They tweet. They post selfies. They have more fans than many of Hollywood’s biggest celebs. So how exactly did Karlie, Coco, Cara, and company do it? Like this.
This past May the entire fashion galaxy convened at the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala in New York City. All the usual A-listers were there, of course: Gwyneth, Madonna, Beyoncé, and more. But many of the world’s top models were there too, drawing as much red-carpet attention as the Hollywood crowd—and sharing the whole scene with the world.
Canadian model Coco Rocha, the 24-year-old coach of the modeling competition show The Face, quickly took a selfie in the graffiti-bedecked bathroom and posted it for her million-plus followers. Fashion favorite and new Victoria’s Secret Angel Karlie Kloss, 21, posted a shot of a friend’s tattooed knuckles that read PUNK THIS, and her 259,000 Instagram fans fist-bumped back. Twenty-two-year-old runway pro Chanel Iman photographed a moment with Taylor Swift. And, not to be outdone, no-holds-barred British It Girl and model Cara Delevingne, 21, snapped herself kissing actress Sienna Miller, wearing a matching spiked dress. By the next morning that lip lock had amassed 60,000 likes on Instagram. “Cara is a stud,” proclaimed @jabber1174.
Check your iPhone, laptop, or television. After several years of silence, supermodels are, well, super again. Runway staples like Delevingne, Kloss, and Rocha are now legitimate media stars, many with TV shows and allwith ardent followers who, say, watch the live-streamed Burberry or Calvin Klein show and then congratulate the girls on Twitter. And guess what: This new crop of supermodels is talking back—and that’s making them more real, more relatable, more likeable.
“This generation knows how to start the conversation and build a career,” says Ivan Bart, senior vice president and managing director of IMG Models, who manages the careers of the entrepreneurially minded runway stars Kloss and Gisele Bündchen. “I think this is the greatest time in the history of modeling.”
First, a little history…
Back in the eighties and nineties, the original supermodels— Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington—created a global sensation. They dated rock stars and dominated the magazine newsstand. “You saw a model even in silhouette on the runway and knew exactly who she was,” recalls Tyra Banks, the mega mogul, talk-show host, and creator of America’s Next Top Model, who came on the scene in the nineties. Women everywhere loved them (and maybe hated them a little too).
Yet models of the era say it was easy to be seen in those days— but not easy to be heard. “Your job back then was to show up and put clothes on and show those clothes as best you could,” says Crawford. The irony was that, although she and her crew exuded power and beauty, they recall being discouraged from breaking any actual new ground. Crawford, a five-time Glamour cover girl, says her agents told her that hosting MTV’s House of Style would be a waste of time. That was 1989. “There was no fashion on TV back then,” she says.
Crawford did host that show, but it took decades for her entrepreneurial spirit to catch on. For years—save for Banks, Bündchen, and Kate Moss—models were almost anonymous, with a fresh crop every year. “Girls weren’t popping,” says Banks. “They were famous in Paris only. I think it’s important for someone in the middle of America to know your name and face, and it wasn’t happening.”
Newsflash: Models are people.
Now they’re unique and known. “Karlie is this six-foot-one- and-a-half giant gorgeous alien,” Banks says, assessing the new stars. “Cara is the naughty girl next door. Coco is beautiful but approachable. They are all distinct and themselves. Models used to be silent movie actresses, but not anymore.”
Banks herself deserves a lot of the credit for this trend. Dubbed the “model mogul” by the Wall Street Journal, she transformed herself into a brand, complete with television shows and a book deal. Following Banks’ lead, the average model these days takes her off-the-runway career seriously: Floridian bombshell Kate Upton built her own fan base on YouTube before getting the cover of Sports Illustrated. Kloss and model Joan Smalls are cohosting the new House of Style reboot. Rocha’s got The Face with Campbell and Karolina Kurkova. (For any of you model-IQ doubters, Rocha is also a contributing editor for PC Magazine.) And our cover girl, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, has recently gone the model- turned-actress route. “You no longer have to be defined by one thing,” she says.
Wait: we like them now?
Truth is, models used to be easy for women to resent. They were seen as gorgeous, pouty giraffes who, as Evangelista once famously said, didn’t “wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” Actresses, on the other hand, were shorter and maybe even freckled. Relatable. That’s changed: These days many Hollywood stars guard their privacy carefully, while models come off as less cautious, more real. You can smile along with Joan Smalls as she posts yet another cute photo of her childhood outfits for #throwbackthursday; you’re right there when a bird poops on Delevingne’s bushy brows (true story!) or when Kloss photobombs Steve Carell at the MTV Movie Awards.
“Nowadays, personality counts just as much as looks,” says Lorenzo Martone, a New York City–based manager and publicist. Author and fashion blogger Derek Blasberg agrees: The new supes have to be relatable. It might even be a part of their job. “Yes, people still want gorgeous models with a traffic-stopping walk,” he says. “But a girl today needs to have a big laugh, a big heart, and a good story.”
They’ve found their voice.
Rocha figured out her story five years ago. “It was during the backlash of the supermodel,” she remembers. “You didn’t know our names, and we all kind of looked alike.” So she started a blog. “I thought I was just going to mention mundane things to colleagues and friends. Then I noticed I was getting traffic. I realized I had to have personality. I didn’t want to just be known for my cheekbones. I have a voice.” (In one much-read post, she criticized the industry for its body- image issues: “I’m six inches taller and 10 sizes smaller than the average American woman. Yet in another parallel universe, I am considered ‘fat.’ ”)
Rocha’s blog graduated to a Twitter handle. Then she added a Tumblr page. Now she’s got a Vine identity and a global brand boasting more than 4 million followers on Chinese social-networking sites. “Social media helped my career,” Rocha says. “People would say, ‘We want that girl. She’s got sparkle.’”
Then there’s rising star Delevingne, who drives the tabloids wild by hanging with Rihanna or spilling out of a car with Harry Styles. The most candid of the group, she labels herself on Twitter a “pro- fessional human being” and will post photos between shoots or talk directly to her best friend, pop star Rita Ora, whom she calls “wifey.” In a recent interview Delevingne explained that her followers make her feel “less alone.” Modeling, she says, can be “a really lonely job.”
Ultimately, what many models want today is the right to control their own future: Kloss is launching a new line of jeans for tall women; her charity project Karlie’s Kookies gives money to FEED, to fight hunger. Others are using their clout to shake up their industry for the better. (Watch model Cameron Russell’s TED Talk.
The “genetic lottery” winner had this advice for young women: Don’t try to model; instead, “be the next president.”) But sometimes these women are just looking out for their fans. “You guys are hysterical!” Delevingne responded recently to kids who tweeted her from school. “Get back to work. I will not be blamed for doing badly in exams!”
What’s next? Pretty much anything, says Banks. “It’s their time,” she shrugs. “The choice to do more is in these girls’ hands.” No doubt their decision will be posted.