Models, designers, and photographers are the latest breed of media darlings — the new Hollywood, if you will. Heck, even hairdressers and makeup artists are celebrity timber now.
I have a theory about celebrities. Semi-long ago, when I was a kid growing up in Ohio, we had three TV channels, one for each network. Then, when my family moved to New Jersey in 1960, we got six channels from the Big Apple, which seemed a veritable media overload. And when we would drive around Jersey, I’d see movie theaters with the mysterious message ”Stop Pay TV” spelled out on their marquees, and I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about. What was pay TV, and why did they want to stop it so much?
Now my cable-TV bills are about a hundred bucks a month and those same theaters that were trying to stop pay TV have been divided up into twelveplexes. Bruce Springsteen just had a hit song called ”57 Channels (And Nothing On),” but my cable box in New York City has 77 channels on some of which the people have nothing on.
What does this have to do with celebrities? Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that if you have 2,466 percent more channels, you’re going to need 2,466 percent more celebs to fill up all the airtime — and what better gold mine to plumb than the world of fashion? It’s all about the moment, what’s on the surface, and it’s populated by the kind of amusing, silly, shocking, deeply shallow types who can fill a minute like nobody’s business. And it’s fabulous, isn’t it? Why, the Feb. 6 guest stars on Saturday Night Live were Mick Jagger and Giorgio Armani. Genius! Perfection!
It was only a matter of time. Why should actors and athletes hog all the fame? Models are more beautiful, and now that MTV’s Cindy Crawford has proved they can do two things at once, they don’t just occupy space, they work it. In the ’70s, being a top model was sometimes a shortcut to bigger arenas of stardom. It wasn’t modeling that made Farrah Fawcett and Cybill Shepherd celebrities; it was Charlie’s Angels and The Last Picture Show.
That was in the days when teenage girls still dreamed of going to Hollywood and becoming stars. Now their fantasies are about moving to New York City and landing a Cover Girl account and a rock-star boyfriend. Because today — thanks almost entirely to MTV — supermodels are also superstars. When George Michael decided to change his image and not appear in his video, he replaced himself with the next best thing: the industry’s top models. The resulting ”Freedom” clip has supermodels in ecstasy crawling across the floor, oozing heat as they lip-synch to Michael, who is definitely not missed. And now Christy and Linda and Naomi and Cindy don’t even need last names, because everyone in the civilized world knows who we’re talking about. When Naomi’s record is released this summer, she’ll be the one singing, too.
It’s not just models who are becoming media darlings. It’s designers and photographers, too. Certainly making others beautiful is no small talent, but 10 years ago who would have thought that Todd Oldham and Donna Karan would be as interesting to Liz Smith as Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand? One reason, of course, is that after decades of dressing and shooting stars, the people behind the scenes want a piece of the action. But it goes beyond that — just because you want something doesn’t mean you can create a demand. What permitted fashion types to get attention was the fascination celebrities have with them.
If you look at the gossip columns for the last few months, one thing is clear: The hottest celebrity fashion accessory this season is not a 555 Soul ski cap or a flannel shirt; it’s your own designer. Just look at the stellar pairings at this year’s award’s ceremony for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the party launching Armani’s new fragrance, Giò, or any major fashion show.
Fashion photographers have been art stars for some time, achieving great acceptance but not much recognizability. In Funny Face, Fred Astaire plays a photographer modeled after Richard Avedon, but how many people could pick Avedon out of a crowd? That’s not a question with Steven Meisel, though. He’s a media fixture not just because he hangs out with Madonna and Isabella Rossellini but because he looks and acts like a big star — Meisel even has wannabes impersonating him. When Herb Ritts releases a new book of photographs, Cindy and Richard and a host of Hollywood royalty turn out. Annie Leibovitz is famous enough to appear in Gap ads herself. And Bruce Weber, in his signature bandanna, would be recognized at McDonald’s.
In some respects, fashion insiders have simply replaced the art world of the ’70s and ’80s, when media-savvy artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring were marketing their art with Madison Avenue acumen. But it wasn’t just earnestness, obscurantism, and obliqueness that killed artists as celeb material; it was that artists failed to keep up with corporate levels of earnings. Jeff Koons couldn’t afford to advertise like Gianni Versace. Even Mark Kostabi can’t generate dollar volume like Calvin Klein (he certainly couldn’t afford Marky Mark as a model). Even David Hockney doesn’t generate the kind of star-worthy revenue that designers do today.
If models, designers, and photographers are the new stars, the new entertainment kick is fashion shows. The general public is discovering — thanks to Elsa Klensch on CNN, Cindy Crawford on MTV, and every magazine and newspaper gossip columnist — what the fashion industry has always known: Fashion shows are terribly entertaining. A sometimes spectacular combination of burlesque and performance art, they can easily support the cable station that is planning a network just for them — meaning that collections that once premiered to a few dozen industry types, and later to a few hundred, will now open to an audience of millions. And why not? Nothing could epitomize pop culture and its obsession with everything new more thoroughly: the hottest bodies parading in the hottest clothing to the hottest music for the hottest celebrities in the oh-so-hot front row. To cite George Michael again, his ”Too Funky” video (which Michael codirected with designer Thierry Mugler) perfectly captures the superglam extravaganza that is a fashion show, as does En Vogue’s ”Free Your Mind” video. And speaking of En Vogue, what better example of the merging of fashion and entertainment than the girl group of today, which owes much of its shtick to runway-inspired choreography?