“You are so pretty,” Cindy Crawford tells our waitress at Cafe Select. “I love that lipstick on you.” The supermodel, who just published Becoming, a retrospective book on her career that is equal parts autobiography and coffee-table book, retains vestiges of the unguarded and warm midwestern kid she was when she first came to New York to pursue modeling full-time. (Not to mention, she really knows how to make someone’s day.) Crawford talked to the Cut about her Instagirl successors, helping translate the ‘80s supermodel era for prime time, and the one shoot she refused to do.
The first photographer you worked with, in Chicago, said you had a difficult face to photograph. And when you got another, more high-profile modeling job, he cut ties with you completely.
The reason I wanted to include that story was that so many people have that experience of having someone who has really helped them — a mentor — but then, sometimes we have to leave the nest. Thirty years later, I’m so grateful that he did that to me, otherwise I might have just been complacent and stayed in Chicago.
You went on to work with Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and all these major photographers. What was it like having such close working relationships with them?
For some people, being in front of the camera sounds like torture. But, for me, to have that rapport with a photographer, it’s when I come alive. What can Irving Penn bring out in you in a way that is very different than, say, Sante D’Orazio? I learned something different from each one, and they have all added up to make me who I am today.
You talk about the transition from being this small-town midwestern girl to landing in New York. Did you find early on that people didn’t expect you to be smart, or took advantage of you in a certain way?
I actually really felt it when I was in college, and the [chemistry] professor was like, “You’re in the wrong class, honey.” And it made me think, “He just made a snap judgment about me based on the way I look.” Because I had never experienced the negative side of being a certain way before. Pretty early on I learned when people assume something about me based on the way I look, it says more about them than it does about me.
I remember being at a dinner early on, and Nora Ephron was there. And I’m like just off the boat, right? And she’s like, “So, who are you?” And I knew the question wasn’t Who are you? It was Why should I care about you? Like, what do you do? It wasn’t bitchy, it was just, Okay, what’s your stuff? And I was like, “I’m just a girl.” Because I didn’t know what to say. Just, stylistically, that’s not a midwestern style. So I was caught off guard. I grew up on steak and baked potatoes. I had never had a bagel before I moved to New York. I had never had sushi.
One of the most striking photos in the book is Peter Lindbergh’s famous supermodel photo — which he re-created this year for Vogue Italia. What was that experience like?
It was us now. It wasn’t trying to make us look like we were 20. And Carlyne [Cerf de Dudzeele] styled it. It was so comfortable. Everyone on the shoot, we all worked together 20 years ago and everyone was truly happy to be there, and we’re on the other side. We’re all, “How are you? How are your kids?”
I can imagine that there was some competition back then.
Some of it is just normal and healthy and then sometimes it would get, you know. There were probably some — I mean, I never really got into it with anybody. I never was jealous of other people. I would say I was maybe envious like, “Oh, I wish I could have done that shoot that Christy [Turlington] did with Steven Meisel. I love the styling. I love the hair and makeup,” but it wasn’t like [I wanted to] sabotage her.
Speaking of the supermodel era, you’re producing a show about it for NBC.
I’m getting way more credit for this than I deserve, though.
Your name was in the headline.
Well, I think I realize now, hmm, maybe that’s why they brought me on. But, no, I’m friendly with Anne Heche and she has a development deal with NBC. And they wanted to do a show kind of in the vein of Empire.
I have been wanting this show for so long.
And that’s why Anne brought me in because she was like, “We need someone who is going to say, ‘Actually, we don’t say catwalk, we say runway.’” The photographer doesn’t actually say, “Make love to the camera.” We had a meeting, and I told stories and they were like, “Oh my God.” It’s not about me, but there are some things that have happened to me, or happened to other people that I can share and I’ll write it into the story. I would consider myself a consultant, but in the way the TV world works, I get to be co-executive producer.
Now we see models being very focused on green juice and workouts, but it was more of a hedonistic time.
I, honestly, know it was there. But, it was never in my face. I wasn’t looking for it, and I’m a bit naïve in that way.
And you’re not going to appear on the show?
No, it’s not about me. I won’t be playing an aging supermodel who is an agent, or something. I think this new era of supermodels, social media is such a great mechanism for them to be able to develop their own story and present themselves. You want to be Cara? You can. And I think the audience loves it.
You had the period of having very indistinguishable models —
Like they would all be Russian one season. Or they would all be Brazilian one season. And it wasn’t about the uniqueness of each model. I think now, for the first time, I am interested in the whole group again.
The body-image pressure has become more intense now. You said that size 6 was the standard when you were starting out.
I mean, our bodies were different, me, Linda, Christy. Naomi was a dancer, probably the slightest, but we could all fit the same size basically. I’m the same size now — I mean, things have shifted around, but I’m the same size. But now the sample size is a size 2.
