Paloma Elsesser is my favourite supermodel. Is it weird that I still have a favourite supermodel at 48? Maybe, I guess, but none of us gets to choose the pop culture we grow up with. I was 13 when Cindy Crawford first made the cover of British Vogue, and I had that picture taped to my bedroom wall, an altar to all-American sex appeal that would have been Elvis had it been 1956 not 1986. By the 1990s, supermodels were everywhere, like footballers on the then-ubiquitous Panini stickers, and I pored over their glamorous names and brief, glorious careers. I loved Christy Turlington, so serene and graceful. There was Kate Moss, obviously, and, much later, that day in London when Stella Tennant came out of retirement to open a Victoria Beckham show.
Elsesser is different, because she is plus-sized. She is the first non-skinny supermodel to steal my heart. She is not the first beautiful bigger supermodel – Ashley Graham scored her first Vogue cover in 2017 – but she is the first plus-sized cover girl who has fully embodied the rock-star persona of a supermodel. When Elsesser is on a catwalk, nobody in the room can look at anyone else, and she knows it. She’s not just my favourite model; she’s everyone’s.
The fashion world is obsessed with her, too. After years of grudgingly paying lip service to the existence of bodies that are bigger and softer by including one or two plus-sizes in their casting – often in loose, vaguely shaped clothes, or photographed only from the shoulders up – Elsesser’s fame feels different.
I get it. I realise that taking such an absurdly long time to fall for a model who isn’t skinny flags me as a blinkered muppet. Still, I think it is probably better to be honest about this, however unflattering a light it paints me in. The revelation isn’t that Elsesser is beautiful (doh!) but that blinkered muppetry lingered so long in a dark place in my heart and, now, finally, is evaporating. It’s not that I’ve been unable to recognise that beauty comes in different shapes and sizes. I could stand in front of one of Titian’s 16th-century beauties, pillowy of cheek and thigh, and feel my pupils dilate, but until recently my internal template for supermodel gorgeousness was narrower than I admitted.
About five years ago, when plus-sized bodies on catwalks were like hen’s teeth, I was at a London fashion week show where, in a parade of minuscule bodies, one size-16 model took her turn. The audience applauded politely and I remember feeling mortified on her behalf because, however well meant, it felt patronising. A Cindy, Kate or Naomi doesn’t get respectful clapping; she makes everyone hold their breath and stare. And now, here we are. Because that’s what happens with Paloma.
Why has fashion been so uptight about body shape for so long? Perhaps because it is as much about status as it is about aesthetics. Supermodels – and who gets to be one – are significant, because they are where fashion infiltrates our real lives. Their faces are on magazines, their names are in newspapers along with details of their bank balances, relationships, houses. Status stuff. Slowly, slower than we like to admit, these sands are shifting.
Like I said, it’s not that Elsesser now gets to be beautiful. She doesn’t need my blessing for that. What has changed is that I get to stop being a muppet. I’m taking that as a blessing from her.