kristen mcmenamy, supermodel or superugly?
Is Kristen McMenamy ugly or beautiful? The catwalk’s weirdest-looking supermodel has caused controversy in the fashion world with her alien features and bleached eyebrows but she redefined a new era of beauty. We look back at her interview in i-D's The...
At the Paris couture collections earlier this year, at any one of many shows. All eyes turn as the procession of models make their way slowly through the room, a heavy stillness ordering movement. In the visual orchestration of their pastel beauty, one woman stands out like an instrument played on an alien scale. Amidst the sober harmony, she proclaims herself like a perpetual fanfare. Her clothes are all of deep, dark, slumbrous colours, her skin by contrast as translucent as the candles on a cathedral altar. She stares with vague, disinterested wonder at the audience; the new face of beauty sans artifice.
Who is this woman, outrageous in her androgyny; all absurd angles and jutting ribs and generous mouth and missing eyebrows? She is the model of the moment, a walking representation of the postmodern beauty aesthetic. She is the epitomy of fashion's hottest look: unlikely beauty, the alternative to the typical conventional perfection. She is quite possibly the first woman to come along and break the supermodel mould and still get full respect. "She is modern fashion, which is not to be obsessed with beauty but with life, personality, vitality," says designer Karl Lagerfeld. She is Kristen McMenamy, an ultra-ebullient 28-year-old American who has taken the world of modelling by storm.
If fashion is an acute barometer of social change, then its fluctuation between sobriety and excess reflects the turmoil of the times. The current shift of emphasis in style is from a hard-edged gloss and glamour to a more individual eclecticism: a new subversive austerity which is unadorned yet dramatic in its simplicity. Understandably enough, these new clothes need new bodies to show them off. So there's a different look - a strange combination of innocence and sexuality. Where the catwalk once displayed nothing short of weird-looking - imagine the high school ugly duckling in Chanel and you get the idea.
She is modern fashion, which is not to be obsessed with beauty but with life, personality, vitality. says designer Karl Lagerfeld.
Fashion is tired of those who exude unnatural glamour. Hollow-eyed and limp of hair, wan and lanky: right now, the way is wide open for girls who don't conform to cindy Crawford and co's statistics or emulate their looks. Sarah Murray, Christy Denham, the bald-headed Eve and, of course, Kristen all herald the new order; the brightest young stars in the fashion firmament though less than conventionally beautiful. Odd-looking, even. And, because of the importance placed by Western society on manufactured images of beauty, these girls could change our perception of the ideal, the look to aspire to
"I am defining a new ideal of feminine beauty, but only because everyone is beautiful," Kristen says in her loud mid-Atlantic drawl. "The fashion industry and the media dictate the way girls feel about themselves and that's the ideal woman even though 99.999 per cent of the world doesn't look like that, doesn't look like Cindy Crawford. doesn't have the perfect shape. The only reason I hope that I'm the new definition of beauty is because I represent the individual. I represent the idea of being happy with who you are. Stop the facelifts and nose jobs and breast jobs. And you know what? I have hypnotised the public into believing I am beautiful. And anyone can do that. It's mind over matter."
Kristen McMenamy was modelling for the longest time before she was made an overnight sensation. Then her looks suddenly fitted into the scheme of things. It's all about a projection of individuality rather than sexuality. The new breed of models say something about themselves to the camera rather than giving what was expected through the '80s; fluttering eyelashes and protruding breasts. They are interesting people first, interesting-looking people second. With that shock of hair like a crow's wing, the impossibly full mouth and skeletal frame, she's no weirder than the slickly perfect clotheshorses she's shared the runway with - just different.
"I am confident about my appearance now, but I always was. That's why I am here. In this business you go up and down, but I never thought, 'Shit! Nose job!' Everyone has their insecurities and I always thought maybe my eyes were too big but it's like 'fuck, that's the way I am' and if you get paranoid about changing, get neurotic about keeping up with the trends you're gonna be fucked. If you get a little nose because a little nose is in you're gonna be fucked… if big noses are in next season you're gonna have to get some Playdoh!"
