A few seasons later came the Eastern Europeans: anonymous, pale, barely into their teens and bordering on anorexic. They were too young to become movie stars or date celebrities and too skeletal to bag Victoria's Secret contracts. And a lack of English didn't bode well for a broad media career.
Natalia Vodianova of Russia, who worked at a fruit stand from the time she was 11, rose out of this pack and into the protective arms of Calvin Klein. The vast majority were sent back to where they came from. Vodianova may be a star in the industry, but try to find a teenager in a Midwestern mall who would line up to get a glimpse of her the way she would have 10 years ago for Banks or Crawford.
Meanwhile, the rise of celebrity culture relegated many models to anonymity. Cosmetic companies almost exclusively sign celebrities for their campaigns, as do designers. Scarlett Johansson is the face of Louis Vuitton; Eva Longoria represents L'Oreal; Jessica Alba pouts for Revlon; the list goes on and on.
Even more devastating to the industry's ability to create supermodels was that the fashion magazines followed suit. A decade ago, models graced 10 of the 12 covers of American Vogue. Last year, only one model made the cover, and that was Evangelista — she of the famous $10,000-a-day quote — as if Vogue had a hankering for the time when models proudly proclaimed their celebrity status.
But it wasn't just celebrities knocking models out of the limelight. The designers — Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Miuccia Prada — became more famous than their mannequins. Isaac Mizrahi hosted the Golden Globe pre-show for the E! network. Donatella Versace is regularly skewered on "Saturday Night Live." A decade ago, a top model may have made $100,000 on a single print campaign for a designer. Now, she will more likely get a small stipend fee, some free clothes and the honor of an "association" with the famous designer.
But if opportunities for superstardom were waning in the modeling world, the ones who did make it could stay there longer than ever thanks to the advent of retouching.
"It's completely stopped the aging process," said Elite agent Richard Habberley, who represents Ambrosio, who, at 26, need not worry about that just yet.
At 52, Brinkley, the '80s ubermodel, reclaimed her Cover Girl contract and appears none the worse for 20 years having passed. Turlington, 38, and Evangelista, 42, are also bagging new contracts and look in advertisements almost exactly as they did back in their supermodel glory.
Ivan Bart, a top agent at IMG Models, which represents Bundchen and Klum, among others, adds that revenue streams are more plentiful these days: "There are new markets like Asia and China. The world is more global than ever."
In March, IMG started a traveling Fashion Week, bringing the runway and top models like Gemma Ward and Campbell to towns like San Francisco and Houston.
But the fashion world is about nothing if not trends. And trends are cyclical. Already the editorials of Vogue are turning away from the scary skinny models of Eastern Europe toward a healthier-looking and more Americanized standard. Hilary Rhoda is probably the best example of this.
The new face of Estée Lauder grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and played lacrosse and field hockey in high school. Unlike the size 0 waifs that have taken over the runway, Rhoda wears a size 4 or 6.