The best models of all time (…and what makes a supermodel super?)

Cindy! Linda! Naomi! Here's Marie Claire's ultimate edit of the best, most fabulous, most iconic models of all time...

90s supermodel reunion
90s supermodel reunion
(Image credit: Rex)

Cindy’s in a major Omega campaign, Naomi’s back on the catwalk and Donatella broke the internet with her reunion of the ‘famous five’ for the Versace SS18 show. As the original supers stalk back into the spotlight, here's our edit of the best models of all time.

Introduction by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

If you were old enough to reach a newsagent counter in 1990, you’ll remember that cover: Naomi, Linda, Tatjana, Christy and Cindy, high-glam action figures clustered together, gazing at us on the front of January Vogue. Even those of us who fancied ourselves too lofty for supermodel daydreams were entranced by Peter Lindbergh’s black and white photo, elevated from the realm of fashion and approaching something closer to cinema. It was the image that kicked off the era of supermodel mania. If you weren’t old enough the first time round, you’ll definitely remember a certain Instagram-breaking moment last September – a similarly Amazonian line-up of Cindy, Claudia, Naomi, Carla and Helena, reunited on the Versace SS18 catwalk. The ‘supermodel’ has come full circle – quite literally in the case of these returning stars, whose stock has never been higher than now.

The original gang, a bit like the Spice Girls, had someone for everyone. Naomi Campbell: assertive, playful yet exquisite, the obvious icon not only for young black women, but for those who coveted her haughty ‘I’m worth it’ chutzpah. Linda Evangelista: chameleon-like with her ever-changing hair colour, yet always unmistakable, and admired for the gumption of saying she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. Christy Turlington, with her calm doe-eyed gaze and impossibly perfect features that looked carved from soapstone. Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz, the smiling, can-do faces of athletic vigour on each side of the pond. That cover was shot more than a quarter of a century ago, yet ask most people to name a supermodel, and chances are at least one member of this quintet will roll instantly off the tongue.

Not that they were the first to be termed ‘supermodels’. The word has been bandied about since 1891, when painter Henry Stacy Marks rhapsodised about a certain variety of sitter: ‘The “super” model… goes in for theatrical effect; always has an expression of “Ha! Ha! More blood…”’ With each person dubbed a ‘supermodel’ over the 75 years it took for the term to take hold, the profession took form. To be a supermodel is to be an entity larger than that of fashion plate: Lisa Fonssagrives, a Swede widely considered to be the very first of the type, is perhaps known as such because she leveraged her modelling streak of the 40s into a fashion-design career. You also need to be instantly recognisable, to have a Cindy Crawford-mole USP, if you will: when Dorian Leigh – another candidate for the world’s first supermodel – met legendary editor Diana Vreeland, Mrs V told her, ‘Do not – do not do anything to those eyebrows!’ Perhaps it’s about celebrity (Twiggy prompted The New York Times’ first use of the word, in 1968), or an unshakeable self-belief (Janice Dickinson claimed she coined the term in 1979, which is patently untrue).

If the 1990 quintet were the first graduating class of modern supermodels, Kate Moss was its first rogue scholar. She seized the public eye in a singular fashion: she was unhealthily skinny, the story went, and then there was that whole ‘heroin chic’ thing. Plus, she didn’t care, or at least she didn’t look like she did. That deadpan expression, that flatness echoed by the broad planes of her face – teenage girls who couldn’t disguise that they cared desperately about boys, good grades and being liked were probably infuriated by her insouciance, consoling themselves by silently thinking, ‘She isn’t even that pretty.’

It’s this, I now see, that made her a supermodel. Kate Moss is no gargoyle; she doesn’t even qualify as jolie laide. But her face was the next logical step from the template that her supermodel elders had etched. Evangelista et al were jaw-droppingly beautiful, none of them dabbled in plebeian prettiness. Kate, with her much-mentioned (in model terms) shortness, ‘bandy’ legs and gappy smile, had the same magnetism and uniqueness they all share. Mere beauty isn’t what set them apart. To earn the ‘super’ prefix, a model doesn’t have to be the most beautiful model nor does she have to be the most commercially successful. She has to have that ineffable quality known as ‘It’, even as her It-ness is conferred upon a supermodel largely after her christening. She has to be comfortable with that, inhabit it and use it to her advantage. ‘There was nothing like these girls,’ says Sasha Charnin Morrison, who witnessed the rise of the supermodel during her 30-plus years in fashion publishing, including stints as fashion director at Harper’s Bazaar, Allure and Us Weekly. ‘When they said things like, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day,” that made complete sense. They were worth every penny.’

