“It wasn’t like we banded together and said, ‘Oh let’s make a group of girls who are going to go down in history’. It wasn’t like that at all. It’s easy for us to have a perspective on those early days but at the time, it was what it was. People knew us when we walked down the street.”
Elle MacPherson is talking down the phone from her London home, and I’ve just put her on hold. For the second time. Hearing ringing in the background, she coolly asks, “Do you want to get that?” The antique dealer from downstairs, anxious to close my Sydney office for the evening and not content with my first excuse, has called again. “Look,” I say, “I can’t talk right now, I’m talking to Elle MacPherson.” There are no more calls; she seems to understand. After all, MacPherson is kind of a big deal.
We all know the story of The Body. Most of us grew up on a visual diet of her astounding figure in high-cut swimsuits and all-over suntan. As soon as I was ready for a fancy bra, I dragged my mum into the Grace Bros department store to buy a piece from her eponymous lingerie line. Just as I star-jumped to her workout video back in the days of VCR. Why? Because she’s my supermodel. She was tattooed forever on my teenage consciousness as the embodiment of the ultimate woman: walking for Calvin Klein in the early 90s, wearing all brown, impossibly tall, sophisticated.
“I was a little before the girls on the cover of Vogue like Christy, Naomi, Claudia – the girls who were in the George Michael video – I was already doing Sports Illustrated,” MacPherson explains. “People like Cheryl Tieg and Christie Brinkley were the beginning in a way, simply because they were girls who had names and defined personalities from being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This was an iconic magazine widely circulated across all demographics; women and men. Before Victoria’s Secret, before the supermodels, before anything, there was Sports Illustrated.”
MacPherson’s 183cm frame found its way into a record five swimsuit issues for the title. The then-editor Julie Campbell, often credited as instrumental in turning models into celebrities simply by being first to publish their names next to their shots, was fundamental in shaping MacPherson’s career. “The first year of working together, Elle was very, very shy. If I had to change something, she would – literally – get tears in her eyes, she so much wanted to please,” said Campbell who, ironically, called the model her “little Elle” in the 1989 behind-the-scenes made-for-HBO documentary. “I know what she feels good in: she’s happiest if you put her in something to go scuba diving and let her go play on the beach.”
It earned MacPherson her famous nickname at a time when models began to attract multi-million dollar endorsements, and status came in the form of first-name recognition. “There was a lack of glamour in the film industry at the time,” says MacPherson. “Fashion filled the hole with the popular girls ... standing out for who they were. There wasn’t a stereotypical type of beauty. There was Linda Evangelista, who at that time was androgynous with her short hair, and you had a sex bomb with Cindy Crawford and the Bridget Bardot look-alike with Claudia Schiffer and Naomi (Campbell) of course. All very distinct and people from all around the world could relate to one of the girls.”
If glamour was what the world wanted, glamour it got. Wall Street was booming, hedonism reigned supreme and as for the supermodels, it seemed they ruled the world. Was it really all about uptown apartments, champagne and sushi? “Yeah,” MacPherson laughs, “it was incredibly glamorous. We dressed up all the time; we wore heels every day, Chanel jackets and short skirts. When you walked in the room, people knew about it. People stopped. It was a time of excess so it wasn’t frowned upon. Guys were doing the same thing, dressing in three-piece suits, bling watches and driving fast cars. It was just a period where money and excess and labels and beauty and style were very important. The same way there was the Hollywood glamour of the 60s. It was an important time for the fashion industry – there were fantastic designers like Versace and Azzedine Alaïa who had created this incredible fashion so girls were wearing bodycon clothes, big hair, lots of makeup, minimal jewellery – it was all about a silhouette.”
This was a glittering scene far away from where the Cronulla-born MacPherson grew up and the girl-next-door persona we first saw on a TAB Cola commercial. Just 17 when she arrived in New York City, signed to Click modelling agency, she was unsure of how long she would be there, with no chaperone and a series of roommates because she couldn’t afford her own apartment. “It was a shock because I was scared for a lot of the time. We’d all heard the stories about the violence in New York and it was a really dangerous city. I would walk down the street and would always be checking behind me to see if someone was going to follow me.
"I missed my family desperately. And I felt really lonely and remember calling my Mum just sobbing saying I missed everybody so much.” Turning around and going home, however, wasn’t an option. MacPherson had the vital statistics and knew how to use them – although the way she tells it, modestly, she was simply “unusual”. “I had a very athletic body and America hadn’t seen that. It was sort of Amazonian. I was just this chick from the beaches and I didn’t know how to dress, or do my hair and my makeup and I wasn’t interested in fashion magazines. I’d never been cool or worn the right things. I was happy in a pair of board shorts and flip flops so it was easy for me to model bathing suits and to rely on my body because it didn’t require me to have any sense of personal style.
