An early use of the term supermodel appeared in 1891 in an interview with artist Henry Stacy Marks for The Strand Magazine, in which Marks told journalist Harry How, "A good many models are addicted to drink, and, after sitting a while, will suddenly go to sleep. Then I have had what I call the 'super' model. You know the sort of man; he goes in for theatrical effect ..." On 6 October 1942, a writer named Judith Cass had used the term super model for her article in the Chicago Tribune, which headlined "Super Models are Signed for Fashion Show". Later in 1943, an agent named Clyde Matthew Dessner used the term in a "how-to" book about modeling entitled So You Want to Be a Model! in which Dessner wrote, "She will be a super-model, but the girl in her will be like the girl in you—quite ordinary, but ambitious and eager for personal development." According to Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women by Michael Gross, Gross stated the term supermodel was first used by Dessner. In 1947, anthropologist Harold Sterling Gladwin wrote "supermodel" in his book Men Out of Asia. In 1949, the magazine Cosmopolitan referred to Anita Colby, the highest paid model at the time, as a "super model": "She's been super model, super movie saleswoman, and top brass at Selznick and Paramount." On 18 October 1959, Vancouver's Chinatown News described Susan Chew as a "super model".
The term supermodel had been used several times in the media in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1965, the encyclopedic guide American Jurisprudence Trials used the term "super model" ("...at issue was patient's belief that her husband was having an affair with a super model"). On 21 March 1967, The New York Times referred to Twiggy as a supermodel; the February 1968 article of Glamour listed all 19 "supermodels"; the Chicago Daily Defender wrote "New York Designer Turns Super Model" in January 1970; The Washington Post and Mansfield News Journal used the term in 1971; and in 1974 both the Chicago Tribune and The Advocate also used the term "supermodel" in their articles. American Vogue used the term "super-model" to describe Jean Shrimpton in the 15 October 1965 edition and "supermodel" on the cover page to describe Margaux Hemingway in the 1 September 1975 edition. Hemingway was again described as a 'supermodel' in the 25 July 1977 edition of Time. Jet also described Beverly Johnson as a "supermodel" in the 22 December 1977 edition.
Model Janice Dickinson has incorrectly stated that she coined the term supermodel in 1979, as a compound of Superman and model. During an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Dickinson stated that her agent Monique Pilar of Elite Model Management asked her, "Janice, who do you think you are, Superman?" She replied, "No ... I'm a supermodel, honey, and you will refer to me as a supermodel and you will start a supermodel division." Dickinson also claims to be the first supermodel.
Lisa Fonssagrives is widely considered the world's first supermodel. She was in most of the major fashion magazines and general interest magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s, including Town & Country, Life, Vogue, the original Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, and Time. Dorian Leigh has also been called the world's first supermodel, as well as Gia Carangi and Jean Shrimpton.
In February 1968, an article in Glamour described 19 models as "supermodels", of whom were: Cheryl Tiegs, Veruschka, Lisa Palmer, Peggy Moffitt, Sue Murray, Twiggy, Sunny Harnett, Marisa Berenson, Gretchen Harris, Heide Wiedeck, Irish Bianchi, Hiroko Matsumoto, Anne de Zogheb, Kathy Carpenter, Jean Shrimpton, Jean Patchett, Benedetta Barzini, Claudia Duxbury and Agneta Frieberg.
In the 1970s, some models became more prominent as their names became more recognizable to the general public. Sports Illustrated editor Jule Campbell abandoned then-current modeling trends for its fledgling Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue by photographing "bigger and healthier" California models and captioning the photographs with their names, turning many of them into household names and establishing the swimsuit issue as a cornerstone of supermodel status.
In 1975, Margaux Hemingway landed a then-unprecedented million-dollar contract as the face of Fabergé's Babe perfume and the same year appeared on the cover of Time magazine, labelled one of the "New Beauties", giving further name recognition to fashion models.
Lauren Hutton became the first model to receive a huge contract from a cosmetics company and appeared on the cover of Vogue 25 times. Iman is considered to have been the first supermodel of color.
Donyale Luna was the first black model to appear in British Vogue. Naomi Sims, who is sometimes regarded as the first black supermodel, became the first African American to feature on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal in 1968. The first African American model to be on the cover of American Vogue was Beverly Johnson in 1974.
Other notable "supermodels" of the time were Cybill Shepherd, Patti Hansen, Penelope Tree, Grace Jones, Hutton, Janice Dickinson, Pat Cleveland, Rene Russo, Gia Carangi, Jerry Hall, Wilhelmina Cooper, Christie Brinkley, Edie Sedgewick, and Kelly Emberg.
In October 1981, Life cited Shelley Hack, Lauren Hutton, and Iman for Revlon, Margaux Hemingway for Fabergé, Karen Graham for Estee Lauder, Christina Ferrare for Max Factor, and Cheryl Tiegs for CoverGirl by proclaiming them the "million dollar faces" of the beauty industry. These models negotiated previously unheard of lucrative and exclusive deals with giant cosmetics companies, were instantly recognizable, and their names became well known to the public.