And they were, for a while. The predecessor to the model was the mannequin; models were referred to as ‘live mannequins’ before we settled upon our current term. A model’s job is to wear clothes, to be dressed, styled and passively done unto. The supermodels turned this on its head – the essence of feminism is the ability to have a choice, and these women were the ones doing the choosing. They were in control of their bodies, careers and the clothes they agreed to wear – and they sold them. It is less about possessing beauty and more about possessing a ‘look’– one that can shift depending on circumstance and styling, of course. A model asks that you look at her as a part of the whole – the fashion, the make-up, the hair, the mise-en-scène. A supermodel asks no such thing; she demands, and in doing so makes it clear that it is her essence that should remain indelible in your mind.

Which was, of course, their downfall. By 1998, Time had declared the death of the supermodel, with good reason. Moss walked for Alexander McQueen in spring 1997; a year and a half later, his showstopping Joan of Arc show featured relative nobodies. Designers wanted their creations to take centre stage, and magazine covers used actresses when they wanted recognition, and lesser-known models when they wanted the face of ‘relatability’ – the idea being that readers better project their own identity on to a blank canvas, unaccompanied by the overwhelming individuality of a Cindy or a Naomi.

Today’s supermodels may not have inherited their predecessors’ iconic status as models, but their DNA carries other imprints: business acumen (Cindy founded an empire on fitness videos before YouTube was a twinkle in Steve Chen’s eye), brand relationships, distinct yet pliant identities. While the originals were made into stars by endless press coverage, social media has allowed Gigi, Bella and Kendall to create stars of themselves. They aren’t at the mercy of the press for their image; they create their own personae, controlling what to reveal and what to conceal. With this ability to generate mystery, the new supermodel has mastered the catch-22 of It-ness, along with the business savvy that goes with the title. What remains to be seen is whether they will develop the quality that sees a quorum of the Vogue five working into their 50s – the ability to compel. When you look at Naomi Campbell lounging on a bed, gazing into the camera with a languid tease, you see light. Perhaps you envy her, but your deeper envy belongs to the photographer, able to watch her transcendence from behind the safety of the lens. You can’t tear your eyes away.

Scroll down for our best models ever hall of fame...

1. Suzy Parker

(Image credit: REX/Shutterstock)

Era: Late 1940s - early 1960s From: New York Her look: Freckly and flame-haired with an hourglass figure USP: A favourite muse of photographer Richard Avedon, her sister Dorian was a famous model, dubbed the 'world's first supermodel'. That was before the world met Suzy. She went on to eclipse her sis, becoming the first model to earn $100,000 per year and the only one to have an (unreleased) Beatles song named after her

2. Twiggy (AKA Lesley Hornby)

(Image credit: REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1960s From: Neasden, North-West London Her look: Bambi - after a few weeks of no dinner. Big eyes, spidery lashes and a skinny twig-like frame (hence the nickname). USP: Invented the Swinging Sixties - with a little help from the Beatles, Carnaby Street, et al. Discovered at 16 when she had her hair chopped off in hairdresser Leonard's West End salon - a fashion journalist saw the pictures, and the rest is history.

3. Veruschka

(Image credit: Alinari/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1960s From: Kaliningrad, Russia. Her look: A lionine mane of blonde hair and the kind of versatile face that could take any look - fake 'eyes' on her eyelids, being covered in gold leaf... You name it, she pulled it off USP: Her blue blood and fascinating family. Real name: Vera Gottliebe Anna Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinort. Her mother was a Prussian countess and her father was a German count who was an active member of the Resistance - he was eventually executed for an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.

4. Penelope Tree

(Image credit: Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1960s From: UK Her look: Saucer eyes, spiky lashes and poker-straight hair. 'An Egyptian Jimminy Cricket' according to her then-boyfriend, cheeky chappie photographer David Bailey. USP: Super-connected socialite roots - brought up in the US, her mother was an American socialite descended from famous social activist Endicott Peabody. Her British MP dad threatened to sue if her first-ever photos (by legendary photographer Diane Arbus) were published.

