Can we talk about the first supermodels real quick? I mean, the supermodels of the ’80s. I know what you’re thinking: But “supermodel” = the ’90s, right?? Well, no. Before Tyra, Cindy, Kate, and their fellow one-name wonders literally took over the fashion world, there were the ’80s girls: Janice, Ines, Jerry, and more. (A few of these pioneers like Linda, Naomi, and Christy went on to become the torchbearers of that new generation.) This early class of models paved the way for the cultural phenomenon that became the jet setting, magazine covering, runway walking, multi-hyphenate supermodel. So let’s pay homage, shall we?
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Ines De La Fressange
Ines De La Fressange was the ubiquitous French model of the 1980s. She became Karl Lagerfeld’s muse due to her striking resemblance to Coco Chanel, and in 1983, Ines catapulted to fame when she signed an exclusivity contract with Chanel, the first model to have such an agreement with one fashion house.
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Texan model Jerry Hall splashed onto the scene in the late-’70s after being discovered by an agent on a beach in France. She appeared on over 40 magazine covers by the time she was 21, and famously dated Mick Jagger from 1977-1999 (they were married from 1990-1999 and had four children together).
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Gia Carangi is often remembered today for her troubled life and tragic death, but before that, she was considered the world’s first “super” model—she was in international demand and was paid higher than any of her contemporaries. She was also the first openly LGBTQ+ model, identifying as lesbian. Her career came to a halt in the mid-’80s due to drug addiction and complications from HIV/AIDS, which eventually led to her death in 1986 at age 26. Her life was made into a movie, Gia, starring Angelia Jolie.
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In 1980, Brooke Shields graduated from child star to bonafide supermodel. At just 14 years old, she became the youngest model to ever grace the cover of Vogue. Later that same year, she appeared in a controversial ad campaign for Calvin Klein jeans.
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Long before she was the Simon Cowell of America’s Next Top Model, Janice Dickinson was the self-proclaimed “first supermodel” (she wasn’t, but go off!). She didn’t achieve the instant success that many of her contemporaries did—the late-70s, when she was starting out, were all about blonde hair and blue eyes. Instead she was met with criticism for her dark features and “exotic look” (she was told by Eileen Ford that she was “much too ethnic” and “would never work.” Yikes.) She promptly left the U.S. for France and found success in the European circuit, where she went on to work with top designers such as Valentino Garavani, Azzedine Alaïa and Oscar de la Renta. The magazine covers and ad campaigns followed.
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Beverly Johnson made history as the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue (the August 1974 issue). She exploded onto the fashion scene immediately, and her career was thriving throughout the late-’70s and ’80s. Oh, and she went on to appear on over 500(!!) additional magazine covers.
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Linda Evangelista—one of the most famous models of all time and supermodel queen of the 90s, JSYK—got her start in the ’80s after being discovered in pageants. She was known as the “chameleon of fashion,” because she could sport any look and changed her haircut and color often (before there was “the Rachel” there was “the Linda,” her iconic 1988 pixie cut by hairstylist Julien d’Ys). She was a muse to photographers and designers across the industry, the likes of Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld. Over the course of her decades-long career, she appeared on over 700 magazine covers. She is famously (er, infamously) quoted saying that she and her fellow heyday supermodels “don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”
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Iman was a student at the University of Nairobi when she was discovered by photographer Peter Beard in 1975. She booked her first assignment for Vogue a year later, and her modeling career took off. She is credited with broadening the definition of beauty due to her international recognition and work with innumerable designers, often as their muse. In 1994 she traded the title supermodel for CEO with the launch of IMAN Cosmetics, a line for women of color at a time when they were virtually ignored by the beauty industry.
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Elle Macpherson pursued modeling to save cash for law books at Sydney University, but changed course when she found instant success as Australia’s girl next door. She is best-known for her (record!) five appearances on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. That earned her the nickname “The Body,” coined by Time in 1989.