After years hanging hopelessly on the periphery of the international fashion circuit while Linda, Naomi, Christy and Claudia snapped up the plum jobs, Kristen has now ousted fashion's biggest names and this season it's her unlikely looks which feature in Versace's omnipresent ad campaign and display the latest collections in endless pages of the world's most prestigious magazines, her who features in the gossip columns and glossy supplements. The press have, by turns, been serenading and slagging her unusual looks for months.
I am confident about my appearance now, but I always was. That's why I am here. In this business you go up and down, but I never thought, 'Shit! Nose job!'
"I'm surprised that the media and everyone out there has accepted me, I really am. It's weird! I've been debating with myself about making it big because I foresee the future and I know, I just know, that in two months I'll be out. I mean, what the fuck is a supermodel? I'm a super human being and a super woman, and everyone can be and everyone should be. I wanna live the rest of my life, I don't wanna have to jump off a bridge in two years. But I'll be out and someone else will be in and that's the nature of this business and it's horrible. The nature of woman should not be played about with like that.
"I mean, I'm overpaid and over-rated, because beauty is something you are born with but then you make all this money out of it. In a picture you can only see the outside, but what's on the inside is so much more important. The inside is everything and that's your life. Your career as a model is only for a year, two years, three years, whatever. But you have to live after that, don't you?"
As Karl Lagerfeld will tell anyone who'll listen, Kristen is "the new face of beauty for the '90s." She's certainly flavour of the month. Everyone is talking about her, everyone has a story to tell - how, as a young girl desperate to break into the business she was told by modelling doyenne Eileen Ford that she'd never get a job unless she had her droopy eyelids fixed; how she fled in tears from legendary photographer Richard Avedon at a shoot for Gianni Versace because she felt impossibly ugly; how she ran through a club in Miami's chic South Beach trying to beat up her Parisian boyfriend Hubert Boukobza; how she blew out a magazine cover shot because she had been given a black eye in a fight.
I still think that I look like a Martian drug addict but I like it, I think it's sexy.
To think this all came about largely by chance when, on a shot with Stephen Meisel (the fashion photographer responsible for Madonna's Sex), the make-up artist Francois Nars had the idea of bleaching out he eyebrows; a daring gesture which served to emphasise her huge eyes, her geometric features and make her look that little bit different from the rest of the pack. That was all it took to perhaps change the face of modelling forever.
"I still think that I look like a Martian drug addict but I like it, I think it's sexy," she screeches. "I do, and everyone's starting to believe it now. Cindy Crawford, watch out! She's gonna be on drugs and be like really skinny soon, I know. Hair cut off, breast reduction…"
Sure enough, Linda Evangelista reinvented herself at the recent Paris collections after the indignity of being booked for few of the big name shows; appearing a stone lighter, hair shorn and looking decidedly gamine. But despite such flattery, although right now she's having a ball, Kristen is far too smart, too well sussed to consider the beauty business as anything other than a stepping stone to something more permanent.
"The fashion industry has taught me insanity. Oh, and also I've learnt to tweeze eyebrows. Haa! But now I'm thinking what I'd like to do next, and I've decided that after modelling I plan to be a prostitute. It's true, it's the same thing! No, what I really want is to act. I would like to have a part like Madonna in Body of Evidence… but do it a lot better. Haaaaaa!"
Whether or not current anti-fashion fashion is just a momentary whim, the new mood will survive. it is more than just clothes, although the wave of idiosyncratic models fits perfectly with this season's latest collections. It is a change of social attitude which is being reflected in fashion - the move from the Amazonian superwoman to street waif is indicative of how, in the face of economic and political crises, reality is intruding into the cloistered world of couture. And so, gone from the runways and magazine pages are the big-breasted, narrow-hipped, silicon-perfect babes. You've got a lot to thank Kristen McMenamy for.
Interview by Guido and Michael Boadi with additional reporting by Avril Mair
From i-D No. 117, The Beauty Issue, June 1993