More than just models: The return of “The Supers”

The new series’ popularity highlights the lasting power of the 90’s supermodels 

By Lilla Woodard

Graphic by Sabrina LevyOctober 29 2023

Apple TV+’s new limited series, “The Supermodels," explores the lives and careers of four of the most iconic supermodels of all time — Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. With the show being published alongside a Vogue cover story, future documentaries, photo books and ad campaigns, it is clear the Supers are back and here to stay. 

But why and how? The easiest answer would be that the four women are all executive producers of the series — they finally have the money to tell their own stories, so they might as well do it. 

While this financial explanation may be true, it does not explain why so many viewers are drawn to watch the series, even the ones from the generation after what many would define as the height of the Supers’ careers in the ‘90s.

The series starts from the beginning of the four Supers’ careers, when they were teenagers thrust into the fast-paced fashion world of the early ‘80s — a world in which print and runway were kept carefully separated. Robin Givhan, Washington Post critic-at-large, discusses the historically bleak and unimaginative view held of the model within the fashion world. 

“The model's role was basically to be a living hanger,” Givhan said. “They were referred to as mannequins.” 

Here was a world ready to be shaken up by the electric personalities and captivating runway walks of Evangelista, Turlington, Crawford and Campbell. These models bridged the gap between print and runway while simultaneously achieving celebrity status through their inclusion in George Michael’s iconic “Freedom ’90” music video. Models were not just photographed anymore — they were talked about.

“It wasn’t about the fashion,” Crawford said in episode two, discussing this seismic shift. “It wasn’t about the hair and the makeup. It was about the women.” 

The Supers defined ‘90s fashion, and a retrospective on their careers feels well-timed at a moment when the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia go perfectly with a pair of straight leg jeans. As viewers are mercifully released from the chokehold of mom jeans and ‘80s influences that characterized much of the style of the late 2010s, the soft grunge of the ‘90s now dominates  closets and Pinterest boards of many. Maybe it was fate that a runway video crops perfectly onto phone screens.

Social media became the great equalizer in fashion — today, anyone can be a model. The fashion world opened up, shedding some of the elitism that contributed to a notoriously toxic culture and introducing some much-needed diversity into runways and ad campaigns. Yet there is a part of many fashion lovers who do yearn for a time away from the digital world, a time when magazines stated what was cool and who the It Girls were. Maybe this is a reason for continued excitement around the Supers and the world of print magazines they dominated and defined.

Perhaps nothing explains the universal appeal of the Supers more than their friendship. In an era where “Girl’s Girl” is a moniker worn as a badge of honor, women love to see other women having fun and supporting each other. The “sisterhood,” as Campbell describes it in the series, has survived the lives and careers of the four women, drawing the gossip columnists of the ‘90s and viewers to their documentary today. They fought for each other, supporting one another in their public and private lives. 

In a touching moment from the series, Campbell describes how, when racist designers were reluctant to book her for a runway, Evangelista and Turlington threatened to drop out, risking their careers for fair treatment for their friend. In the series finale, as the Supers prepare for a photoshoot with photographer Steven Meisel, they stand together facing a mirror adjusting final touches to their hair, makeup and outfits. It is touchingly relatable, as for just a few seconds, they are just like everyone else.

People love to love glamor, beauty and style — the Supers are the epitome of all these qualities. But they are also so much more. Back in the ‘90s, they impacted Black and Latinx queer counterculture by inspiring voguing and being name dropped in RuPaul’s “Supermodel.” Today, they continue to support humanitarian causes and social justice movements. Campbell works with emerging fashion markets in Africa, while Crawford supports research efforts for childhood Leukemia. Turlington fights for better access to maternal healthcare in the developing world and Evagelista has spoken publicly about her struggles with breast cancer and complications after receiving cryolipolysis, a fat freezing procedure that left her with permanent, hard lumps on her body. 

While they first rose to fame in the fashion world, the four Supers continue to hold the world’s attention through their sisterhood, personalities and activism. As George Michael sang in “Freedom ’90, the song that helped launch the models into stardom, “sometimes the clothes do not make the man.”