Did you see Gigi Hadid’s statement about the negative comments she gets on Instagram?
The Gigi thing is so crazy. I have that midwestern [attitude]: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” People abide by that in life for the most part, but somehow they think it doesn’t count if they do it online. And for anyone to say anything about Gigi Hadid other than she is beautiful? I think she’s a good one. She’s not trashing hotel rooms. She’s a sweet girl.
Your daughter, Kaia, is embarking on a modeling career. Is that kind of stuff tough for her?
On Kaia’s Instagram, people, not even other kids, women, will say, “You’re too young to be modeling. Just be a kid.” And it’s like they’re criticizing me and my parenting. So, why don’t you do it on my Instagram? I’m a 49-year-old woman, I can respond. You’re bullying a child. You might not think of it that way, but that’s what you’re doing.
I read a couple interviews that you did with your daughter. You kind of made a joke about “get ready to not eat carbs again,” or something like that.
Oh, really? Did people — I said, “Enjoy it while you can.”
All kidding aside, are there things you’re worried about?
I actually wasn’t kidding. When you’re young, you can eat whatever you want. And, at a certain point, mine was in my 20s, I said, “Oh, I can’t have a bagel every morning for breakfast.”
But you had just discovered bagels!
I know, I only got one year of eating them! Really what I was saying was, who does Kaia look up to? The Gigis. So she thinks, “I should have a green juice before school.” I’m like, “Kaia, you need food. You’re going to school all day. You need to eat something.” I try to teach Kaia by, at least on the outside, having a healthy relationship with my own body. I don’t want her to hear me putting myself down. I don’t want her to think that part of being a woman is being deprived.
You were one of the first models to do workout tapes, a TV show, music videos, commercials. Why did you decide to go into those brand extensions?
There wasn’t a road map for me to follow. Some of them were just happy accidents. The Pepsi commercial, which really opened up my audience to men. Jane Fonda was the one who gave me the inspiration to do the exercise video. Hers were so successful, but she was doing aerobics, and the type of workouts I was doing with [trainer] Radu, they were different. And I wanted a video for my generation, and the people who wanted those kinds of tougher, grittier workouts.
Are there things you wish you had pursued more?
I don’t look at life that way. I did House of Style for seven years and then I was like, “Okay, I’m done.” Even the movie [1995’s Fair Game], which was a good experience, but not a successful venture. It was great because I learned that, and I think everyone has that fantasy a little bit, you see a movie and think, “Oh, that will be fun.” But, I actually found out it wasn’t fun for me to be on that side. I’m fine in front of a camera being myself, so it was great to cross that off the list. I don’t need to pursue that.
You’ve been doing your beauty line, Meaningful Beauty, for some time. Do you want to continue in that realm?
In the beauty business, you can’t rest on your laurels for too long. There is always new innovation and technology, and you want to include that in the line. So, what I’m trying to do now, my little side project is — I think the whole way infomercials are shot — to me, they just feel like they need to be updated a bit. It may work and it may not. You just don’t want to get stuck in that rut.
How has your relationship to aging evolved?
Anyone who tells you aging is easy is lying. I just can’t imagine that you go, “Wow, I love that my skin is changing.” It’s not easy. It isn’t easy doing it in a world where there is so much focus on aesthetics. Having children has made it easier. I have my face photographed a lot, and now I’m always telling the photographer to bring the lights in closer, put the bounce cards here.
You mentioned refusing to do a photo where they taped your face to mimic a facelift.
I was uncomfortable with it for two reasons. One, because it hurt. But, I just thought fashion magazines in general are supposed to inspire women. They should be aspirational. It’s all about the wide trouser this season, and you go, “Is that a look I want to incorporate into my wardrobe?” Whatever the fashion statement is. So, I was like, “What is the fashion statement?” What’s the takeaway from taping your face? Are we suggesting that people do that in real life? That was one of those things where I was like, “What are we telling women with this?” That was a turning point in my career where I knew I wanted to be involved and take responsibility for some of what I’m saying.
Are there models that you really relate to now? I think of Karlie Kloss because she’s from the Midwest, you look similar, and she recently wore the Reformation’s Cindy Crawford sweatshirt that you’re also wearing in the book.
I love that Karlie wore it. I was just talking about her today because the people that I’m working with for hair and makeup, they were talking about how she manifests. She’s just a go-getter. She wanted a cosmetic contract with L’Oréal and that’s what she wanted and she got it. She wanted to be a Victoria’s Secret girl and she got it, even if she wasn’t the most obvious choice. She works at it. I don’t know her, but she seems like a hard worker. I’m so proud of this generation.