In her book, "Becoming", The Supermodel
Reflects On Turning 50
July / August 2016
By Allan Richter
Shortly after winning the “Look of the Year” contest held by the Elite Modeling Agency in 1982, Cindy Crawford graced the cover of Vogue and entered the high-stakes world of modeling.
The statuesque beauty has since been known as one of the world’s most recognizable models and has embodied a superstar status largely reserved for icons of the film and rock worlds.
At the same time, Crawford bared qualities that made her more accessible and gave her dimensions beyond her perfect figure and stunning beauty: the trademark mole above her lip, a deep intellect—she was her high school’s class valedictorian and studied chemical engineering in college before launching her modeling career—and a scarred personal history that included the divorce of her parents and the death of her brother from leukemia.
Approaching the age of 50 gave Crawford the impulse to reflect on her storied life and career, which she does with a good measure of candor and wisdom in her recently published Becoming (Rizzoli). Becoming is part memoir and part coffee table art book loaded with modeling shots and personal photos.
But it also serves as a practical self-help guide. In turning the lens on her supermodel life, Crawford makes herself approachable and lets her readers glean practical life
lessons that apply to anyone. Anecdotes from her life in modeling, such as when the iconic photographer Richard Avedon insisted that Crawford have an idea in her head when she posed, translate easily into beneficial aphorisms. In the case of the Avedon nugget: Approach life with purpose and goals in mind.
A Blemish Leaves a Mark
In Becoming, Crawford discloses that she wrestled at length with her image because of her famous mole—a source of significant emotional pain during her youth.
Her sisters convinced her that such a blemish can only be considered a beauty mark if it is on the right side of her face but is deemed ugly if it is on the left, as it appears on Crawford’s face. On her first day of high school, as Crawford made her way up the main stairwell, a jock shouted an insult about chocolate on her face. “I blinked back tears. It took me years to use those stairs again,” Crawford writes.
Through her childhood—she grew up in DeKalb, Illinois, a small town 60 miles west of Chicago—Crawford suggested to her parents that her mole be removed but her mother urged her to consider the scar that might be left in its place. Crawford was comforted by her mother’s wisdom, only to later face a modeling agent who urged her to remove the mole.
She eventually worked with another agent who had no problem with the mark. That agent got Crawford her first paying modeling job, in which she wore a Cross Your Heart bra in a Marshall Field’s ad that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Her breakthrough appearance on the cover of Vogue, mole and all, quashed any concerns she had about the mark, and she began to see the perfection of the imperfection.
“Isn’t it ironic that the very thing that made me most insecure turned out to be my trademark?” she writes.
Crawford’s childhood was challenging. When she was eight, her brother Jeff was diagnosed with leukemia; he died two years later, and her parents divorced four years after that. She saw that her mother grieved her brother’s death openly, but without bitterness, and drew lessons from the process.
She was otherwise happy in her small-town upbringing. Crawford had high ambitions to be a nuclear physicist and the first woman president. And she found positive mentors; one teacher pegged her a “future Miss America.” “While that wasn’t really a role I aspired to,” Crawford says, “the idea that someone outside my family could dream so big for me was a revelation.”
Crawford credits the many jobs she worked in before modeling—she babysat, folded sweaters in a clothing store and cleaned her aunt’s house, sometimes scrubbing faucets with a toothbrush, among other tasks—with honing her strong work ethic and professionalism. She says she also learned not to define her self-worth through the paycheck that any job, including modeling, earned.
This upbringing set the foundation for Crawford to find dimension beyond the flat printed page on which she would appear so often.
Besides Avedon, many of the fashion photographers with whom Crawford worked influenced her and taught her lessons she calls priceless.
For example, from Victor Skrebneski, her first teacher in the fashion world, and Irving Penn, who treated his entire studio like a blank canvas, she learned to take the focus off herself by looking outward—the opposite approach of someone undertaking yoga or meditation, but with the same soothing benefits. In fact, Crawford says modeling exposed sides of herself she didn’t know existed, though she is vague about those facets of her personality.
Skrebneski taught Crawford how to hold her body, pay attention to the light and be still. “He taught me how to model, and more importantly, that modeling wasn’t about me, the model,” she says of Skrebneski, whom she describes as tough but nurturing.
