The End Of The Supermodel

May. 8 2011 

Brazillian model Gisele Bündchen at the Fashio...
Not a supermodel. A supermogul.

Last week, Forbes published its annual World’s Top Earning Models List. Gisele Bundchen, as she has for each year of list’s existence, vastly out-earned her competitors, this time with an estimated $45 million.

Four years ago, I headed up the first World’s Top Earning Models list. Before that, models appeared on the annual Celebrity 100 list along with musicians, actors, actresses, directors and other Hollywood entertainers.

At the time, this made sense. Models who appeared on the celebrity list, like Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Christie Brinkley and Claudia Schiffer, seemed part of Hollywood. They starred in movies and music videos, they dated or married movie stars, they cut singles, they were regulars on talk shows, they attracted screaming mobs at malls. Everyone knew their names and faces—just like movie stars.

But by 2007, the definition of a supermodel was already beginning to change, and I was having trouble justifying putting some of the top earning models on what was supposed to be a list of Hollywood entertainers.  Heidi Klum had a TV show, so fine. Gisele Bundchen and Kate Moss were incredibly famous, so fine. But Adriana Lima? Alessandra Ambrosio? Carolyn Murphy? What did they do besides model? Who, besides those who followed the fashion world closely, even knew who they were?

Thus was born The World’s Top Earning Models list. On this list a model could be, well, just a model. Here, there was room for Estee Lauder face Hilary Rhoda, Lancome face Daria Werbowy and Calvin Klein muse Natalia Vodianova. These girls didn’t do movies. They hardly ever appeared on TV, except for their own fashion ads. And, except for the most fanatical modeling fans, no one had a clue what guys they were dating. Yet these ladies were all at the top of their game and making millions. They needed a list of their own, and they got it.

Looking at the most recent models list, it’s clear to me that successful models are now even more removed from Hollywood. Most of them are not household names—certainly, not in the way that Tyra Banks, Elle MacPherson or Cindy Crawford were in their heyday (and still are).

As beautiful as the new girls are, the names Candice Swanepoel or Lara Stone just do not spark the same excitement that the supermodel trio of Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell did in the early 1990s. But a decade ago, cosmetic contracts began going to actresses, who figured out that starring in a lipstick ad wouldn’t necessarily stop them from winning an Oscar (hello, Halle Berry). And today, pretty women who get well paid and attract legions of fans for not much more than being pretty aren’t called supermodels—they’re called the Kardashians.

The supermodel era, as it was defined two decades ago, is dead.

In its place, however, there’s a more interesting model—one that has more in common with Wall Street than Hollywood. These days, even the newest models have branched out into licensing deals that encompass everything from clothing and jewelry to fragrances, furniture and food. In fact, a year after The World’s Top Earning Models list debuted, I headed up The Most Entrepreneurial Supermodels list, which Forbes still runs.

Today, models may not have their own TV shows, starring roles in movies, or even movie star husbands—but they have something better. They have the template for a multi-dimensional, multiple-platform career. Not to mention that the supermodels of yesterday are as busy as ever. Many of them—such as Kathy Ireland, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum—now head up multi-million dollar or even billion dollar corporations.

So the question isn’t “Will the era of the supermodel ever return?” but “How long before we see a few of these supermodels on The World’s Billionaires list?” I predict not too long.