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Christie Brinkley is a self-described “surfer girl from California” who “never looked like a model.” Well, the industry seemed to disagree. After being discovered by American photographer Errol Sawyer in Paris (at the post office!), he introduced her to power-players at the world’s biggest modeling agencies. A few years later she signed a record 25-year contract as the face of CoverGirl, one of the longest modeling contracts in history. She famously covered the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for three consecutive years (1979, 1980 and 1981). Christie went on to pursue many ventures including acting and entrepreneurship—here, she’s pictured introducing her very own clothing line at Macy’s in 1985.
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Like many other early models, Naomi Campbell was discovered by a scout on the street in London. Her career quickly skyrocketed , and just before her 16th birthday, she appeared on the cover of British Elle. She soon began to appear on the runways of powerhouse designers such as Azzedine Alaïa and Isaac Mizrahi. In 1988, she became the first Black model featured on the cover of French Vogue. The following year, she appeared on the cover of American Vogue, which marked the first time a Black model graced the cover of the September issue. By the late ’80s, Naomi, with Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, formed a trio known as the “Trinity.” They were the most recognizable and in-demand models of their time. The rest (aka, their world-domination in the ’90s) is history.
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Stephanie Seymour was the original Victoria’s Secret Angel—long before the Angels were even a thing. She was the primary lingerie and hosiery model for the brand, and went on to appear in multiple editions of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Vogue, and Playboy.
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Monkia Schnarre made headlines in 1986 when she won Ford Models’ “Supermodel of the World” contest—she was the youngest model to ever win. She appeared on the cover of American Vogue at 14 years old and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue at 15 years old. In 1989 (aka when she was 18), she reflected on her modeling experiences in her memoir, Monika: Between You and Me.
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Tatjana Patitz splashed onto the scene in 1983 at the age of 17. She placed third in Elite Models’ “Look of the Year” contest and won a contract with the agency. She landed her first major cover with British Vogue in October 1985. That year, she began to work with photographer Peter Lindbergh, and the two formed a collaborative relationship, earning her a regular spot in his work (and supermodel status ofc!).
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Katoucha Niane was a Guinean-born French model. She wrote and worked under the single name, Katoucha. She arrived in Paris with her family in the early ’80s and soon began modeling for Thierry Mugler and Christian Lacroix. She was known as one of the first African top models in Paris and became a longtime collaborator and muse of Yves Saint Laurent. In 2005, she was the host of France’s Next Top Model.
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Like Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington is synonymous with the 90s, but spent much of the ’80s building her career. She was discovered while horseback riding at only 14 years old in 1983. She landed her first Vogue cover by July 1986 and became the face of Calvin Klein fragrance in 1988, cementing her place in the fashion scene.
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Helena Christensen competed for her place on fashion’s runways. She won the Miss Universe Denmark crown in 1986 at the age of 17, and subsequently represented Denmark in the Miss Universe 1986 pageant. Then, in 1987, she participated in the Elite Look of the Year competition, where she was a finalist. Helena left home soon after to pursue modeling in Paris and was an instant success. In 1999, Helena pivoted, and was the co-founder and first creative director of Nylon magazine.
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Paulina Porizkova refers to herself as an “accidental” supermodel —her career began after a chance encounter with a model scout on the street in Sweden. She began working the catwalks in Paris in the early-80s, and achieved supermodel status when she became the second model (after Brinkley) to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue two consecutive years (1984 and 1985). In 1988 Porizkova won a $6,000,000 contract with Estée Lauder, the highest-paying modeling contract at the time.
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Cristina Córdula first appeared in Brazilian advertisements before gaining recognition as a fashion model. (She began traveling for fashion shows when she was just 16 years old!) During a fashion show in Milan, a hairstylist friend recommended that she cut her hair. With her new haircut, her modeling career *went off*. She became a fixture with all of France’s most prestigious houses, such as Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Dior.
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Marpessa Hennink is best-known for her work with designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. She walked for the duo’s first-ever fashion show in 1985, and two years later, she was chosen by Dolce & Gabbana to star in their first advertising campaign for their Fall/Winter collection. The campaign was a huge success, and garnered Marpessa international recognition. She went on to walk almost every major runway and star in numerous campaigns. Like many of her contemporaries, she too had a nickname: “the Catwalk Contessa.” Fancy!
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