5. Jean Shrimpton (AKA 'The Shrimp')

(Image credit: REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1960s From: High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire Her look: Delicate, snub-nosed perfection USP: Yet another David Bailey conquest, she started her affair with him when he was still married to his first wife, who he divorced to be with Shrimpton. Described as having 'the world's most beautiful face', everything she wore (even barely visible in a beauty campaign) was always a sell-out

6. Pat Cleveland

(Image credit: Evening Standar/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1960s-Present From: New York Her look: European-style beauty with a free-flowing mane of black hair USP: One of the most famous black models to break through fashion's exclusionary policies of the 60s, she was named ‘the all-time superstar model’ by former US Vogue editor, André Leon Talley. Modelling for designers from Valentino to Yves Saint Laurent, it was on the runway where she really established her fame, bringing her own theatrical style. She moved to Paris in 1970, refusing to return to the US until 1974, the year Vogue first featured a black model on their cover.

7. Lauren Hutton

(Image credit: GLOBE/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1970s-present. Yup, she's still going, modelling for The Row, Club Monaco and jewellery brand Alexis Bittar in recent years From: Charleston, South Carolina Her look: Two words: gap teeth. After trying to disguise the gap with mortician's wax, she eventually refused to have them 'fixed', heralding a new era of healthy body image and natural imagery in modelling USP: The first model to score a big-bucks beauty contract, negotiating $400,000 to be the 'face' of Revlon in 1973. Appeared on the cover of Vogue a record 41 times. Not forgetting her eight-page nude magazine photoshoot - at the age of 61. 8. Beverly Johnson

Era: 1970s

From: Buffalo, New York

Her look: Chisel-jawed glamour

USP: Credited with forcing fashion to take black women seriously, she was the first African-American model to appear on the cover of US Vogue in 1974 and ditto French Elle in 1975. Also an actress, she's appeared in everything from Law & Order to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch in recent years

9. Christie Brinkley

(Image credit: REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1970s and 1980s From: Michigan, USA Her look: Cookie-cutter California Girl personified (she was brought up in LA) - toned and tanned with a perma-grin USP: She had the longest-running beauty contract of any model, ever - 25 years as the face of Cover Girl. Along with 500 magazine covers, including 3 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimwear issue covers - quite the coup in the 1980s. Also: a spell as Mrs Billy Joel.

10. Cindy Crawford

(Image credit: Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s and 1990s From: Illinois, USA Her look: Big hair, strong brows, athletic body. Hang on, have we forgotten something? Oh yes. The most famous mole OF ALL TIME. USP: Brains and business acumen. She nearly ended up as a chemical engineer and invented the celebrity workout video with her famous 'Cindy Crawford: Shape Your Body' exercise series, raking in a fortune in the process.

11. Claudia Schiffer

(Image credit: Ken Towner/ANL/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s and 1990s From: Rheinberg, Germany Her look: Teutonic Brigitte Bardot USP: Holds the world record for most amount of magazine covers, as listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Was hand-selected by Karl Lagerfeld for his Chanel campaigns and remained one of his favourites for years. But what can top being 'guillotined' by permatanned magician David Copperfield (her fiance from 1994-1999) live on stage?

12. Helena Christensen

(Image credit: Steve Wood/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s-present From: Copenhagen, Denmark Her look: Enigmatic and olive-skinned, thanks to her mixed Danish/Peruvian heritage USP: Former Miss Universe Denmark with serious creative skills. She wanted to be a musician and has run her own fashion boutiques (including Butik in New York) and clothing lines. A successful photographer, she was the launch creative director of Nylon magazine, and has held exhibitions of her work

13. Linda Evangelista

(Image credit: Ken Towner/ANL/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s-present From: Ontario, Canada Her look: Hawk-nosed chameleon, with ever-changing hair. Long before 'The Rachel', it was all about 'The Linda' - her 1989 gamine crop that became famous the world over, inspiring wigs and other celebrities (hello, Demi Moore in Ghost). USP: The feisty models' model. It was she who uttered the infamous phrase, 'We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day,' referring to her and her fellow supermodel gang. She's credited with setting a new benchmark for models' fees and caused controversy by reportedly earning sky-high sums for walking in catwalk shows for the big houses.

