When veteran director Nick Broomfield was promoting his recent BBC film about Rolling Stone Brian Jones, he remarked that no streaming service would have touched the project because it did not have the official approval of the Stones camp. He was referring to the obsession within streaming with the “official documentary” – highly sanitised content made with the subject matter’s approval and often overseen by them.
That’s what we get with The Super Models (Apple TV + from Wednesday, September 20th), a profile of four catwalk icons who defined fashion in the 1990s – created with their co-operation and telling the story entirely from their perspective.
They are Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. During the decade defined by grunge, they waved a banner for old-school glamour. More than waved it: they reinvented fashion, on the catwalk and in glossy magazines, in their image. They were famous and notorious. And if they are remembered today, it is partly for Evangelista’s quote that they wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. Evangelista addresses that remark in the third of four episodes: she wishes she had never said it. It is a rare moment of unflinching honesty in a largely sanitised series that presents the fashion industry as largely a vehicle for good. And which glosses over any bad behaviour on the parts of its subjects.
Still, it is fascinating as a snapshot of a specific moment in time. It helps that the four models present a study in contrasts, from the All-American Turlington to the streetwise Crawford. Campbell, meanwhile, was the daughter of a single mother who entered the fashion industry at a time of appalling racism. Of the quartet, she was the one who had to put up with the most negative press.
She was no angel – but the racism she faced was appalling. She recalls being blanked by fashion shows and magazines because “we only have one black girl this season”. She later had a falling out with John Casablancas of Elite Model Management after she refused to sign a cosmetics endorsement on what she considered unfavourable terms. He parted ways with her and dubbed her spoilt in the media. “That stigma, his words to the press ... messed my work up for many years,” she says. “I was called difficult because I opened my mouth.”
The Super Models is a work of hagiography and, by those standards, hugely watchable. All four models identify George Michael’s Freedom! 90 video, in which they mimed Michael’s lyrics, as a passport to the big-time. They were also the first “editorial” models to conquer the catwalk. They were muses to designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano. Their fees were head-spinning. Yet, as told here, they gave back where they could – working for free, for instance, for their friend Mark Jacobs on his way up.
They are all now in middle age. As with anyone who reaches their fifties, all have ups and downs. Fate has been especially unkind towards Evangelista, who developed breast cancer and then underwent a fat reduction procedure that went wrong. “In the vain world I was working and living in, there were all these tools we were presented with and I used some of those tools because I wanted to like what I saw in the mirror,” she says.
The Super Models touches on the corrosive myth of beauty standards. In an old clip, feminist Naomi Wolfe (today a conspiracy theorist) posits that glossy magazines encouraged readers to link looks to self-worth. The topic is not explored in depth, however. Like Campbell and her peers in their catwalk prime, this documentary knows precisely what it is: an absorbing portrait of an era when models eclipsed movie stars and beauty was the ultimate commodity.