The Best In The World


TOM FENNELL December 9 1991

The Best In The World


TOM FENNELL December 9 1991

The Best In The World



The giant neon signs blinking over New

York City’s Times Square promote the

titans of world commerce: Coca-Cola,

Sony and Kodak. And on one recent

evening, as the polluted sky darkened

behind the swirls of color, hundreds of

people stopped and gazed up as another huge billboard was unveiled. When the curtains parted, the partially naked body of Linda Evangelista, one of the world’s most beautiful women, appeared. The image of the sultry supermodel dressed only in skintight pants and high heels drew an audible gasp and applause from the crowd below, while Evangelista—the real flesh-andblood version—stood nearby in a blaze of camera lights. For 26-year-old Evangelista, who just seven years ago was a struggling model in St. Catharines, Ont., the image towering behind her was more than just another glamorous high-fashion ad. In many ways, it symbolized her remarkable journey to the very pinnacle of the international fashion industry. Said Rocco Laspata, one of New York’s top fashion photographers: “Linda is incredibly beautiful. Her face is one in a hundred million. She is a phenomenon.”

Evangelista has soared to a level previously attained only by such legendary models as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, who defined fashion and became cult heroes during the 1960s. As the presence of the throng beneath her hot billboard testified, Evangelista has achieved a celebrity status rivalling even the salacious pop star Madonna. In North America and Europe, legions of women slavishly mimic the model's sense of style: earlier this year, when she dyed her hair from blond to red, and then black, they followed. And when she appears on the runway and in advertisements in expensive clothes, designers bank on her appeal to sell their merchandise. The classically beautiful olive-skinned face of the model regularly graces the covers of the world’s leading fashion magazines.

Inside, her image dominates page after page of advertising and editorial copy. And unlike other internationally renowned models who hold the public’s attention by cavorting with notorious rock stars or actors, Evangelista has achieved success by marrying her beautiful face to an almost compulsive need to excel. “I was always obsessed with fashion—with the magazines, the models and the poses,” she said. “Now, Arab princes want to marry me.”

But despite her superstar status, Evangelista has cloaked her personal life in secrecy. Little has been written about her, and the iron control that she exerts over her public image has, for the most part, kept her out of the tabloid gossip pages. But in an exclusive interview with Maclean’s in a noisy bistro in Manhattan’s SoHo district, she described her remarkable journey from aspiring teenage model through her early rejections by major New York fashion houses and, ultimately, to her current reign as one of the world’s top models. Modelling has made her a multimillionaire, and she travels constantly among her assignments and homes in New York and Paris, and her spectacular villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

'Beautiful’: The five-foot, 91/2-inch, 125-lb. model receives hundreds of fan letters every month and is at the top of the guest list when leading fashion designers, including Valentino and Gianni Versace, throw a party. And even though many models find their careers at an end when they reach their early 20s, Evangelista’s may just be taking off. “She is more beautiful than she has ever been,” said Laspata. “She is going to be around for a long time to come. She gets more beautiful all the time.”

Evangelista, who agonizes that time is rapidly destroying her multimillion-dollar face, appears to be battling the onslaught of age by remaining in constant motion. She says that she works more than 300 days a year. Occasionally, she will even work in Paris in the

early morning before flying the supersonic Concorde to an afternoon shoot in New York. The world’s major designers fuel her torturous schedule and grand ambitions because Evangelista has proven time and again that people will buy the clothes that she models. And she proudly boasts that her fashion photographs are being purchased by art collectors in Europe, while leading fashion photographers battle to promote themselves by working with her. Said Lisa Herzog, vice-president of New York-based Elite Modelling Management Corp., the world’s largest modelling agency: “Linda is simply the absolute best. She is like an actress in front of the camera.”

Glamorous: Evangelista’s remarkable rise to the top of the fashion world coincides with the sudden emergence of the world’s top three or four models as glamorous international celebrities in their own right. Toronto-based Flare magazine style director Nancy Jane Hastings, who has covered the fashion industry in Paris, Milan and New York, said that the rise of top models as stars follows the decline of glamor in Hollywood. Said Hastings: “Films just are not what they used to be as a vehicle for glamor and fantasy. But fashion is still firmly rooted in fantasy.” She added: “The star models are also more accessible, because you buy into the fantasy by buying the clothes they are wearing.”