14. Kristen McMenamy

(Image credit: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s-presentFrom: Pennsylvania, USAHer look: Other-worldly androgynous. Legendary model agent Eileen Ford advised her to have cosmetic surgery - luckily, she pressed on with her unique lookUSP: Ushered in the era of grunge in 1992. Some might say she actually started it, by chopping her long red hair off and letting Francois Nars shave her eyebrows for an Anna Sui catwalk show. Cue international recognition and a starring role in fashion shoots with titles like 'Grunge & Glory.' Combined with her theatrical poses and runway 'walk', she's still your go-to girl for high-fashion drama. 15. Christy Turlington

(Image credit: Paul Massey/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s-present From: California (her mother is from El Salvador), USA Her look: Doe-eyed serenity - the embodiment of Calvin Klein's fragrance Eternity, one of her most famous campaigns. USP: The Zen One. Having launched her own Ayurvedic skincare line and yoga range, she's now a prominent campaigner for maternal health in the developing world. She studied for a masters' degree in public health and launched Every Mother Counts, a non-profit organisation that supports maternal health programmes in countries including Malawi, Uganda, and Indonesia, as well as directing a 2010 documentary on the subject, No Woman, No Cry

16. Elle Macpherson

Era: 1980s-present

From: Sydney, Australia

Her Look: Athletic girl-next-door with surfboard abs

USP: She's graced the cover of a record five Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issues, earning herself the nickname 'The Body'. She had a 'Body'-off with Heidi Klum after Klum referred to herself using the same nickname in an advertisement for a Victoria's Secret bra. Savvy businesswoman to boot, she's made millions with her lingerie line Elle Macpherson Intimates and was also head judge of Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model for three years from 2010.

17. Naomi Campbell

(Image credit: Ken Towner/ANL/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s-present From: Streatham, South London Her look: Perfectly symmetrical with pillowy pout and serious (some might say ferocious) attitude. USP: Where shall we start? The good: The first black model to appear on the cover of US Vogue's key September issue (in 1989) Forced the fashion industry to up their bookings of black girls (her pal Yves Saint Laurent threatened to pull his advertising if they didn't) Starred in a Bob Marley music video at age 7 Took fashion's most famous tumble on a pair of Vivienne Westwood mega-platforms Was called 'honorary granddaughter' by Nelson Mandela Has worked non-stop for charity - including raising £4.5 million (and counting) for disaster relief through her own Fashion For Relief foundation The bad: Um. Convincted of assault four times and accused of various forms of assault or abuse by no less than 9 employees and associates Was forced to appear in a 2010 war crimes trial against former Liberian president Charles Taylor after apparently receiving a 'blood diamond' from him. She denied any knowledge.18. Kate Moss

(Image credit: CHARLES SYKES/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1980s-present From: Croydon, South London Her look: The Game-Changer: 'short' (5'7"), slightly bow-legged, gap-toothed, freckly... The anti-glamazon. USP: The ultimate muse. She rarely speaks, but that's OK because all other significant cultural voices do it for her. An 18-carat statue of her worth £1.5m created in 2008 for the British Museum was the largest gold statue created since Ancient Egyptian times, a painting of her by Lucian Freud was sold for £3.9 million in 2005, and she's inspired every fashion photographer from Corinne Day to Mario Testino. Not to mention musicians, including her exes Pete Doherty and Jamie Hince. We won't start on her actual style. If it wasn't for her, would 'Get The Look' fashion pages even exist?19. Gisele Bundchen

(Image credit: Startraks Photo/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1990s-present From: Southern Brazil. Her look: Brazilian bombshell who brought the sexy back. Sunkissed hair, sunkissed limbs, and a special Zoolander-tastic stride known as the 'horse walk' - knees up, feet kicking out in front. USP: She's been the highest-paid model in the world every year since 2004. She wore the most expensive lingerie ever created in the 2000 Victoria's Secret show (the 'Red Hot Fantasy Bra' worth $15 million) and she's chalked up over 350 ad campaigns and 1,200 magazine covers.

20. Natalia Vodianova

(Image credit: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1990s-present From: Gorky, Soviet Union (now Russia) Her look: Dreamy innocent with piercing blue eyes USP: Rags to riches tale following a heartbreaking early start - born into extreme poverty and with a disabled half-sister, she sold fruit on the street as a child to help family finances, before ending up as Viscountess Portman after marrying English property heir Justin Portman. Now goes out with equally illustrious Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault, and is a mother of four. Yes, four. And she can still shimmy into an Italian sample-size catwalk look 21. Erin O'Connor

(Image credit: Evening Standar/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1990s-present From: West Midlands Her look: Unconventional, angular and aristocratic USP: The favourite muse of fashion's great creatives, including Alexander McQueen (where she played a madwoman trapped in a glass cage for one of his early shows, Lunatic Asylum), John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier, who 'discovered' her. One of the few living people to appear on a Royal Mail postage stamp, part of a specially-commissioned set shot by photographer Nick Knight.

