The term supermodel refers to a highly-paid élite fashion model who usually has a worldwide reputation and often a background in haute couture and commercial modeling. The term was elevated to prominence in the popular culture of the 1990s. Supermodels usually work for top fashion designers and labels. They have multimillion dollar contracts, endorsements and campaigns. They have branded themselves as household names and worldwide recognition is associated with their modeling careers. They have been on the covers of various magazines. Claudia Schiffer stated, "In order to become a supermodel one must be on all the covers all over the world at the same time so that people can recognise the girls." First-name recognition is a solid indication of supermodel status in the fashion industry.
According to Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women by Michael Gross, the first known use of the term "supermodel" was in 1943 by an agent named Clyde Matthew Dessner in a "how-to" book he wrote about modeling. However, a writer named Judith Cass used the term prior to Dessner in October 1942 for her article in the Chicago Tribune, which headlined "Super Models are Signed for Fashion Show".
The term "supermodel" had been used several times in the media in the 1960s and 1970s. In May 1967 The Salisbury Daily Times referred to Twiggy as a supermodel; the February 1968 article of Glamour magazine listed all 19 "supermodels"; the Chicago Daily Defender wrote "New York Designer Turns Super Model" in January 1970; The Washington Post and Mansfield News Journal used the term in 1971; and in 1974 both the Chicago Tribune and The Advocate also used the term "supermodel" in their articles. American Vogue used the term "supermodel" on the cover page to describe Margaux Hemingway in the September 1, 1975 edition. Jet also described Beverly Johnson as a "supermodel" in the December 22, 1977 edition.
In 1979, model Janice Dickinson claimed to have coined the term "supermodel" as a compound of Superman and model. During an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Dickinson stated that her agent Monique Pilar of Elite Model Management asked her, "Janice, who do you think you are, Superman?" She replied saying, "No... I'm a supermodel, honey, and you will refer to me as a supermodel and you will start a supermodel division." Dickinson also claims to be the first supermodel.
Gia Carangi has also been called the first supermodel, as well as Lisa Fonssagrives. Fonssagrives is widely considered the world's first supermodel. She was in most of the major fashion magazines and general interest magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s, including Town & Country, Life, Vogue, the original Vanity Fair, and Time. The relationship between her image on over 200 Vogue covers and her name recognition led to the future importance of Vogue in shaping future supermodels.
In 1968, an article in Glamour described Twiggy, Cheryl Tiegs, Wilhelmina, Veruschka, Jean Shrimpton, and fifteen other top models as "supermodels." The term gained currency in the 1960s by analogy with Andy Warhol's "Superstars."
In the 1970s, some models became more prominent as their names became more recognizable to the general public. Sports Illustrated editor Jule Campbell abandoned then-current modeling trends for its fledgling Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue by photographing "bigger and healthier" California models and printing their names by their photos, thus turning many of them into household names and establishing the issue as a cornerstone of supermodel status.
In 1975, Margaux Hemingway landed a then-unprecedented million-dollar contract as the face of Fabergé's Babe perfume and the same year appeared on the cover of Time magazine, labelled one of the "New Beauties," giving further name recognition to fashion models.
Lauren Hutton became the first model to receive a huge contract from a cosmetics company and appeared on cover of Vogue 25 times. Donyale Luna became the first African American model to appear in Vogue. The first African American model to be on the cover of American Vogue was Beverly Johnson in 1974. Iman is also considered to have been one of the first, if not the first, supermodel of color.
In the early 1980s, Inès de la Fressange was the first model to sign an exclusive modeling contract with an haute couture fashion house, Chanel. During the early 1980s, fashion designers began advertising on television and billboards. Catwalk regulars like Gia Carangi, Cheryl Tiegs, Carol Alt, Christie Brinkley, Kim Alexis, Paulina Porizkova and Elle Macpherson began to endorse products with their names, as well as their faces, through the marketing of brands such as the beverage Diet Pepsi to the extension of car title Ford Trucks. As the models began to embrace old-style glamour, they were starting to replace film stars as symbols of luxury and wealth. In this regard, supermodels were viewed not so much as individuals but as images.