At the same time, members of a tiny club of models that includes Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford are commanding ever increasing salaries, and some are earning more than $1 million annually in the multibillion-dollar fashion industry. And even rapidly rising young models like 20-year-old Yasmeen Ghauri of Montreal can command $5,000 for an afternoon’s work (page 41). While Evangelista is reluctant to discuss her income, Women’s Wear Daily, the respected New Yorkbased trade newspaper, reported that last year, Lanvin, a major European fashion house, paid Evangelista a record $20,000 to model its clothes over an afternoon. The paper also reported that she routinely earns about $6,000 a show. At the same time, Evangelista earns about $750 an hour doing fashion advertisement shoots, but an exclusive arrangement for a series of ads such as those she recently completed for Chanel could easily cost $50,000, and her personal endorsement of a cosmetic or fashion line could top $500,000. “I have become bigger than the product,” said Evangelista. “I never thought it would be like this. I’m amazed.”

Force: Just how powerful a force she has become in the modelling world was underscored in Manhattan in September at Elite’s Look of the Year contest. The pageant is a massive talent hunt to find the world’s most striking teenage models—many of whom were discovered by top model agents like Toronto’s Elmer Olsen (page 42). Included in the crowd in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hotel were New York financier Donald Trump and his thengirlfriend, starlet Marla Maples. British-born supermodel Naomi Campbell, the event’s co-host, drew heated applause when she appeared wearing a seethrough black lace body stocking. And many members of the audience were distracted by controversial musician Axl Rose of the rock group Guns N’ Roses, who was passionately kissing fashion and Playboy magazine model Stephanie Seymour.

But when Evangelista suddenly emerged from a

córner hallway, the room momentarily went silent. Unlike many of the models in attendance, she did not require a scandalous dress or a controversial escort to draw the camera lenses towards her. Instead, she wore a glamorous black Chanel suit that was buttoned to her collarbone. And even though scores of celebrity photographers immediately surrounded her and pushed her back towards a wall, she remained in complete control. The only sign of weakness was a plaintive cry to her husband, 41-year-old Gerald Marie—Elite’s European president—“not to leave me.” Influence: Two weeks later, at a party at the Hudson Theatre near Times Square, Evangelista was again the centre of attention—this time celebrating the incredible financial influence that her image commands. She had just arrived from the unveiling of the Kenar Enterprises Ltd. billboard, which was erected as part of a new advertising campaign for Kenar, a New York-based fashion house. Kenar owner Kenneth Zimmerman said that because Laspata was working with Kenar, and is a close friend of Evangelista’s, the model agreed to work with his firm. “It’s impossible to get her,” said Zimmerman. “She has increased our sales dramatically.” Added Laspata: “It’s been incredible. Even men come into the stores looking at T-shirts—anything with Linda on it.” As the city’s high-fashion set drank champagne and congratulated Zimmerman on his stunning coup, Evangelista made an entrance into the Hudson Theatre that seemed in keeping more with royalty than the fashion industry. Surrounded by bodyguards, she moved in lockstep with almost 30 photographers in tow. Each time she stopped, the enraptured crowd ignored her escort and squeezed tightly around her, as if trying to fathom the mystery of Evangelista’s great beauty. On three occasions, she was forced to retreat to the theatre’s

upper balcony, where she regrouped before descending into the anxious throng again.

Rejection: But Evangelista, dressed in a flowered sundress, sipping lemonade and toying with a tuna salad in the SoHo restaurant, told Maclean ’s that her enormous popularity has been a complete surprise. She found herself in modelling almost by accident and, once there, often met with rejection. She said that when she was 7 and growing up in a big Italian Roman Catholic family in a middle-class area of St. Catharines, her mother, Marisa, enrolled her in dance lessons and, a few years later, a self-improvement course, which included modelling lessons. “I would do a little local fashion show,” said Evangelista. “I got paid $20.” Recalled her mother: “Even when she was 13 years old, I knew she would be good at it. She was always dressing up. When we saw the potential there, her father and I backed her.”

