What makes a supermodel 'super' in 2019?

Updated 5th September 2019
What makes a supermodel 'super' in 2019?
Written by Emily Dixon, CNN
Say you're asked to name a supermodel. You probably wouldn't struggle to list Naomi Campbell or Linda Evangelista, or more recent inheritors of the title like Kendall Jenner, Adut Akech or Gigi and Bella Hadid. But now, imagine you're asked to define what makes Campbell and the Hadids "super," and others who walk the exact same runways just "models." Is it fame, or the fees they might command, or something more intangible?
The term has a tendency to provoke controversy: See the debate over the past few years over whether Jenner and the Hadids should rightfully be considered supermodels, given the origins of their fame in social media and reality television (for Jenner, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians"; for the Hadids, "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills".) Model and actress Rebecca Romijn reportedly said Jenner and Gigi Hadid weren't "true supermodels," while Stephanie Seymour, one of the first wave of supers, said she'd prefer to call them "b******* of the moment."
In a new CNN Style video on what really makes a supermodel, Vogue Runway director Nicole Phelps says Jenner and both Hadids have more than earned the title. The term originated, according to Phelps, "as models started getting big, lucrative beauty contracts, in the millions of dollars."
Naomi Campbell is one of the original supermodels, alongside Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and Linda Evangelista.
Naomi Campbell is one of the original supermodels, alongside Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, and Linda Evangelista. Credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images,
"But the word 'supermodel,' I think, really crystallized for all of us when Linda Evangelista in the early '90s said 'We don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day,'" she continues. "To be a supermodel you really have to be in the elite group of models who are commanding those million dollar contracts." Phelps cites models like Campbell, Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford as the original supers, with Kate Moss, Gisele Bundchen, Natalia Vodianova and Karlie Kloss making up subsequent waves.
Then came Jenner and the Hadids. "These are an interesting new case in terms of supermodels, because they came up through television and through reality TV, so they're sort of a new breed of supermodel," Phelps says.
But the biggest defining factor for a 2019 supermodel isn't their IMDb page -- it's their social media. "The models who have these massive followings are the supermodels of today," Phelps explains. "If Kendall decides to post an image from a campaign, suddenly 100 million people are gonna see that picture. You can see how models like that can command much bigger salaries."
Supermodel Coco Rocha, who was cultivating her enormous online following when Jenner and the Hadids were still in high school, credits social media with the return of the super. The difference between the pre-and post-digital supermodels (Rocha is definitely a post, with 1.3 million followers on Instagram alone), is that the latter have no air of mystique. "Nowadays, you know where they eat, you know where they shop, you know who they're dating, whereas before you knew nothing," Rocha says.
Sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid are two of the social media generation's most famous supermodels.
Sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid are two of the social media generation's most famous supermodels. Credit: Victor Virgile/Getty Images
While today's models might have surrendered mystery, they've certainly gained influence. "I think the biggest thing [social media has] done for me and many models is, we have been given a voice," Rocha says. She runs her own training course for aspiring models, the Coco Rocha Model Camp, where attendees expect to "learn about posing and runway as anyone would assume," she says. While they're certainly on the curriculum, according to Rocha, "the majority of the classes is learning about social media and what that has to offer for us."
It's an approach to model school that Phelps admires, telling CNN Style, "Thanks to social media, even models who aren't supermodels can build brands and go on to have very successful careers."
Most models, even those who walk for the most prestigious fashion houses, won't ever reach the exalted rank of "supermodel" -- as Phelps explains, there are "hundreds of thousands of models working today." But whether it's Naomi Campbell or Kendall Jenner they idolize, the elusive allure of the first wave or the mass online appeal of the latest, it's safe to assume one thing: "Of course these young models dream of being a supermodel."