The evolution of the supermodel - How supermodels went from being mysterious in the 90ies to sociable in today’s social media era

Written by Kevin Owusu

A post from Kendall Jenner’s official Instagram Account

The term supermodel has been used in various eras of the modeling industry and describes a fashion model who has achieved celebrity-like status. Iconic models such as Twiggy and Iman were known for their exceptional glamour and almost seemed as if they came from a world of utopia (Arte, 2014).

It was not, however, until January 1990 when the term supermodel was taken to new heights. German photographer Peter Lindbergh was assigned by the British Vogue magazine to visually express his beliefs of what the 90ies would look like. Lindbergh’s execution of his vision included five models, who would, together with a few others, dominate the following century like no other. These were the American models Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington, Canadian Linda Evangelista, German model Tatjana Patitz as well as the British Naomi Campbell (Ayto & Crofton, 2009). Together they made up the initial cell of supermodels and would, as a group, soon after be unaffordable to book. Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer among some others joined this elite circle of super models later (Arte, 2014).

: British Vogue cover shot by Peter Lindbergh featuring Crawford, Patitz, Campbell, Turlington & Evangelista.jpg

What made them super was their accomplishment of a series of specific goals including high-profile magazine covers, functioning as both muses to designers and brand ambassadors of large corporations as well as appearing in international beauty campaigns (Okwodu, 2015). Claudia Schiffer stated that "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 recognize the girls” (Schiffer, 2007).

The supermodels did not only represent beauty, but also a distinctive strength and self-determination and therefore emancipated themselves from the role of women prevalent prior to the 90ies. Some of them even turned their first names into global human brands immediately recognizable by everyone. What was, however, most unique about the 90ies supermodels, was that they conveyed a feeling of being out of reach and seemed to be living lifestyles which were unattainable to most people (Arte, 2014). It was the powerful mystique surrounding them which outlasted numerous trends (Okwodu, 2015).

Why today’s supermodels control their online images

In the 21st century there now is a new line-up of supermodels who, unlike their predecessors, are much easier to reach - or at least they make it seem this way. This is mainly caused by technology which has altered the connectivity between fans and celebrities becoming more immediate and personal. While image and reputation of supermodels in the Nineties were largely dependent on news coverage in traditional media, current-day supermodels take matters into their own hands and use social media sites to shape their images online “by posting “status updates”, “likes” and photos, and even responding to consumer comments” (Kowalczyk & Pounders, 2016, p.345). It is not unusual that these social media supermodels hire professional publicists or brand managers to engage with their growing online fan base on their behalf to control and strengthen their human brand persona (Kowalczyk & Pounders, 2016).

Reporting about their own lives using social media instead of relying on celebrity news outlets does not only enable them to manage their own image. It is also found that celebrities can influence fans’ purchase intentions based on their referrals (Kowalczyk & Pounders, 2016) as people develop relationships to celebrities similar to friendships (Johns & English, 2016). This strengthens the models’ brands even further and, more importantly, attracts the attention of companies (Kowalczyk & Pounders, 2016). “It is believed that celebrities help break through advertising clutter (Magini, Honeycutt & Cross, 2008, p.57). Moreover, celebrity endorsement can help a brand to be more memorable, improve its competitive position and enhance brand recognition (Johns & English, 2016).

A prerequisite for a successful celebrity endorsement deal is that the corresponding celebrity is authentic and honest in his or her interaction with fans. Social media can make this required honesty even more genuine if the messages and responses seem to come directly from the prominent person (Replogle, 2014).

From left to right: supermodels Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Bella Hadid

From left to right: supermodels Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Bella Hadid

The ‘Web 2.0 models’ of today seem to have understood this principle. The 1995 born Kendall Jenner leads the group of new models (Kirst, 2015). “With Jenner’s 69 million Instagram followers, she is the most followed model on the app and has the 12th most followed account, overall” (Socialblade, 2016). Along with fellow Californians Gigi Hadid and sister Bella, Hailey Baldwin and the British Cara Delevingne, these fashion models have the power to communicate and use their social media channels to share just enough about themselves to create allure (Mullshine, 2014). Even modeling agencies have caught onto the trend stating that in today’s market the number of followers determines the success of a model as much as the physical appearance. “In fact agencies have started monetizing it, treating their models’ reach as media space and charging for it accordingly” (Stansfield, n.d).

If Gigi Hadid can do it, so can you!?

With social media channels conveniently accessible at everyone’s fingertip, it is easy to believe that nowadays it only takes a camera and Wi-Fi to reach stardom (Wolverson, 2013). There are no technical skills required as basically everyone is capable of sharing images or text about themselves with the public. Therefore, the internet has become the ideal tool for self-branding which refers to “individuals developing a distinctive public image for commercial gain and/or cultural capital” (Khmais, Ang & Welling, 2016). The vast number of books, web pages and workshops catered to conveying these principles speak for the present popularity of self-branding (Khedher 2014).

Online-based personal branding started in the early 2000s in the form of personal blogs and became even more popular due to social media as platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram allow its users to simultaneously create an online identity across a number of outlets. Instagram’s base of 150 million users provides the possibility to gain Instafame by accumulating a large number of followers on the app which an increasing number of people have achieved who are or were not known in the traditional media at all (Khmais, Ang & Welling, 2016).

British super model Naomi Campbell

British super model Naomi Campbell

However, Kendall & Co’s success did not come overnight and is the result of a continuous and professionalized form of personal branding. The challenge with that is, however, that just like commercially branded products, strong personal brands, require a unique selling point which needs to be consistent. This consistency is hard to apply to any human being, let alone to any supermodel exposed to public scrutiny and there are “numerous examples of celebrities caught doing or saying something that undermines the brands with which they are affiliated” (Khmais, Ang & Welling, 2016).

While many of the original 90ies supermodels like Naomi, Kate and Claudia are still in business nearly three decades after being discovered, the Delvigne and Hadid sisters of this world have yet to proof that they are capable of doing the same. Launching their careers by utilizing social media, their mastery of media beyond the runway is what will ultimately determine their success.



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