The following is excerpted from Maureen Callahan's new book, Champagne Supernovas.
By July of 1990, fifteen-year-old Kate Moss had dropped out of high school and left home to pursue modeling full-time. Prospects were iffy: she'd appeared twice on the cover of The Face, but she was also showing up at fittings in thrift-store finds and beat-up boots, her long brown hair hanging in strings. She was surrounded by world-famous warrior models, plated in Versace, who made it quite clear that this plain little foundling from the suburbs of London did not belong.
This, despite John Galliano having chosen Kate—who he regarded as his "Lolita"— to open his spring/summer 1990 show. Kate hadn't eaten all day and was terrified; when the show was over, she went to the after-party and guzzled so much whiskey that she missed her flight the next day. She was hungover and disoriented and intimidated and she loved it. "When I used to come back to Croydon and get into our car, which wasn't air-conditioned—and a house with no pool—I was like, 'I'm not staying here forever,'" she'd later say. "I never had that feeling of, 'That's your lot.'"
But Kate's parents were unimpressed by their daughter's single, dubious ambition. It was the young photographer Corinne Day who had the idea that Kate should come live with her and her boyfriend, Mark, in their dilapidated apartment on Brewer Street. The couple was poor. They'd come back to England from Milan, where Mark had supported them as a model while Corinne began her autodidactic approach to photography, doing free shots for off-duty models: no stylists, no hair, no makeup, just Corinne and the model and the clothes they had on.
Corinne and Kate became enthralled with each other. Corinne took Kate to the Camden and Portobello markets, teaching her how to sift through piles of nubby sweaters, matted shearling, faded nightgowns, and all manner of scrap to emerge with a thrashed glamour of her own. Kate felt safe with Corinne—unlike other photographers, who thought she was nothing special. In Paris, one had actually told her that she was "just another common bitch."
Kate Moss, fifteen, laughed in his face.
Kate and Corinne kept working their partnership, every shoot seemingly lo-fi and carefree—even though their images were just as deliberate and manipulated as anything in Vogue. Both girls were in pursuit of one goal: getting famous. Like Lee McQueen and Marc Jacobs, they were determined to make the establishment come to them.
When Kate was eighteen, she took a meeting with Calvin Klein on her own, walking into the room in jeans and no makeup while a string of hopeful models—Cindy Crawford among them—waited in reception. Kate flopped down on the floor, and for a moment, the room was still: While Klein's brand was in crisis, he was nonetheless a legend, and one didn't take such an informal tack.
But then, after a beat, Klein plopped right down next to her.
After the meeting, a few of Klein's collaborators expressed reservations. "She's really little," said one stylist. "I have a feeling she may not work a lot." But the younger people on Klein's team— especially Carolyn Bessette—pushed for Kate.
"For them, what is real is beautiful—looking plain is beautiful," Klein said. "What is less than perfect is sexy."
Suddenly, Kate was fronting a campaign for one of the biggest designers in the world. She was becoming the star of her pack, yet her very few interpersonal relationships were disintegrating. Her boyfriend, the photographer Mario Sorrenti,was always away; her mother was distant and far from encouraging; her younger brother, Nick, was failing in his own modeling career.
And then there was Corinne, who was developing a reputation for being hard to work with: She'd refuse to take direction; she threw fits; and whenever it looked like she was losing a battle, she locked herself in the nearest bathroom until she got her way. Corinne had been like Kate's older sister, but Kate began to distance herself; she knew firsthand how intractable Corinne could be.
"Corinne would make me cry," Kate said.
"The more I piss you off," Corinne would say, "the better pictures I get."
Kate was dreading the shoot for the Calvin Klein campaign; they were insisting she be topless, and she was incredibly self-conscious about her small breasts. She'd even considered getting implants early in her career, but had been advised against it. Now she was teamed with Mark Wahlberg, then a hip-hop wannabe with a bulging physique and thug-lite attitude. The idea to pair them came David Geffen, the billionaire who'd just bailed out Calvin Klein and had recently seen Marky Mark, shirtless, on the cover of Rolling Stone.
It was an unhappy set. Wahlberg spent some downtime tugging his dick while Kate rolled her eyes. He made it clear that Kate, to him, was nothing special. "I wasn't into the waif thing," he said later. "She kind of looked like my nephew."