In the early 1980s, Inès de La Fressange was the first model to sign an exclusive modeling contract with an haute couture fashion house, Chanel. During the early 1980s, fashion designers began advertising on television and billboards. Catwalk regulars like Gia Carangi, Tiegs, Brinkley, Kim Alexis, Paulina Porizkova, Yasmin Le Bon, Kathy Ireland, Brooke Shields, Carol Alt and Elle Macpherson began to endorse products with their names, as well as their faces, through the marketing of brands such as Diet Pepsi and Ford trucks.
As the models began to embrace old-style glamour, they were starting to replace film stars as symbols of luxury and wealth. In this regard, supermodels were viewed not so much as individuals but as images.
By the 1990s, the supermodel became increasingly prominent in the media. The title became tantamount to superstar, to signify a supermodel's fame having risen simply from "personality." Supermodels did talk shows, were cited in gossip columns, partied at the trendiest nightspots, landed movie roles, inspired franchises, dated or married film stars, and earned themselves millions. Fame empowered them to take charge of their careers, to market themselves, and to command higher fees.
The new era began in 1990, with the era-defining British Vogue cover of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Tatjana Patitz, photographed by Peter Lindbergh which created such an impression on the fashion world that they came to embody the term "supermodel". Individually and as an elite group, it seemed as if the idea of "the supermodel" had been coined just for them. Each model had gradually attained fame since the mid-1980s and was now among the industry's top stars. Selected by Lindbergh for the January cover of Vogue, the now famous cover inspired singer George Michael to cast the same five models in the music video for his song, "Freedom! '90", directed by David Fincher. Other notable photographs capturing this new generation of models, including the famous nude taken by Herb Ritts for Rolling Stone that included Patitz, Crawford, Campbell, Turlington and Stephanie Seymour, helped each supermodel attain worldwide fame and fortune by sharing covers of all the international editions of Vogue, walking the catwalks for the world's top designers, and becoming known by their first names alone.
Today, Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista, Patitz and Turlington are regarded as the "Original Supermodels."
In 1991, Turlington signed a contract with Maybelline that paid her $800,000 for twelve days' work each year. Four years later, Claudia Schiffer reportedly earned $12 million for her various modeling assignments. Authorities ranging from Karl Lagerfeld to Time had declared the supermodels more glamorous than movie stars.
Campbell, Evangelista and Turlington became known as The Trinity, a term first used by photographer Steven Meisel and noted by journalist Michael Gross. Evangelista was known as the "Chameleon", for her ability to transform her look and reinvent herself. Turlington was known as the "insurance model", saying "clients know that if they hire me, nothing will go wrong". Campbell was the first black model to appear on the front cover of Time, French Vogue, British Vogue, and the September issue of American Vogue, traditionally the years biggest and most important issue.
Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista, Patitz and Turlington were the original group to be regarded as "The Big Five" supermodels of the 1990s, The term "The Big Five" was later used to describe Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista, Turlington and Claudia Schiffer (replacing Patitz), and with the addition of Kate Moss, they became known as "the Big Six."
In the 2006 book, In Vogue: The Illustrated History of the World's Most Famous Fashion Magazine (Rizzoli), the editors cite the "original supermodels" and Schiffer when quoting Vogue Magazine Editor-In-Chief, Anna Wintour, who said, "Those girls were so fabulous for fashion and totally reflected that time ... [They] were like movie stars." The editors name famous models from previous decades, but explain that, "None of them attained the fame and world-wide renown bestowed on Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz, Stephanie Seymour, Claudia Schiffer, Yasmeen Ghauri, and Karen Mulder in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These models burst out beyond the pages of the magazines. Many became the faces of cosmetics brands and perfumes, had their own television programs and physical-fitness videos and their own lines of lingerie ... Their lives, activities, influences, and images were the subjects of all types of sociological and historical analysis."
In the mid-1990s, the initial era of the supermodel ended and a new era for the supermodel began driven by heroin chic. By the late 1990s, actresses, pop singers, and other entertainment celebrities began gradually replacing models on fashion magazine covers and ad campaigns. The pendulum of limelight left many models in anonymity. A popular "conspiracy theory" explaining the supermodel's disappearance is that designers and fashion editors grew weary of the "I won't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day" attitude and made sure no small group of models would ever again have the power of the Big Six.
Charles Gandee, associate editor at Vogue, has said that high prices and poor attitudes contributed less to the decline of the supermodel. As clothes became less flashy, designers turned to models who were less glamorous, so they wouldn't overpower the clothing. Whereas many supermodels of the previous era were American-born, their accents making for an easier transition to stardom, the majority of models began coming from non-English speaking countries and cultures, making the crossover to mainstream spokesperson and cover star difficult. However, the term continued to be applied to notable models such as Laetitia Casta, Eva Herzigová, Carla Bruni, Tatiana Sorokko, Yasmin Le Bon, Amber Valletta, Shalom Harlow, Nadja Auermann, Helena Christensen, Patricia Velásquez, Adriana Karembeu, Milla Jovovich, Ling Tan, Valeria Mazza and Shirley Mallmann.
