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The Super Models review: Apple’s airbrushed time capsule of the ’90s is all talk and no (ramp) walk

A snapshot of the ‘90s captured through a modern lens, Apple’s four-part documentary series The Super Models is presented as a grand reunion of the era’s most iconic women — Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista — but actually plays like an airbrushed account of recent history. At the peak of their fame, these women were a ubiquitous presence across advertising; their influence correctly compared to that of The Beatles. They became cultural icons, role models, and young entrepreneurs. But were they ready for these responsibilities and everything that it entailed?

Not entirely without its nostalgic charms, The Super Models does a fine job of capturing the hustle attitude that defined an entire generation. Each of the four women profiled here — there’s a strong argument to be made against the exclusion of Claudia Schiffer, Stephanie Seymore, and a few others — had very similar beginnings. Looking to make a quick buck in high school, they agreed to take up small-time offers with the support and encouragement of their parents. And their rise to the top was meteoric, as it can often be in a profession where 25 is considered the retirement age.

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But their cultural backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. While the ‘all-American’ Crawford came from a small town in the Midwest, Campbell grew up as the only child of an immigrant single mother in London. A lot of Campbell’s story deals with the racism that she faced not only as a teenager, but also well into her adulthood. She recalls, for instance, that for the longest time, she couldn’t understand why cabs weren’t stopping for her in New York City. She discovered that it was because the drivers assumed that she’d want to go to Black neighbourhoods, and weren’t interested. So, Campbell would get her white colleagues to stick their arms out in traffic and hail taxis on her behalf. It’s an insightful anecdote, but on the other hand, Campbell also agreed to participate in a tone-deaf shoot that was conducted at an old plantation, where she was made to dress up as a slave.

With a shrug and a sigh, the show simply moves on from this. “Ah, the ‘90s,” it seems to be saying, without even attempting to scratch beneath the surface. But Crawford does, in retrospect, call out Oprah’s objectification of her then 20-year-old body on her show. She was accompanied on that episode by John Casablancas, the notorious former head of the Elite modelling agency, whose well-documented misdemeanours are addressed in literally one stray comment and then swiftly brushed under the carpet.

This determination to not ruffle any feathers is a rather disappointing hang-up that the series, directed by Roger Ross Williams and Larissa Bliss, isn’t able shake off. The excess of the ‘90s facilitated a lot of the debauchery that went down during that decade, and simply highlighting it isn’t enough. The show doesn’t, for instance, address the naked capitalism at the centre of the supermodel boom. At some point, these women must’ve realised that in their efforts to sell products, they’d become products themselves, no? But almost as a silent acknowledgement of their past, the show takes an unnecessarily apologetic tone, and dedicates the final episode to their philanthropic efforts, which, frankly, is a tacky thing to advertise. This is the same show that couldn’t devote more than a minute to Evangelista’s abusive former marriage, by the way.

But The Super Models is particularly engaging in the middle two episodes, when it gives us backstage access to some of the most glamorous fashion shows across the globe, along with excellent commentary by the who’s who of high couture. John Galliano pops by, as does Marc Jacobs — both their careers took off after the foursome collectively decided to leverage their influence in championing their talent. We also get insight from Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour, who had a front-row seats to their success. It’s suitably glossy stuff.

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But the single-most moving moments of the show both involve Campbell, who affectionately remembers the late Azzedine Alaïa and Gianni Versace. Alaïa, in particular, played a very important role in her life — she still calls him ‘papa’ — and was her protector in a pool infested by piranha-like men. But as you might have gathered already, there’s a bit of an imbalance in the attention that the series gives to each of its subjects.

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While they’re ostensibly presented as equals — the four episodes aren’t, for instance, separated to spotlight each of them individually — Turlington and Evangelista simply do not get enough of an opportunity to reveal themselves. Or perhaps that was their call; who knows? We never quite understand how Evangelista went from declaring that she wouldn’t ‘get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day’ to going underground for half-a-decade following a botched cosmetic surgery procedure.  There’s a sense that her story has been the most dramatic, and in fairness, she has more than a couple of moments of great vulnerability on camera. But before you can register what she’s saying, the series has dragged you along to the next thing. The Super Models clearly isn’t lacking in access, but you’d imagine that a show about women proudly making strides across ramps and in their careers would have the ability to walk the talk with less timidity.

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The Super ModelsDirectors – Roger Ross Williams, Larissa BlissRating – 2.5/5

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