"It didn't feel like me at all," Kate said. "I felt really bad about straddling this buff guy. I didn't like it. I couldn't get out of bed for two weeks."
In a culture petrified of AIDS, this campaign's approach to sex was defiant. Fabien Baron, the creative director, was funneling Corinne Day's aesthetic: louche, dishabille, a cultivated concoction of glamour and grime. One particular appellation caught on quickly: "heroin chic."
That campaign saved the house of Calvin Klein and launched Kate's career. She was soon the sole face of Calvin Klein jeans, underwear, fragrance. She was always shot in black-and-white, set against white seamless or a flaking wall, sometimes nude, sometimes in a black tank and cotton underwear, her stark, fragile beauty amplified by lank hair and little makeup.
"For me, Kate's body represented closing the door on the excessiveness of the '80s," Klein said. "So many women models would come to me where they've distorted their bodies by implants in their breasts, changing their hips, changing their knees... I mean, you just cannot imagine what models were doing to themselves, what women have been doing to themselves. I think something changed dramatically in the '90s. And I was looking for someone who could represent something that's more natural."
The culture at large didn't see Kate that way. Up against the skyscraper supermodels of the '80s, their very perfection a comment on American supremacy, a small-boned, flat-chested model like Kate Moss was heresy. Someone her size hadn't been seen since Twiggy in the '60s; suddenly, Kate and Calvin Klein were accused of promoting anorexia, heroin use, child pornography, and the downfall of Western civilization. She was on the sides of buses, kiosks, and pay phones, naked and draped across a velvet sofa in a ramshackle room, "FEED ME" often scrawled across the ad by protesters.
"I was thin," Kate said, "but that's because I was doing shows, working really hard. You'd get to work in the morning, there was no food. Nobody took you out for lunch when I started." Kate spent much of 1993 in tears. This was the same girl who'd once been told by her mother that life wasn't always fun and refused to believe it: "Why the fuck not? Why the fuck can't I have fun all the time?" Now she was beginning to see.
"If you were to say, 'What were the '90s like in America?' that has to be one of the great images," said feminist scholar Camille Paglia, calling the campaign proof that America was becoming a modern-day Babylon. "A dartboard for every point to be made about bad female body image," said James Wolcott in the New Yorker.
Among Kate's cohort, however, she was the future. "Suddenly this little unknown fresh-faced, scruffy-haired, no-makeup boyish girl appears, with a new breed of photographer, who was taking much more natural light," said hairstylist Sam McKnight, who was also coming up at the time. "It was a new wave, and it changed fashion forever."
After the Calvin Klein ads broke, Kate landed a spot in Dolce & Gabbana's 1992 fall campaign and was photographed by the star-making photographer Steven Meisel. She was getting booked for runway, which automatically put her in the same league as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista.
The momentum was startling. Not all of Kate's fellow models were welcoming, and she partly understood: She didn't think she was tall or beautiful enough either. She knew very little about fashion and clothes and had no real sense of style, but she worked hard and you could shoot her from any angle; not one was bad. Kate was enthusiastic, candid and scrappy; she was not to be bullied and she knew how to be a bitch.
"It must be a bit weird for [other models]," Kate said. "Everyone saying this is the new look when they've got the perfect face, the perfect body, the perfect everything. And somebody who's not at all perfect comes along and starts taking all their jobs..."
Despite her ascent, it took Kate some time to truly believe that she was beautiful. As she was demolishing the supermodel, so, too, was she demolishing conventional standards of beauty. Now, in the early '90s, there was suddenly room for girls who, before, would have been too odd or too ugly: Ève Salvail, with her shaved, tattooed head; Stella Tennant and her avian features; Kristin McMenamy, hard-looking, eyebrowless, more masculine than feminine; and Chloë Sevigny and Sofia Coppola, non-models with sleepy eyes and disproportionate features.
"I think Corinne actually helped Kate come to terms with the fact that she wasn't like those models, but she wasn't not beautiful," says Neil Moodie, who got his big break as a hairstylist with Corinne in the early '90s. "Corinne started taking the pictures she did to prove a point, really; to go, 'Well, there's beauty in lots of people. It's not just one type that should be in a fashion magazine.'"
