By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
In 1993, Kate Moss posed for photographer Corinne Day in the small London apartment Moss shared with her boyfriend of the time. The shoot was for a lingerie spread, which appeared in British Vogue, titled, “Under Exposed,” and it immediately birthed a mythos for Moss and the decade that followed.
The fashion establishment was repulsed by the pictures, which bore little relation to the chic, sophisticated fantasies that populated such magazines then, and still do today. What they did show was bewildering: a skinny, barefaced Moss, on a bed, in a chair, by a window and against a wall in a brightly lit, bare, white-walled apartment, in underwear and sometimes a shirt.
Those hostile to the images said they promoted anorexia, heroin and pedophilia. For an emerging generation of fashion editors and photographers, though, the pictures became a touchstone, and Moss an icon.
The shoot captured some of the grunge spirit that had conquered music, and the lo-fi aesthetics inherent in small budgeted indie films. Just as those movements marked a pivot away from what were seen by some as slick, sterile professionalism in their areas, Moss became a new model of model; a waif, as opposed to the healthy, somewhat dull ’80s pin up Cindy Crawford.
Moss’s profile soon exploded, with her Calvin Klein ads peppering magazines and billboards worldwide. She proved Crawford’s opposite personality-wise, as well. Whereas the latter had responded to her fame by giving interviews emphasizing a relatability and down to earth outlook, Moss kept her privacy, letting the growing buzz, and its accompanying furor, that emerged around her swirl without comment.
Absent “explanation,” viewers had Moss’s image, which was riveting. While “Under Exposed” contained a few pictures in which its subject practices the shy, awkward mugging common among young models today, its more striking shots feature her staring straight into the camera, in a manner her admiring editors and photographers call “sphinx-like.” We stare at her, admiring her features and figure, while she, at the same time, stares at us, with a seemingly impossible complexity, her whole personality on her face, but with a question or agenda one can’t decipher.
When Moss began dating Johnny Depp it was as though, in some ways, the ’90s crystallized. The teen idol who’d rebelled and forged a film career with his “integrity” as his compass and the waif goddess. From the outside, she lent him glamour, and he gave her substance. It was impossibly cool to observe.
As a student at UCLA, I covered music for the paper at that time, routinely attending shows on Sunset Blvd., at times in Depp’s own club, the Viper Room, and yet my existence, to my mind, was not in the same universe as the one I assumed they pursued.
In a sense, the Moss and Depp of my cultural imagination were from a different sphere: that of celebrity mystique, delivered through the channels of a creaking, yet still functional monoculture. Out of millions who’d sought entry to that world of fame, they’d somehow gained admission, and multiplied their relevance by coupling. They were now the glamorous “observed,” and, because each practiced scrupulous media discretion, observers were free to project their most cherished fantasies onto them.
Fashion insiders agree Moss possessed an unerring intuition regarding both her look and prevailing trends, which allowed her blend seamlessly with her times. With passing years, the vulnerability that marked her emergence into supermodel-dom disappeared, replaced by a confidence, and a new carnality.
Her stare remained transfixing, perhaps most when the clothes and image surrounding her signaled transgression. “Yes,” her look seemed to say, “this is who I am. Did you have a question?” The image suggested some decadent life of which we saw only a glimpse. Like the rock and rollers to whom she’s been consistently attracted, she appeared to live some charmed existence, in which a diet of steady pleasure led only to success, fulfillment and riches.
This facade crumbled briefly in the mid-’00s, when she and then-boyfriend Pete Doherty, of the sublime band The Libertines, had public scandals involving drug use, resulting in legal trouble for each. Soon the relationship and the charges were gone, though, and Moss emerged seemingly just as she’d been. In a sense she was like a silent film actress, stoic and mute, avoiding all social media, communicating through her work and the paparazzi, her image consisting in large part of the statistics we learned about her large contracts, and her ubiquity in magazines and on fashion sites.
Moss’s career has been almost unprecedented in its length, with 25 years having passed since her first major spread appeared in The Face when she was 16.
As it does for everyone, age is beginning to have its way with Moss, who no longer closely resembles the models surrounding her. Observing this, one feels superficial, smug, confused, and sad. Like star athletes or dancers, elite models represent a highly rarefied percentile of human existence. Whether or not it’s commendable to recognize their uniqueness as we do, with adulation and often obscene reward, it’s our practice, and witnessing a public decline, as it appears Moss is beginning to experience, summons the complexity of loss.
How Moss experiences this change, once again, we don’t know. Having only ever had her looks by which to consider her essence, once again, we judge her mystique physically, and, as she ages, consider it diminished. She looks mortal now, and, like those of us her age, resembles a person who’s lived half her life.
Remembering her Obsession ads, when her youth matched my own, seems like recalling a different existence. Seeing scandal and myth coalesce around new model Cara Delivengne, while intriguing, feels distant: humorous, rather than vital.
For those of us from a certain cohort, Kate Moss is “our model,” as little sense as that makes. What it means to her, only she can say, whoever she is.