As for the zen-like approach of Penn, “he was completely disciplined and understood fashion right down to the smallest seam,” she says. “I loved watching him contemplate the clothes, distilling their essence until he found the most interesting element to bring to life.” For Penn, she adds, “every day in the studio was about making Art with a capital A. Who else could see the beauty in a dying flower or even a cigarette butt?”
Going Against Type
Crawford, with more of an athletic build than many models, has bucked the trend of the painfully petite model whose waiflike appearance has set an impossible bar for millions of young women.
In Skrebneski’s studio, breakfast for many models was limited to black coffee and cigarettes, and fainting was common practice during the long days of photo shoots. That’s when Crawford polished her baking skills, learning how to make lemon bread and banana muffins to provide sustenance for herself and some of the other girls.
Crawford acknowledges she was never much of a dieter. “I grew up on meat and potatoes with the occasional Twinkie thrown in for good measure,” she writes. She never had a bagel before moving to New York, but when she did move, found bagels and cream cheese at the breakfast buffet of every photo shoot. Naïve about nutrition, she thought she was eating low-cal dinners of pasta and salad if she skipped the bread. And she wasn’t much for fitness, having come from DeKalb High School, where one semester she took bowling for phys ed.
Realizing she needed a more healthful routine, Crawford began working out with a famous trainer in New York named Radu, who ran her through Romanian fitness techniques (though she does not specify what they are) that she employs to this day. She works out three times weekly, and occasionally hikes or bikes. “He taught me that physical strength translated into feeling emotionally strong as well,” she says of Radu.
Over the years, Crawford tried a variety of diets, at different times minimizing fats, carbs, eating fruit only before lunch, vegetarian, and high protein. “Of course, as soon as I told myself I wasn’t going to eat any sugar, bread, or whatever,” she writes, “all I could think about was sugar, bread, or whatever!” She says she ultimately settled on the idea of being “80% good, 80% of the time.”
The model credits her photographers with accepting her more “voluptuous” body size rather than making her feel self-conscious or insisting she lose weight to fit the trend of thinner body types. “They gave me confidence in my body by showing me how beautiful it was,” she writes.
“Sadly, it often takes others to see the beauty in ourselves.”
Not everyone in fashion is so accepting, however, and Crawford learned on some modeling jobs that she had to trust her instincts more than the industry bigwigs who arranged the shoots.
Makeup artist Kevin Aucoin once tried to use a kind of theatrical tape to create the effect of a temporary facelift, but Crawford says he didn’t tell her or the other models before the photo shoot. Crawford was uneasy with the idea from the start but let it proceed—until she saw how she looked.
“It wasn’t so much that my face looked completely different; what really bothered me was the message we were sending to women,” Crawford says. “Even the best hair and makeup wasn’t good enough? Now we had to go to extreme measures to enhance our faces? What would that say to the reader? And what possible takeaway could there be for them? It would be ridiculous if women walked around with taped faces in real life.”
Crawford stood her ground, refused to pose with the tape, and the photo that was taken had her sans the pseudo facelift.
Crawford says the best dividend of her job is the opportunity for travel. Not content to limit her visits abroad to hotel rooms and sets for photo shoots, Crawford says she makes a point to immerse herself in the local culture, both an enriching and humbling experience, she adds.
“Traveling was the ultimate finishing school,” she writes. “And the greatest lesson for me was that, even though there are so many distinct cultures, in the end we as humans have more in common than we have differences.”
Months before completing Becoming, Crawford traveled to Peru to visit with children who had undergone surgeries to help restore their vision. She was part of a documentary about Orbis International, a nonprofit that brings eye care to communities around the world. Last month, the model helped unveil an Orbis-sponsored airliner equipped with a mobile hospital.
There is plenty of food for thought between the covers of Becoming, but a lesson can also be gleaned just from the title itself.
As an adjective, Becoming underscores Crawford’s physical beauty. Yes, she is fetching and easy on the eyes. But “becoming” is also a verb, and this usage may uncover the secret to Crawford’s longevity: her constant evolution to something new—actress, talk show host, fitness video entrepreneur, restaurateur, wife and mother. Uneasy with the status quo, she allows herself to be surprised on a new photo shoot and is in a constant state of movement and transition.
The supermodel label that has most strongly defined Crawford’s public persona, in her mind, hardly defines her at all. “I’ve always approached modeling as a job,” she says. “It’s what I do, not who I am.”