Corinne's bibles were Larry Clark's Tulsa and Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, two explicit chronicles of generational self-abuse: young people in their own filth, pissing, masturbating, shooting up, and having sex. Corinne lifted these tableaux and administered the ultimate perversion: She made them fashionable. And she refused to acknowledge the overtones of hard drug use in her photos. "I wanted the ordinary person to see real life in those pages," she said.
By all accounts, she was succeeding: by 1993 she had been hired to shoot editorials for Elle UK and i-D, ads for Barneys, and the first Miu Miu campaign. Still, Corinne was bitter that Calvin Klein hadn't hired her for the Kate campaign. "It was that Kate looked like how Kate would look when Corinne photographed her," Moodie says.
When British Vogue commissioned Corinne for a lingerie shoot with Kate, Corinne insisted on creative control. She shot in Kate's London apartment and staged it to look like her own flat: modest and cold, with white walls and gray carpet, exposed wiring, a mattress on the floor. Kate had been crying after a fight with her boyfriend, and Corinne exploited the juxtaposition of distress and seduction, putting Kate in tiny cotton tanks and silk underwear, some of it from a sex shop on Brewer Street. In the finished editorial, Kate, silhouetted by a string of multicolored Christmas lights, looked frail and lost.
"Under-Exposure" ran in the June 1993 issue of British Vogue, and in its wake People magazine ran a feature called "How Thin Is Too Thin?" suggesting that Moss—"[who] looks as if a strong blast from a blow dryer could waft her away"—was responsible for the uptick in anorexic and bulimic teenage girls. Susan Faludi said Moss was undermining 30 years of feminism, that her body represented "a man's fantasy of shrinking a woman down to a manageable size." A counselor at an eating disorder facility in Connecticut said, "I wouldn't say Kate Moss causes anorexia, but I had an anorexic in here yesterday who said she wanted to look like Kate Moss."
"Hideous and tragic," said the editor of British Cosmopolitan. "I believe they can only appeal to the pedophile market." "Extremely close to perversion in their appeal," said the Independent, assailing Corinne for her "fascination with the freakish and the squalid."
"It wasn't very Vogue, I suppose," Kate said later. "It was very Corinne."
Like Marc Jacobs' grunge collection, Corinne's editorial was rejected by the press, her peers, and popular culture. Today, both are considered among the most pivotal fashion moments of the 1990s.
Corinne couldn't understand it: Here were all these male photographers ripping her off and getting major contracts, while she was the only one vilified and marginalized. So in 1993, when Anna Wintour asked to borrow shots Corinne had taken of model Rosemary Ferguson in the Brewer Street loft, she felt validated. Ferguson, too, was a Corinne discovery: lithe, tall, cropped dark hair. These images were more overt than any Corinne had done: Rosemary looked glassy-eyed and high.
Corinne's shots of Rosemary ran in American Vogue's October 1993 issue as part of a story called "The Lost Youth," which included documentary photos of strung-out teenagers taken by Larry Clark. The New York Times ran a spread condemning Corinne's work.
She thought Rosemary would never talk to her again. Instead, Corinne lost Kate, who was advised by her agent, Sarah Doukas, to disassociate herself immediately. Kate, aware of Corinne's increasingly erratic behavior, took that advice.
Other friends followed suit. "Corinne started to live a certain lifestyle," said former collaborator Melanie Ward. "You really have to go deep into a certain world to document it, and that's the path that Corinne took."
For Corinne, losing Kate was most hurtful. But she told everyone she rejected Kate, not the other way around, and that things changed while working on "Under-Exposure."
"Halfway through the shoot," Corinne said, "I realized it wasn't fun for her anymore, and that she was no longer my best friend but had become a model. She had realized how beautiful she was."
"And when she did," added Corinne, "I found I didn't think her beautiful anymore."
Maureen Callahan has worked as an editor and writer at the New York Post, covering everything from the subcultures of the Lower East Side to local and national politics. She has also written for Spin, New York magazine, Vanity Fair, and Sassy. She lives in New York City. Champagne Supernovas is available now.
Copyright © 2014 by Maureen Callahan. From the book CHAMPAGNE SUPERNOVAS by Maureen Callahan, published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. Top photo by Corinne Day, 2007 photo of Day and Moss © Dafydd Jones.