Fate would single out Evangelista again a few years later, when friends persuaded her to enter the Miss Teen Niagara contest. “I didn’t expect to win and I didn’t even place,” said Evangelista. But in the audience that evening was a modelling scout from the nearby Buffalo, N.Y., area. He was just one of hundreds across North America who attend amateur talent and fashion shows in the hope of finding a beautiful young face.

Three years later, the 18-year-old Evangelista completed Grade 12 and started down the path taken by hundreds of aspiring Canadian models. She travelled to New York with her mother—and at her parents’ expense—to be photographed in test shoots organized by Elite. Like scores of other would-be models, she found New York’s highly competitive fashion scene all but impossible to break into, and few photographers there were willing to work with her. Evangelista’s elegant European looks also worked against her in New York, where the industry at the time was paying a premium for perky all-American blondes with pouty lips.

Marisa Evangelista said that she and her husband, Thomas, who works as a tool setter at General Motors of Canada Ltd. in the southern Ontario city, had given their daughter one year to make it in the fashion business or she would have to return to St. Catharines and continue her education. Faced with rejection in New York and her parents’ threat hanging over her, Evangelista left for Paris, where her classic looks were immediately more in demand. Still, she says, her career was hardly exploding. “I thought I was doing good,” she recalled. “I started working, doing mediocre jobs for $650.”

But her luck started to tum in 1985 when an editor of the French edition of Vogue sent her to top fashion photographer Arthur Elgort. Editors at British Vogue saw the pictures and were intrigued enough to use Evangelista. It was then that she started to build her reputation as a versatile, hardworking model—and when she developed the working philosophy that would help propel her to great fashion heights. “The idea is to be good over and over and over,” she said. “Over the past five years,

the photographers I’ve been with are all at the top.”

Evangelista is the first model of her generation— and perhaps the first since British model Jean Shrimpton revolutionized the fashion industry in the early 1960s—to have a dramatic impact on the industry. With her eyes hidden behind outrageously long eyelashes, and dressed in miniskirts and leather boots,

Shrimpton quickly became emblematic of the 1960s “mod” look. And in 1966, a model named Leslie Hornby, an impossibly thin teenager from London with vapid blue eyes, became known around the world as Twiggy. Women everywhere dieted and cropped their hair to match Twiggy’s bobbed blond look.

In the following two decades, other models, including

Cheryl Tiegs and Christie

Brinkley, climbed to prominence and managed to stay in the public eye by developing fashion lines and cosmetics. Others, including Cybill Shepherd and Lauren Hutton, drifted into acting. Many of the current top young models are holding the public’s short attention span by appearing in Playboy magazine

or by linking themselves to other celebrities. Before model Stephanie Seymour took up with Axl Rose, she dated actor Warren Beatty. And supermodel Cindy Crawford has been the constant companion of actor Richard Gere for some time.

Controversial: But it is more than beauty, hard work and a highly developed sense of style that has propelled Evangelista into the spotlight. Like Madonna, who regularly captures attention with her scandalous behavior, Evangelista has kept her image fresh, controversial and—by high-fashion standards—radical by simply cutting and dyeing her hair. She explained that three years ago, Peter Lindbergh, a friend and leading fashion photographer, convinced her to cut her shoulder-length brown hair, which she later dyed blond.

The results were instantaneous—and unexpected. Thousands of women around the world quickly followed suit, and the fashion press treated Evangelista's new haircut the way the Hollywood press treats Madonna’s latest rock video. Said New York makeup artist François Nars, who helped design Evangelista’s new look: “We cut her hair and dyed it and that’s what made her famous. She was the new Twiggy. Everybody wanted that hair.”

With her blond hair sending tremors through the fashion industry, Evangelista decided last June to go back to her natural brown color, but

before doing so she wanted to be a redhead for a while. “I had blond hair for nine months,” she said. “I did everything I wanted as a blonde.” With her hair red, startled fashion houses and magazines rushed to sign her to new and even more lucrative contracts. In Vogués 622-page fall-fashion special alone, Evangelista’s penetrating blue-green eyes flashed not only from the cover, but from more than 30 editorial pages as well. “They went wild because it was so unexpected,” she said. “But in fashion, hemlines get long and people get bored and then the designers bring them up. It’s the same thing with hair.”