By the 1990s, the supermodel became increasingly prominent in the media. The title became tantamount to superstar, to signify a supermodel's fame having risen simply from "personality." Supermodels did talk shows, were cited in gossip columns, partied at the trendiest nightspots, landed movie roles, inspired franchises, dated or married film stars, and earned themselves millions. Fame empowered them to take charge of their careers, to market themselves, and to command higher fees.
When Linda Evangelista mentioned to Vogue that "we don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day," she may have been playfully pretending the role of an up-scale union representative, but the 1990 comment became the most notorious quote in modeling history. In 1991, Christy Turlington signed a contract with Maybelline that paid her $800,000 for twelve days' work each year. Four years later, Claudia Schiffer reportedly earned $12 million for her various modeling assignments. Authorities ranging from Karl Lagerfeld to Time had declared the supermodels more glamorous than movie stars.
Although many models were referred to as supermodels during this time, only the so-called "Big Six" were officially recognized and accepted by the fashion world as supermodels: Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. They were the most heavily in demand, collectively dominating magazine covers, fashion runways, editorial pages, and both print and broadcast advertising. Excluding Moss, they are known as the "original supermodels".
In the late 1990s, actresses, pop singers, and other entertainment celebrities began gradually replacing models on fashion magazine covers and ad campaigns. The pendulum of limelight left many models in anonymity. A popular "conspiracy theory" explaining the supermodel's disappearance is that designers and fashion editors grew weary of the "I won't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day" attitude and made sure no small group of models would ever again have the power of the Big Six.
Charles Gandee, associate editor at Vogue, has said that high prices and poor attitudes contributed less to the decline of the supermodel. As clothes became less flashy, designers turned to models who were less glamorous, so they wouldn't overpower the clothing. Whereas many supermodels of the previous era were American-born, their accents making for an easier transition to stardom, the majority of models began coming from non-English speaking countries and cultures, making the crossover to mainstream spokesperson and cover star difficult. However, the term continued to be applied to notable models such as Laetitia Casta, Eva Herzigová, Adriana Karembeu and Milla Jovovich.
In the early 2000s, Brazilian models such as Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, and Alessandra Ambrosio became popular after signing contracts with Victoria's Secret, but failed to make the crossover into mainstream media as easily as their predecessors. They were followed several seasons later by Eastern Europeans too young, anonymous, and "bordering on anorexic" to have any chance at mainstream popularity. The opportunities for super-stardom were waning in the modeling world, and models like Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks took to television with reality shows like Project Runway and America's Next Top Model, respectively, to not only remain relevant but establish themselves as media moguls.
Contrary to the fashion industry's celebrity trend of the previous decade, lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret continues to groom and launch young talents into supermodel status, awarding their high-profile "Angels" multi-year, multi-million-dollar contracts. In addition to Klum, Banks, Bundchen, Lima, and Ambrosio, these models have included Karolína Kurková, Miranda Kerr, Marisa Miller and Doutzen Kroes.
Although some, such as Claudia Schiffer, argued that Bündchen is the only model who comes close to earning the supermodel title, American Vogue dubbed ten models (including Kroes, Hilary Rhoda, Raquel Zimmermann and Jessica Stam) as the new crop of supermodels in their May 2007 cover story, while the likes of Christie Brinkley, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista returned to reclaim prominent contracts from celebrities and younger models.
Men's fashion represents just a fraction of the industry but have played a part in the fashion world, while commanding less compensation than their female counterparts. Past male supermodels include Marcus Schenkenberg, Tyson Beckford, Mark Vanderloo, Antonio Sabàto, Jr. and Michael Bergin.
Criticism of the supermodel as an industry has been frequent inside and outside the fashion press, from complaints that women desiring this status become unhealthily thin to charges of racism, where the "supermodel" has generally to conform to a Northern European standard of beauty. According to fashion writer Guy Trebay of The New York Times, in 2007, the "android" look is popular, a vacant stare and thin body serving, according to some fashion industry conventions, to set off the couture. This was not always the case. In the 1970s, black, heavier and "ethnic" models predominated the runways but social changes since that time have made the power players in the fashion industry flee suggestions of "otherness".
The popular media often applies the term loosely to some who fall short of supermodel status. Geraldine Maillet, the celebrated French writer and former model, relates with humour and cynicism the rise and decline of the supermodels in her book Presque Top Model.