22. Alek Wek

(Image credit: Wood/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 1995-Present From: Wau, South Sudan Her look: Strong, unique and exotic USP: Dark-skinned models were almost unheard of in the high fashion industry before Wek came along. After being scouted by Models 1 age 14 she became a huge influence on changing beauty ideals and went on to grace the covers of Elle, i-D, Glamour and Cosmopolitan, as well as appearing in editorials for Vogue. She fled her native Sudan in 1991 to escape the civil war and now devotes time to work with UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and World Vision.

23. Agyness Deyn

(Image credit: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 2000s From: Greater Manchester Her look: Punky bleached crop and down-to-earth, non-model 'walk'. USP: Best mates with teenage pal Henry Holland, it's fair to say she helped launch his career while he helped launched hers. Her first job was in a chip shop in Rossendale. Now a bona fide serious actress, starring in West End play The Leisure Society and films including Electricity (2013) and Patient Zero (2015)

24. Jessica Stam

(Image credit: Charles Sykes/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 2000s-present From: Ontario, Canada Her look: Elfin porcelain-doll pretty, with feline eyes USP: She inspired one of the original It bags, the Marc Jacobs 'Stam' - a quilted, ladylike frame bag - in 2005. Demand was so high, waiting lists had to be closed. A glammer claim to fame than being the world's most beautiful dentist - her original career plan. 25. Mariacarla Boscono

(Image credit: WWD/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 2000s From: Rome (with a well-travelled childhood featuring spells in Florida, Italy and Kenya) Her look: Black-haired, pale-skinned Sicilian-widow glamour USP: Has appeared in the Pirelli calendar 3 times. She's earned a place in fashion history as long-running muse to Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci - she's basically the human embodiment of his dark, Latin-infused aesthetic.

26. Daria Werbowy

(Image credit: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 2000s From: Krakow, Poland (she grew up in Canada) Her look: Tawny, leggy, panther-like grace USP: A true fashion models' model, she holds the all-time record for opening and closing the most shows in a single season. Her long, lithe limbs and cool, natural beauty have been seen in everything from Balmain (the image of her in then-designer Christophe Decarnin's 2010 collection with its ripped khaki vests, sharp-shouldered military jackets and skinny leather jeans sparked a thousand copycats) to Vogue Paris shoots galore.

27. Liu Wen

Era: 2000s From: Hunan, China

Her look: Delicate features topped off with sweet dimples

USP: Dubbed 'the first Chinese supermodel' by reductionists everywhere, it can't be denied that she's done a lot to bridge the gap between East and West as far as fashion's concerned. The first East-Asian model to star in the Victoria's Secret show, the first East-Asian spokesmodel for Estée Lauder and the first Asian model to make Forbes magazine's annual highest-paid model ranking. Also riveting: she claims she's never had a boyfriend. 28. Cara Delevingne

(Image credit: Jim Smeal/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock)

Era: 2010s From: West London Her look: Angel face with beetle brows USP: Aristo with attitude. Impressive array of comedy facial expressions (tongue-out selfie, anyone?) and 'don't give a ****' approach. Her family's posher than a princess (relatives include a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, baronets and viscounts aplenty and two Lord Mayors of London) but she's not shy about her undercut or indeed about being bisexual, currently dating female singer St Vincent.29. Edie Campbell

(Image credit: Startraks Photo/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 2010s From: Westbourne Grove, West London Her look: Unique combo of haughty and kooky - sullen stare, fine features and punky crop USP: A talented jockey, she won the first-ever ladies charity race, The Magnolia Cup, at Goodwood in 2011. No wonder Burberry have snapped her up to convey classy Brit cool personified in ad campaigns galore. 30. Jourdan Dunn

(Image credit: Startraks Photo/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 2000s-present From: Greenford, West London Her look: Razor-sharp cheekbones and a sultry, sleepy gaze USP: In 2008, she was (sadly) the first black model to walk in a Prada show for over a decade. Now a poster girl for diversity in modelling, causing controversy when she posted on social media that she'd been rejected from a Dior couture show for her boobs and not her skin colour, which she said is what 'usually happens'. Also a role model for young single mums everywhere - she had her son, Riley, at 19, and has spoken about his battle with sickle-cell anaemia.

31. Kendall Jenner

(Image credit: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock)

Era: 2010s-present From: LA Her look: High-fashion version of the Kardashian LookTM USP: When you book Kendall, you book access to 35 MILLION devoted social media followers. Yup, she was definitely paying attention when Kris 'n' Kim were working out the global domination master plan. Google have named her as the second most-searched-for model in the world, and Adweek claimed she generates $236,000 for a single Tweet. The Instagirl generation has arrived.

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