Emerging in the late 1990s, Gisele Bündchen became the first in a wave of Brazilian models to gain popularity in the industry and with the public. With numerous covers of Vogue under her belt, including an issue that dubbed her the "Return of the Sexy Model," Bündchen was credited with ending the "heroin chic" era of models. Following in her footsteps by signing contracts with Victoria's Secret, fellow Brazilians Adriana Lima and Alessandra Ambrosio rose to prominence; however, this "new trinity" were unable to cross over into the world of TV, movies and talk shows as easily as their predecessors due to their foreign accents.
Several seasons later, they were followed by Eastern Europeans barely into their teens, pale, and "bordering on anorexic. They were too young to become movie stars or date celebrities; too skeletal to bag Victoria's Secret contracts; and a lack of English didn't bode well for a broad media career". The opportunities for superstardom were waning in the modeling world, and models like Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks took to television with reality shows like Project Runway & Germany's Next Topmodel and America's Next Top Model, respectively, to not only remain relevant but establish themselves as media moguls.
Contrary to the fashion industry's celebrity trend of the previous decade, lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret continues to groom and launch young talents into supermodel status, awarding their high-profile "Angels" multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts.
American Vogue dubbed ten models (Doutzen Kroes, Agyness Deyn, Hilary Rhoda, Raquel Zimmermann, Coco Rocha, Lily Donaldson, Chanel Iman, Sasha Pivovarova, Caroline Trentini and Jessica Stam) as the new crop of supermodels in their May 2007 cover story, while the likes of Christie Brinkley, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista returned to reclaim prominent contracts from celebrities and younger models.
A new generation of models dubbed the "Instagirls" (Gigi Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Irina Shayk, Kendall Jenner), have all developed their own unique model-personalities through social media, simply by their number of followers on sites such as Instagram. This revolution has caused popular women who gained fame specifically through these sites, such as Alexis Ren, Amanda Steele and Cameron Dallas to be discovered by modeling agents as well. In today's modeling industry, designers often feature models in campaigns who have a large social media following such as Italian model and actress Monica Bellucci, who gained worldwide recognition whether through films or fashion appearance.
In addition, the most popular index for model updates and ranking, models.com have declared a new breed of Supers. This include models Cara Delevingne, Karlie Kloss, Natalia Vodianova, Doutzen Kroes, Joan Smalls, Adriana Lima, Karen Elson, Lara Stone, Miranda Kerr, Liu Wen, Jourdan Dunn, Daria Werbowy, Kate Upton, Liya Kebede, and Natasha Poly as the New Supers in the fashion industry.
In the last decade, there has been a new emergence of models known as "plus-size" top models, including Robyn Lawley, Crystal Renn, Ashley Graham, Tess Holliday, Whitney Thompson, Katya Zharkova, Dinise Bidot, Sophie Dahl, Jennie Runk and Natalie Laughlin. These models have been in Catwalks, magazines, and Billboards for brands known worldwide like Vogue, Glamour, Levi’s, Forever 21, Cover Girl cosmetics, Saks Fifth Avenue, GQ Magazine, and Chanel.
In early 2016, Graham, had an overwhelming amount of news coverage worldwide after Sports Illustrated had her on their cover as their first “Plus-sized” Top Model in their 2016 swimsuit edition.
In addition to the models stated previously, a top-grossing part of the industry that tends to be overlooked is the male side of modeling. Though women are predominantly known in the modeling industry, men are used just as frequently in advertisements for clothing, cologne, sports wear and other such accessories.
In 1993, Italian model Fabio Lanzoni, was the highest paid male model worldwide; getting paid several million dollars a year. He was the male identified individual in many romance novels; he did advertisements for high-end brands like Versace.
Tyson Beckford is known for posing in a number of ads for Ralph Lauren's Polo sport cologne line. Since 1990, he has been the face for Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger, won Model of the year on VH1 Fashion award, and he has also appeared in Calvin Klein's campaign. Another Calvin Klein model is Mark Wahlberg. Many new underwear models in the 30 years later still look to his campaign poses today.
Former professional football player David Beckham is noted as the Underwear Model of the Century. He has modeled for worldwide ads for H&M, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Burger King, Sainsbury's, and Breitling.
Critical perception of the supermodel as an industry has been frequent inside and outside the fashion press, from complaints that women desiring this status become unhealthily thin to charges of racism, where the "supermodel" generally has to conform to a Northern European standard of beauty in the first decade of the twenty-first century. According to fashion writer Guy Trebay of The New York Times, in 2007, the "android" look was popular, a vacant stare and thin body serving, according to some fashion industry conventions, to set off the couture. This had not always been the case. In the 1970s, black, heavier and "ethnic" models dominated the runways but social changes in the 1980s to the early 2000s persuaded the power players in the fashion industry to shun suggestions of "otherness". There have been high-profile suicides by models linked to pressure from the fashion industry or depression such as the case of Ruslana Korshunova and Daul Kim.
However, since the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century, an increasing level of diversity has been noted among supermodels catering to the growing East Asian markets, including Japanese model Tao Okamoto and Chinese models Fei Fei Sun and Liu Wen.