Meet the Women Who Put the ‘Super’ in Supermodel

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The Big Six by Peter Lindbergh
Photo: Courtesy of Peter Lindbergh

We’ve already taken a long look at the biggest supermodels from the 1940s to the 1980s. Now it’s time to discover the supermodels who defined the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. From the Big Five – one of whom famously refused to get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day – to today’s current crop of Insta-famous models whose origins lie in reality TV, we’re dishing up the most inspirational models of the past three decades. Who will dominate the 2020s? That remains to be seen.


The 1990s were when modeling broke open, becoming a worldwide cultural obsession that hijacked nearly every advertising surface on the planet. Models were no longer merely living hangers, but titans of industry – they were hosting their own TV shows, designing their own lines of clothing, and even making an impact behind the lens.

The concept of modeling “tribes” didn’t really exist prior to the 90s, when Gianni Versace’s keen eye for talent landed on the Big Five – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Claudia Schiffer – whom he tapped for his Versace Freedom ‘99 runway show. Evangelista later made a big splash by declaring to the press, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day,” proving that personality was a big part of putting the ‘super’ in supermodels. The Big Five later became the Big Six with the addition of waifish anti-model Kate Moss. Meanwhile, Campbell, Turlington, and Evangelista formed a “trinity” of the most popular cover models in history.

Outside of the Big Six, Elle MacPherson – otherwise known as “The Body” – dominated the swimwear category as the biggest Sports Illustrated cover model of the 90s. While several of the decade’s most prominent models have managed to hold on to modeling careers today, it is Tyra Banks who has managed to maintain relevance for decades due to her pivot towards television and film.


In the 2000s, the Brazilians took over the modeling industry. This decade is synonymous with Gisele, but other Brazilian bombshells like Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio also vied for top casting on the runway, at Victoria’s Secret, and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. Save for Gisele, who recently announced her retirement from modeling, Lima and Ambrosio are still regular features of the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

Quirky Coco Rocha also established herself as one of the most iconic supermodels of the 2000s with her frequent appearances on high-fashion runways and her penchant for acting out parts of the designer’s staged fashion fantasy – as in the case of Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fall/Winter 2007 show, during which she danced down the runway performing a native Irish jig.

As one of the top supermodels of the 2000s, Chanel Iman is best known as a Victoria’s Secret model, but she is also no stranger to high-end luxury campaigns and high-fashion catwalk shows. In 2015, she appeared opposite A$AP Rocky in the indie hit Dope.


The 2010s were the era of the Insta-famous; “It” girls – carved from frequent appearances on their family’s reality TV shows – transitioned into careers in modeling. The most popular and highest-paid models in the world right now are Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Bella Hadid – all of whom have emerged from cameos on Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives of Orange County, respectively.

These three have used their individual social media presence to form lucrative advertising partnerships, collaborate with major fashion houses on collections, and parlay their power into money-making posts. Joining their ranks is Kaia Gerber, the genetically blessed offspring of Cindy Crawford, who is the spitting image of her supermodel mother. Gerber has already risen to prominence thanks to the assistance of Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and other family friends who saw potential in the young model early on. She has since become a fixture of the runway, and has landed multiple magazine covers and major campaigns.

Of the most popular models of the decade, Joan Smalls remains something of an outlier, having followed a more traditional path to fame. She did not have a glamorous and recognizable family name to accompany her rise to stardom. However, Smalls (who moved to New York to become a model and quickly signed to Elite Model Management) has put in hard work to become the eighth highest-paid model in the world according to Forbes magazine. She is also an Estée Lauder beauty ambassador and a familiar face on the biggest runways and in the most important campaigns in the fashion industry.

Karlie Kloss is another famous face who came from humble origins, having grown up in St. Louis, Missouri. She entered the fashion world at the age of 14 in 2006, but her career didn’t coalesce into supermodel-dom until the 2010s. Since her meteoric rise, Kloss has been the face of dozens of major brands from Coach and Lanvin to Lacoste and Donna Karan. She is now the new host of Project Runway, replacing Heidi Klum. Kloss is one of the brainier supermodels and has used her intelligence to launch a computer-coding scholarship for young women – so much more than just a pretty face.

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