Elle Macpherson invades Hollywood -- The supermodel is just one of many fashion faces bitten by the acting bug, from Cindy Crawford to Tyra Banks

By Dana Kennedy
March 25, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Elle was staying with us about a year ago, and she was walking around topless. My mother was a little upset but I told her, ”PLEASE! This girl’s body is a national treasure!” — Katie Ford, 38, copresident of Ford Modeling Agency and daughter of founder Eileen Ford.

National treasure or not, Elle Macpherson, one of a legion of supermodels who have turned their natural assets into million-dollar industries, is looking a little nervous as she sits on a couch at a ski house at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Dressed in a skintight black catsuit and ski sweater, Macpherson, 30, is worried about tonight’s premiere of her first movie, the erotic Sirens. ”If this were my own environment, I’d know exactly who was going to be there and exactly what was going on,” she says. ”But I feel like a fish out of water. This is all very new and I’m just learning how it works.”

It might be new to her, but the path of models who try to make the move into acting has long been strewn with disaster. Two words: Ali MacGraw. Two more words: Christie Brinkley. Will Macpherson make the leap from mannequin to movie star? Surprisingly, both Sirens and its star are getting some good reviews, and not just for Elle’s 6-foot, 125-pound, often-naked body. This may cheer the swelling ranks of ’90s supermodels who are trying to cross over to acting-a list that includes Vendela, Anna Nicole Smith, Kathy Ireland, Tyra Banks, Kristen McMenamy, Veronica Webb, Angie Everhart, Tasha, Liv Tyler, and Karina Lombard, among others.

But despite Macpherson’s case of Sundance jitters (she made an early exit from an overcrowded Miramax party with her hunky boyfriend — London gallery owner Tim Jefferies, 32 — looking overwhelmed by the all-in-black, intense, bespectacled film folk), she and other supermodels have a lot less to worry about when it comes to switching career gears. Unlike years past, when models had a shelf life of five to six years at best and acting was their only shot at a legitimate fallback, today’s bunch are bigger than most movie stars — and their influence on pop culture far more pervasive.

Interest in the modeling world has never been so — to use the favorite expression of fashion photographers this season — fierce. Aaron Spelling’s new Melrose Place spin-off is called Models, Inc. Robert Altman began shooting his pseudo- documentary Prêt à Porter this month at the Paris fashion shows. Elle Top Model, a new magazine devoted to models, debuts this month.

”If you look at Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Linda (Evangelista), or Naomi (Campbell), those women are better known than any actresses,” says John Casablancas, 5l, the chairman of Elite. ”They’ve become the Brigitte Bardots and Marilyn Monroes of today.” In fact, the model- industrial complex has transcended its roots; it’s as much a part of the entertainment industry as it is the fashion business.

Which means models are no longer the stepchildren of showbiz. Their sphere of influence has expanded from magazine covers, cosmetic ads, and runway shows to movies, music, television, video, even, for lack of a better description, journalism. In other words, esteemed broadcast journalist Cindy Crawford, host of MTV’s House of Style and the Edward R. Murrow of fashion, is not the only model to have figured out that there’s serious money to be made just by capitalizing on your day job. ”There’s been a real Hollywoodization of models,” says Veronica Webb, 29. ”Everyone used to fantasize about being a movie star, but nowadays it’s easier to legitimize yourself as a supermodel than an actress.”

While still the most prestigious gig models can get, acting — even for today’s most successful model-actress, Andie MacDowell — is now just one more notch in their Prada belts. ”You can’t imagine the money you make now compared to before,” says Eileen Ford, 71. ”You’re really talking about the world’s best salespeople. Models reach millions and millions of women through TV and video and print.”

To that end, runway queen Naomi Campbell is planning a long-awaited album for Epic; Elizabeth Arden’s Vendela was a ”guest reporter” for Entertainment Tonight at the Winter Olympics; eyebrow-free Kristen McMenamy made her Off Broadway debut in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Tasha is playing herself on NBC’s soap Another World; Angie Everhart appeared in Last Action Hero and TV’s The Mommies; MTV VJ Daisy Fuentes has a new talk show on CNBC and a lucrative Revlon contract; former Estee Lauder model Willow Bay is the new coanchor of Good Morning America Sunday; Sports Illustrated favorite Roshumba is the host of Black Entertainment Television’s Shades: The Dark Side of the Runway; and Dana Patrick calls herself ”every 15-year-old boy’s wet dream” as Meatloaf’s love interest in the smash video of ”I Will Do Anything for Love.”

