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.
The new era began in 1990, with the era-defining British Vogue cover of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Tatjana Patitz, photographed by Peter Lindbergh which created such an impression on the fashion world that they came to embody the term supermodel. Individually and as an elite group, it seemed as if the idea of the supermodel had been coined just for them. Each model had gradually attained fame since the mid-1980s and were now among the industry’s top stars. Handpicked by photographer Peter Lindbergh for the January cover of Vogue, the now famous cover inspired pop star George Michael to cast the same five models in the music video for his international hit song, “Freedom! ’90“, directed by David Fincher. Other notable photographs capturing this new generation of models, including the famous nude taken by Herb Ritts for Rolling Stone that included Tatjana, Cindy, Naomi, Christy and Stephanie Seymour, helped each supermodel attain world-wide fame and fortune, by sharing covers of all the international editions of Vogue, walking the catwalks for the world’s top designers, and becoming known by their first names alone. Today, Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista, Patitz and Turlington are regarded as the “Original Supermodels.”
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.
Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington became known as The Trinity, a term first used by journalist Michael Gross. Evangelista was known as the “Chameleon”, for her ability to transform her look and reinvent herself. Turlington was known as the “insurance model”, saying “clients know that if they hire me, nothing will go wrong”. Campbell was the first black model to appear on the front cover of Time Magazine, French Vogue, British Vogue, and the September issue of American Vogue, traditionally the years biggest and most important issue.
As the 1990s phenomenon progressed, the supermodels were joined by Kate Moss. They were the most heavily in demand, collectively dominating magazine covers, fashion runways, editorial pages, and both print and broadcast advertising. Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer and Christy Turlington became known as the Big Five supermodels, and later, with the addition of Kate Moss, as the Big Six.
In the 2006 book, In Vogue: The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Fashion Magazine (Rizzoli), the editors cite the “original supermodels” and Claudia Schiffer when quoting Vogue Magazine Editor-In-Chief, Anna Wintour, who said, “Those girls were so fabulous for fashion and totally reflected that time … [They] were like movie stars.” The editors name famous models from previous decades, but explain that, “None of them attained the fame and world-wide renown bestowed on Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz, Stephanie Seymour, Claudia Schiffer, Yasmeen Ghauri, and Karen Mulder in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These models burst out beyond the pages of the magazines. Many became the faces of cosmetics brands and perfumes, had their own television programs and physical-fitness videos and their own lines of lingerie … Their lives, activities, influences, and images were the subjects of all types of sociological and historical analysis.”
In the mid-1990s, the initial era of the supermodel ended and a new era for the supermodel began driven by heroin chic. By 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, Carla Bruni, Tatiana Sorokko, Yasmin Le Bon, Amber Valletta, Shalom Harlow, Nadja Auermann, Helena Christensen, Patricia Velásquez, Adriana Karembeu, Milla Jovovich, Ling Tan, Valeria Mazza and Shirley Mallmann.