“Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.” – Cindy Crawford
She was the valedictorian of her high school class, discovered at 16, working a summer job in a corn field in Illinois, by a newspaper photographer. How did Cindy Crawford gain so much status in an industry dedicated to replaceable people? By being different. Not too different, of course.1 But Crawford recognized how to market herself as a product with name and face recognition. She sold an image of glamour and control, and occasionally some clothes.
Somewhere along the line, celebrities replaced models as the cover stars on magazines when it was determined they sell better. On a Vogue cover, a modern icon like Gisele still sells fewer copies than Jennifer Lopez on the newsstand. Perhaps that is because there are plenty of avid J. Lo fans and relatively few Gisele fans, but rather than capitalize on the sellability of a cult of personality, models have continued to get more studiously selfsame. If women are not averse to worshipping ideals of beauty, they at least want some difficult personal backstory to go with the ideal.
The problem with the idols that Vogue tries to manufacture now into new American icons through repeated exposure and promotion, with Karlie Kloss and Arizona Muse, is they are too generic. They convey nothing in pictures beyond physical beauty. Chanel Iman is the best of the bunch, but that is because it seems like she might have a personality.2
And ultimately that is what Cindy Crawford had that the other supermodels did not have: The abstract impression of a good personality. Not a diva or a ditz. Warm and present rather than cold and distant. She still understands how to maintain the Playboy fantasy,3 which is why she makes occasional appearances in commercials as the MILF next door. She made it through the gauntlet of the fashion industry, where sadistic physical criticism is routine and aging is frowned upon (and then injected with Botox for frown lines), with her dignity intact.
Crawford was the biggest star of the golden age of supermodels. It would be nearly impossible for one model to monopolize media the way she was able to do in the ’90s, because there is so much more media now to monopolize. In an industry often considered to be one of the most frivolous on earth, she took the selling of her own appearance seriously. How can modeling be considered frivolous when it has such a large impact on our culture?
The thing about Cindy that especially sets her apart visually — her mole — some people find disgusting. But it is memorable, and it became her image, tied to the American tradition of Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark. And because Crawford’s mole could be seen as a flaw, it made her slightly more relatable. That is why she is more specifically iconic than Christy Turlington or Stephanie Seymour, who are objectively equally beautiful. Having one obvious “imperfection” was an asset.
Cindy embodied the clash in the ’90s between European fashion (flashy and baroque) and American fashion (obsessed with cleanliness and simplicity). Rather than the image of a model as a fussy and feminine living doll, Cindy Crawford was James Dean. She did not invent the model-as-American-rebel idea, she was imitating Gia Carangi, to whom she was often compared. Carangi was actually troubled and rebellious, whereas Cindy Crawford was merely play-acting when channeling those energies.
But Cindy, like Gia and Angelina Jolie (whose breakout role was her portrayal of Gia in an HBO movie), brought the same sort of incorruptible strength of presence and associated sexual energy. Even in a ball gown or styled to look demurely feminine, Cindy broadcasts toughness, a kind of forthright cowgirl confidence. She is an aggressive object. When thinking about models there is a void where the knowledge of an inner life should go. We are left to imagine a person based on what their appearance suggests. Cindy Crawford made it easy to imagine that person.
She branded herself as American, constantly. As much as Michael Jordan did. She established an iconography of white tees and blue jeans and soda, an American flag rippling somewhere in the background. She might as well have been Wonder Woman. Megan Fox in Transformers is just Michael Bay’s heat dream of the Cindy Crawford persona.
Her real successor is Tyra Banks, who also understood how to latch onto the whole “all-American” thing, how to build yourself into a brand that could last past a modeling career. In Tyra’s case patriotism was also invoked to counteract the institutionalized racism in the fashion world (particularly prevalent overseas, where much of the industry is located). Banks both embodied the hypertraditional California-girl ideal and flipped the ideal by being black.4 She was the first black Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue cover girl and the first black Victoria’s Secret model, thereby extending the unforgivingly impossible ideals of youth, beauty, and sex appeal for women somewhat, but not nearly far enough.
If Cindy channeled the Reagan moment, an artificially heightened sense of feeling great about ourselves right before America (and the idea of America) careened off a cliff, Tyra was the next stage. Oversharing, vapid, and exploitative: an avatar of the Reality TV age. Heidi Klum tries for something similar, but Klum cannot be relatable no matter how much she tries. Being down-to-earth is not in Heidi’s DNA, which traffics in haughty German perfectionism.
It is dangerous to objectify yourself, but given the alternative of others doing it for you, it’s perhaps necessary, or at least impossible to ignore thinking about. People dress purposefully to suggest themselves suitable for roles or jobs. Just because somebody looks like a thing does not mean they necessarily are that thing, but appearance really helps sometimes to lean into it. Men carry themselves differently in suits just like women walk a certain way in heels.
It’s interesting to think about supermodels in light of the Internet, Facebook, and the way we now instinctively market ourselves. How we find ourselves codified down to a few key descriptors and then start to run with those descriptions. How having “an Internet persona” has, in effect, made everyone indescribably vain5 and self-centered.
One wonders whether all this public vanity will reach a point where people will start to reject it outright, to consider the negative mental effects and self-esteem problems that constant physical comparison and competition create in everyone, male and female, or whether it will continue infinitely into a narcissism event horizon. The whole concept of an “ideal” beauty is so false, so blatantly subjective, why do we valorize something no mortal person can achieve?
Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.
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