Do Supermodels Age, or Just Get Airbrushed?August 14, 2023
Well, hello there, Linda, Christy, Naomi and Cindy, the O.G. supermodels; women for whom the term was created; creatures who became so famous that they didn’t even need last names, like Aretha or Marilyn. Back, once again, on the cover of the September issue of Vogue, that vestigial megalith from the magazine era, decades after you emerged. We’ve clearly missed you.
How else to interpret the fervid enthusiasm generated by the appearance of their new cover, a collaboration between American and British Vogue styled by Edward Enninful, photographed by Rafael Pavarotti and dropped on Instagram last week? The thousands of social media responses, the comments and clapping hands and fire emojis?
“More of this always and forever, please,” wrote Karen Elson, the model, under Vogue’s post, in a summary of the general reaction.
Yet beneath the chorus of love is another, growing strain of commentary that is slightly less enthralled. One focused on calling out what many viewers see as egregious age erasing: the promotion of women age 58 (Linda Evangelista), 57 (Cindy Crawford), 54 (Christy Turlington) and 53 (Naomi Campbell) as paragons of mature beauty whose years have seemingly been smoothed from their faces. Who look so retouched that they seem more like A.I.-generated bots than actual people.
According to a Vogue spokeswoman, there was only “minimal retouching and minimal lighting” on the photographs. But in a world where we are increasingly concerned about the blurred line between virtual reality and actual reality, where disinformation is rife, the definition of “minimal” and what exactly that means is a relative issue.
It casts an uneasy light over the whole shoot — how much of it is real, how much Photoshop — that doesn’t serve anyone involved.
It doesn’t serve the women on the cover, who broke through back in the day because they had character and were willing to show it; because they didn’t want to be blank mannequins, as models had generally been before them, but individuals with personalities and attitudes and opinions of their own. The kind of personalities that involve expressions, which over time etch years and experiences — joy, sorrow, laughter, fury — onto the topography of a face.
And it doesn’t serve the women who look to them as role models.
It is unquestionably positive that Vogue, a brand that still positions itself as the bible of fashion, even as its hold on that position seems increasingly tenuous, is putting women in the fullness of their life on its biggest cover of the year. Even if it’s not exactly a surprise, given the swing to celebrity, the broader cultural fascination with the supermodel heyday of the 1990s, and the fact that the four women have an Apple TV+ documentary about their careers coming next month.
Indeed, there has been a move to exalting age in a variety of Vogues over the last year, with the model Carmen Dell’Orefice on the cover of Vogue Czechoslovakia at 91 and the tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od on the cover of Vogue Philippines at 106. But it seems more like a stunt — OMG! Look, how she defies age! Or OMG! So old! — rather than a real embrace of a more mature demographic. There are, after all, no nonfamous older models who appear regularly in the magazine.
And it is possible that the magazine is simply depicting the women as they want to be shown. In which case, fair enough. According to a Vogue spokeswoman, though, “Vogue retains final editorial control of the creative, fashion and video shoots that appear on any of its platforms.”
Certainly, images of models at every age are retouched (sometimes ridiculously so). It is also true that, having seen Naomi Campbell in person, I can tell you that she does not have a line on her face. And there is no question that the former supes look extraordinary for their age.
But extraordinary is not the same thing as unbelievably perfect. When looking at photos of teenagers and 20-somethings, it is possible to delude yourself into accepting the impossibly flawless nature of what you see. Thirty years later, it’s harder to pretend.
Which means it’s hard not to think that here was a lost opportunity to embrace all of the hallmarks of our humanity, not to mention transparency about what we are faking (or not). Fixing a wrinkle here, some crow’s-feet there, may seem like a little thing. But it’s part of what chips away at our shared sense of truth.
In the videos that are embedded in the article, there is a slight frown line shadowing Christy Turlington’s forehead. That is not surprising, given that she recently told Marie Claire: “Women who have stayed away from augmentation of themselves — those are the women I really admire. I love seeing a real face.”
As Cindy Crawford takes a selfie with her old friends, she has small but visible laugh lines; her forehead moves and eyes crinkle. These are part of being alive. Blanding out these expressive marks from the photographs, when they are still apparent elsewhere, makes the whole shoot seem more faked than it probably was.
After all, if anyone should understand the complexities of female aging in a society obsessed with youth, it is the women who represented the pinnacle of that youthful beauty.
Linda Evangelista has been public about her trauma with CoolSculpting, which she said left her disfigured. When she was on the cover of British Vogue in September 2022, she was open about how the makeup artist Pat McGrath used tape and her tools to “create fantasies” and erase reality.
In the current Vogue wide-ranging interview, Ms. Evangelista sort of tiptoes around the subject. “I want wrinkles,” she said, “but I Botox my forehead, so I am a hypocrite. But I want to grow old.” Yet it isn’t addressed any further.
It’s particularly ironic, coming just after the death of Jane Birkin, and the celebrations of her life and style, which were marked by a thrilling disregard for the pressure to play by any rules and a willingness to embrace her own wrinkles and the stories they told. (Ms. Turlington has name-checked Ms. Birkin as one of her own paragons of beauty.) That should have been a sign, if anyone cared to see it, of how eager we are for such unfiltered examples.
“The world puts a lot of pressure obviously on women as they age,” Ms. Crawford says in a Vogue video. But, she continues, “we still can have fun, we can still be beautiful, we can still be visible.”
So let them be visible, marks and all. They once were pioneers of a new kind of beauty. Here’s hoping they will be again.
Vanessa Friedman has been the fashion director and chief fashion critic for The Times since 2014. In this role she covers global fashion for both The New York Times and International New York Times. More about Vanessa Friedman
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