the models would come to finding true mentors and protectors.

If you came of age in the '80s and '90s, the power that supermodels seemed to have was enormous. If you listen to their stories now, it was more complicated than that. And with so much of their careers devoted to images of them being created, edited, bought and sold by others, it's hard to begrudge them this effort to create a version of their histories that they can shape with their own visions of themselves in mind.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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