Some models, like Tyra Banks and Veronica Webb, are truly Renaissance women (or ”girls,” as models of all ages are still stubbornly called). Banks not only landed an exclusive Cover Girl contract, she’s also costarring in John Singleton’s Higher Learning and appeared in seven episodes of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as well as several music videos. Revlon’s Webb is also an actress (Malcolm X, Jungle Fever), has an upcoming VH-1 fashion special, and is a reporter for Fox’s The Front Page, a contributing writer for Details, and a columnist for Interview and Paper magazines.

While pausing for breath, keep in mind that male models are conquering Hollywood as well. Besides Ford’s Lucky Vanous, there’s Donovan Leitch, a Ford New Face for 1994 as well as an actor (And God Created Woman) and rock singer.

Models are forever running back and forth between agencies. Elite stole Beverly Peele. The minute she was back in shape (after her pregnancy), John stole her. I put a lot of time into her; I was with her every day. I financed her entire pregnancy. We gave her a baby shower. Then this girl ruthlessly up and left us. — Natasha Esch, 22, president and owner of Wilhelmina, which is suing Elite for $20 million over Peele and other models.

As the reign of the supermodels intensifies, the fight for today’s stars has strained the already tense ranks of Manhattan’s big agencies. (Elite’s lawyer calls Wilhelmina’s suit ”inaccurate.”) These days, Elite claims the biggest names (Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Karen Mulder, Kristen McMenamy, Kati Tastet, Tatjana Patitz), followed closely by Ford, which used to be the preeminent agency (Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Vendela, Rachel Hunter, Isabella Rossellini). Hot on their heels are smaller but growing agencies like Women, Boss, Company, and Next. A few small agencies ride on the success of one or two big names: Women has Macpherson and superwaif Kate Moss; Metropolitan has Claudia Schiffer. Wilhelmina, which rivaled Ford in the ’70s, no longer has any real stars. ”We’re trying to groom the next crop of supermodels,” says Natasha Esch.

Esch has her work cut out for her. While the dozen or so top models are making more than ever (day rates range from $3,000 to $10,000), agency revenues are still surprisingly small. In contrast to the $100 billion fashion industry, modeling is a relatively puny, $500-million-per-year business. Insiders say that Elite made between $50 million and $100 million in bookings last year and that Ford made about $90 million. But if agency profits are relatively slim, models’ egos have kept well ahead of inflation. ”In order to keep models happy these days, you have to do so much more,” says an exec. ”You have to get their names and faces into social columns. You have to work the relationship all the time.”

These girls have the same egos as Hollywood stars. They’re like girl gangs, like roving bandits. The top clique is Christy, Naomi, and Kate. Kate kind of lucked out; she was taken in by Christy and Naomi. Linda’s out of it; she’s off in L.A., with Kyle (MacLachlan). Christy’s with Jason Patric right now. She went through Christian Slater real fast. He was like this little novelty brought into that crowd. — A 26-year-old confidante of Christy and Naomi

Considering the money and power at stake, the world of supermodels can sound like a bad script from an old Dynasty episode, complete with tales of backbiting, jealousy, and feuds. Naomi Campbell is universally acknowledged as the model with the toughest rep. After several years of widely reported spats in nightclubs with various boyfriends, girlfriends, and even her mother, she topped herself last fall when she and her former champion, Elite’s Casablancas, parted ways. He says he fired her; she says she quit. ”She’s totally impossible,” says Casablancas. Crawford, Turlington, and Evangelista, he adds, ”are true professionals, but they have their moments too. They’ll throw their tantrums.”

Models say the catfighting peaks every year at the Paris shows. ”Girls are always getting mad at each other and they’ll tell their hairdresser to purposely mess up another girl’s hair,” says Tasha, 24. ”Girls literally push in front of you to get onto the runway first,” says Angie Everhart, 24.

Excellent training for Hollywood.

I was frightened, absolutely petrified. I felt so lost and afraid. I arrived at the set and there was a silence. They all seemed to know what they were doing. I was afraid to read my lines out loud in case they started laughing. — Elle Macpherson, describing her first day on the job on Sirens

Macpherson eventually found her voice; in fact, she now calls Sirens the “most wonderful experience I have ever had.” But if she eventually flops, she’ll hardly be hurting. Like many supermodels, she rules an empire built on her name, including a lingerie firm, exercise videos, and an annual calendar (and she was the just on the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit issue for a fourth time).