Like Madonna, Evangelista has also developed a reputation for being temperamental. In fact, W magazine last year bestowed on Evangelista the dubious honor of listing her in their “bitch” category, which also included former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos. But many of those close to her say that people are confusing her determined and occasionally contentious efforts to control her public image with stubbornness and bitchiness. Said leading New York fashion photographer Garth Aikens: “They all talk about Linda because they envy her success.” Added Nars: “She is very tough but very professional, and she expects you to be 100-per-cent good all the time.”

Evangelista acknowledges that she has a reputation for being tough. But she adds that

she has to be firm because she treats herself as a business that can be destroyed if the product goes downhill. Said Evangelista: “I do my job really well and I never make mistakes, and I expect people to do their jobs as well as I do.” She added: “I’m tough on people, but if they put a bad picture of me out there, people are going to say, ‘Oh, Linda doesn’t look so good.’ I have to watch out for myself.”

For the most part, Evangelista has managed to maintain a scandal-free reputation in an industry that worships sex and glamor. But she said that in April, 1990, when she visited the Roxy, a huge nightclub in lower Manhattan,

she realized just how much she was in the public eye. The Roxy has a giant swing that hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the dance floor. With photographers present, Evangelista climbed aboard, while her close friend, supermodel Christy Turlington, straddled her with her miniskirt hiked well up her thighs. The inevitable photographs of the two appeared in the city’s tabloids the following Monday. Evangelista declined to discuss the incident, saying only: “That was the only time I went out that year. But every time I pick up a paper now, they tell me where I’ve had lunch.” Rumors: Shortly after the swing incident, rumors circulated that Evangelista and Turlington were having a lesbian affair. But Evangelista told Maclean’s that she and Turlington started the rumor themselves because they were amazed by the media’s intense interest in their lives. She added that the rumor spread quickly and that the pair were actually “outed,” a term used to describe the practice of some homosexual-oriented magazines to pub-

lish the names of people whom they believe are homosexuals, but who have not publicly acknowledged it. “We started the rumor,” said Evangelista, “but I’m totally straight.”

Unlike Twiggy or Shrimpton, Evangelista has not attempted to shock the public into paying attention to her. In fact, she says that she has deliberately avoided appearing in such sensational vehicles as Sports Illustrated magazine’s fabulously successful annual swimsuit edition. “I always try to keep the job down to selling a product, not myself,” she said. “I would not do Sports Illustrated—I don’t try to sell my body. A picture might slip out here and

there, but I always try to keep it very tasteful.” While such top models as Seymour and Crawford are part of the Hollywood celebrity circuit, Evangelista has followed a more traditional course. In July, 1987, she married Marie at St. Alfred’s Catholic church, which she had attended every Sunday for most of her life in St. Catharines. And despite seeing her husband little more than one weekend a month, she said that she is deeply in love with him. “He is the only real relationship that I have ever had,” said Evangelista. The model added that she longs for a quiet life free of airports and the pressure that comes from matching one beautiful image after another, but she added that she does not want to settle down and raise a family at this time—although, she says, her husband

would like to. “I don’t think you can make your lover or your partner happy unless you’re happy yourself,” she said. “But I know that some day we will live happily ever after.” Renovation: When they do get together, they usually meet at one of their four homes around the world. She spent much of August with her husband at their villa on a cliff on Ibiza. And she says that when she is in Paris, she oversees the renovation of a small mansion that they bought in the city’s suburbs. Meanwhile, she is selling her apartment on the French island of Saint-Tropez. But much of her time is spent in her loft apartment in Manhattan’s

gallery district, which Evangelista has filled with antiques and stained glass.

While her beautiful skin still appears as flawless as a schoolgirl’s, Evangelista says that she can already see the end of her career. “There is a clock hanging over my head,” she said. “I may not have the option of doing this job in 10 years, so I’m trying to make the best of it now.” But Elite’s Herzog said that while Evangelista will not be able to beat the clock, she may benefit from an aging population that no longer wants to pick their clothes off the backs of 20-year-old models. As a result, she may be able to extend her career longer than many great models have in the past. But even if her reign as the world’s top model ends suddenly—and soon—she maintains that she would be satisfied. “I just wanted to be a model and a really good one,” said Evangelista. “I’ve been around for seven years, and that’s more than I prayed for.”