“I really focused on that and was more comfortable with my body than a lot of people. American women aren’t brought up with the same sort of liberty of their physicality as Australian women are. I’d lived my life on the beach so putting on a bathing suit came very naturally to me. You compare that to a girl who grew up in France or the Midwest – they are not very easy with their body. It worked for me.”
Despite her naïve demeanour – shown most memorably in her 1988 appearance on Letterman – she proved youth and exuberance, and a dash of entrepreneurial instinct, make a powerful combination. She appeared in every issue of Elle magazine for six years straight, marrying creative manager and photographer Gilles Bensimon, 20 years her senior, when she was 21 (they divorced after six years), produced her own calendar and founded the Fashion Café with fellow supermodels Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. In 1994 she posed nude for the Herb Ritts editorial in Playboy, (which was not published in Australia, a choice by the model herself) and in the same year walked haute couture for Valentino.
Seduced by the big screen, MacPherson also took up acting, her first role being a walk on in Woody Allen’s Alice. It wasn’t until the Norman Lindsay-based Sirens – for which she famously gained nine kilograms – that she began to wear the thespian tag. Future roles included Batman’s girlfriend alongside Uma Thurman and repeat appearances on the top-rating sitcom Friends.
“In 1996, I moved to LA and downplayed everything,” says MacPherson of the vocational shift. “I cut my hair; I was flat shoes and jeans and T-shirts and really focusing on a film career. I made 10 movies in two years. Then I had my son…” – a pregnancy captured for Vogue by Annie Lebowitz – “… and moved to London. That was a completely different era in my life.”
Never far from the spotlight, MacPherson – now 47, a single mother of two and a business-woman with a reported net worth of over $120 million – has continued to attract media attention for her lovers, controversial campaigns (think her sultry reading of Tennessee Williams for Elle MacPherson Intimates), and business deals (she signed with Revlon at age 44).
Recently, a film (for an iPad application no less) and feature with bi-monthly fashion bible LOVE, thanks to its Birmingham-nerd-turned-uber-editor Katie Grand, proved she’s as age-defying and desirable as ever. “It’s not the kind of thing I normally do because I’m not someone who pursues fashion particularly or who wants to be the cool, groovy girl,” she says of the tongue-in-cheek editorial snapped by Sharif Hamza. “I really love Katie and I like her perspective on things. I just felt quite honoured to be a part of the crew of women who were doing it. I feel it was a really honest, interesting selection of women. She had the balls to honour people that most magazines wouldn’t. She really thought about it – she chose very consciously the people she was going to have in that, there were no gratuitous fillers or anything.”
Indeed, if ever there was a doubt of MacPherson’s street cred it was quashed when she walked for Marc Jacobs, who she has known since he worked for Perry Ellis and with whom she shares a love of art, in his exclamatory God Created Woman show for Louis Vuitton AW 10.
“Marc had just called me and said, ‘I’m doing a show, it’s called God Created Woman and I want you to come, it’s important you come and would you please be here tomorrow’,” she recounts. “I said, ‘I’ll call you back’ and got off the phone and thought, ‘I don’t want to go to Paris and do a show, I don’t have time and it’s always so complicated and chaotic and it’s not really my thing and I don’t need to do it and I have so much work going on at the moment and what if I don’t fit the clothes’ … all of my ‘what if’ moments came in and I calmed down and just thought, ‘OK, Marc’s called, he wants to send a message and do you want to be part of that message or not?’And then I thought … ‘if I believe that beauty is universal then why wouldn’t I go and share that conversation with Marc?’ So I called him back and said, ‘OK, I’ll be there’. I didn’t ask any questions, like who else was doing it or who was opening. I just got on the plane and trusted him. And then I got there and he put me in this dress and said, I’m putting you in a ponytail and you’re closing the show.”
Although a catwalk veteran, MacPherson wasn’t prepared for feeling “incredibly sentimental” when she walked out onto the ring and saw people clapping and looking at her in a ‘wow, you’re here’ way. “I was so taken aback and I didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed and proud and enjoying seeing friends I hadn’t seen for ages in the audience and I couldn’t do the model face, pretending I wasn’t there – I was engaging a lot with the crowd and then when I got out I was thinking perhaps I’d been a bit too friendly. I had smiled the whole way through in a way but it was so spontaneous that I sort of couldn’t help it.”
She was apologetic when she saw Jacobs after the show but he told her he couldn’t have planned it any better. He later said to media of his choice: “We just thought, who would be gorgeous?”
But this was about more than gorgeous. It was beyond supermodel. It was a woman being true. A powerful, emotional woman not afraid to show her true feelings to a world that thinks it already knows her. “I’m much freer today than I have ever been,” she says, putting it down to age. “Having a sense of humour and being able to recognise that it doesn’t really matter. It all matters and nothing matters. Being in the moment is a great thing.”