At home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Macpherson is sifting through new scripts, but she says it’s hard to figure out whether she wants to make acting a permanent career. ”They’re really like two different industries. In modeling you play to the camera, and in acting you play against it,” she says. ”In modeling you never have to concentrate that much. It’s easier.”

But Hollywood is still the ultimate goal for many models. Stacey Williams, who’s also featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, is in her first year of an acting class in Manhattan and wants to leave modeling behind. Her teacher, William Esper, is high on Williams, calling her ”intense and daring,” but he hints that she’s an exception. ”I get so many models who come in here, but so few have any drive,” says Esper, who counts Christine Lahti and Jeff Goldblum among his former students. ”Modeling’s a very superficial thing and often superficial people are attracted to it. To get them to look inside and work from there is an uphill battle. Most don’t make it.”

The Models
Cindy Crawford
Age: 28 Wannabe: TV commentator Breakout Potential: Good. The success of her workout videos is only complemented by her ability to be both a straight- male and a gay-female fantasy object. Left off the resume: Her first workout video, Shape Your Body (1992), was criticized for being potentially dangerous. Career coup: Has become the fashion gestapo’s top scout on MTV’s House of Style (see Jeanne Tripplehorn’s dead-on impression in Reality Bites). Portfolio: Multimillion-dollar, multiyear Revlon contract; has inspired thousands of girls with facial moles. Perks: Was valedictorian of her high school class; studied chemical engineering at Northwestern University for a year; gets back rubs and spiritual guidance from Buddhist husband Richard Gere. Stylist’s evaluation: ”She’s really cornered her market-being a commercial commodity actress; she’s immediate and real,” says New York supermodel stylist Danilo.

Carré Otis
Age: 25 Wannabe: Actress Breakout Potential: Problematic; she needs to distance herself, professionally, from husband Mickey Rourke. Remedial Step No. 1: Find a publicist. Right now, anyone who desires to reach her must go through Rourke’s publicist. Left off the resume: Worked as an herbalist’s apprentice at the Teagarden, a California-based Chinese herb store. Career coup: Nabbed a feature film role in 1989’s Wild Orchid, as a good-girl lawyer who can’t resist Rourke’s perverse sexual advances. Portfolio: She was a Guess? girl in 1988, preceding Claudia Schiffer; controversial shots of her, taken by Rourke, appeared in a 1991 edition of French magazine Photo, where Otis, modeling only engine grease, was chained to a motorcycle. Perks: Bonus boxing lessons from Rourke. Stylist’s Evaluation: ”She embodies the Ava Gardner sensuality,” says Danilo. ”She has potential, but she needs to be exposed to the right parts.”

Lucky Vanous
Age: 32 Wannabe: Actor Breakout Potential: Try to stop him. Previously underexposed Ford model, he’s the now-infamous bare-chested hard hat in Diet Coke’s ”A Coffee Break” commercial. Left off the resume: A closet egghead, he studies poli-sci and history at Fordham University part time. Career coup: On the air for only two months, his ad has led to an upcoming cameo on NBC’s Wings, with other movie and TV offers flowing in like soda water. ”What shocks me is that all the roles are for the lead,” says Vanous. Portfolio: Commercials for Gillette, American Airlines, and Carnival Cruise Lines. Perks: He and his wife of four years, model Kristen Noel, get to schmooze with the likes of Paula Abdul at Diet Coke commercial reunion parties. Stylist’s evaluation: ”He’s sort of sexy, all-American, like Tom Cruise — only a little more nasty,” says Corey Powell of Salon Cristophe in Beverly Hills.

Naomi Campbell
Age: 24 Wannabe: Singer Breakout potential: Iffy. Even with the producing help of PM Dawn and Gavin Friday (who cowrote the soundtrack for In the Name of the Father with U2’s Bono), it’s taken Campbell two years to complete only seven tracks for her album with Epic. Left off the resume: Played Snow White at 16 on a British TV show. Career coup: Appeared in Michael Jackson’s 1993 ”In the Closet” video (which is worth millions for its title alone). Portfolio: Was the first black model on the cover of French and British Vogue; was allegedly fired from the Elite agency in 1993, but signed an exclusive contract the next day with industry powerhouse Ford; appeared in the nude with Madonna in the superstar’s 1992 book, Sex. Perks: Free U2 concert tix from fiance Adam Clayton. Stylist’s secret: No big fan of this diva, Danilo says sarcastically, ”The girl’s got a lot of her own personal charm to work with.”