The unbearable beauty of Linda Evangelista

The supermodel’s imperious gaze came to define the ’90s. Now, she says a cosmetic procedure has stolen her looks, her livelihood, her very identity. So whose fault is that?

Last September, the Canadian supermodel Linda Evangelista announced on Instagram that she was suing Zeltiq, a U.S. aesthetics company, over a botched cosmetic procedure that allegedly left her disfigured and unable to work. News of the case, which will be working its way through civil courts for some time to come, swept across the internet like a digital firestorm. The initial outpouring of sympathy for Evangelista’s plight was followed by a predictable tsunami of judgment and schadenfreude. Then came the soul-searching, much of it in the U.S. fashion press, with commentators pointing out how Evangelista’s case highlighted the often overlooked violence of the female-targeted multi-billion-dollar beauty industry, which millions of women expose themselves to every year. But what most of this commentary overlooked is also what makes Evangelista’s case so riveting—namely that for her, the stakes are so much higher.

Linda Evangelista was “discovered” by a scout after being spotted as a contestant at the Miss Teen Niagara Pageant in 1978. She didn’t win, but later signed with Elite Model Management. Since then, being beautiful has quite literally been her job, her identity and her raison d’être. Her look made her an icon. If Steve Jobs’s monochromatic fruit and leaf is the defining image of the early 21st century, Linda Evangelista’s face defined the era that preceded it. She was one of the original supermodels—an elite minority of celebrated beauties whose faces and bodies transcended the cosmetics and clothes they were hired to sell, transforming them into emblems of a time when fashion dominated Western popular culture.

When I first read of the Zeltiq lawsuit, I was reminded of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, a play by Christopher Marlowe. First published in 1604, Faustus is a classic cautionary tale about a curious, intrepid doctor who makes a deal with the devil that allows him access to the mysteries of the underworld. Faustus encounters many spirits, the most alluring of which is the ancient Greek figure Helen of Troy. “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” he asks before taking Helen as his bride and, in the process, consigns himself to remain in hell for all eternity. In Evangelista’s version of the story, the model is both the devil-courting Faustus and the spectre of Helen—a mortal condemned to eternal suffering after being seduced by the ghost of her younger, more ravishing self.

Evangelista’s case centres, naturally, on the question of her face—both the one she has now and the one that swept her to the heights of global fashion superstardom. The model’s arch, imperious gaze—which for most of the ’90s was splashed across newsstands and billboards and paraded down the fall and spring runways of every haute couture fashion house—was both familiar and alien, like Sophia Loren crossed with a jungle cat. Her face seemed more than just an arrangement of eyes, ears, mouth and nose that happened to align with the shifting beauty standards of the moment. Like a cupcake that came out of the oven more perfect than the rest, it seemed almost celestial. Those of us working in the fashion press at the time churned out countless column inches in (mostly failed) attempts to put Evangelista’s appeal into words. In 2012, the British fashion journalist Paul Flynn wrote that Evangelista’s beauty was “of a type sculpted by biology’s finest eyeglass; a beauty geometric enough to scare the common man, surely both blessing and curse for day-to-day functionality. As a professional tool, it has been Midas-like, yet there is something about her physical expression that makes you want her to be a touch vile.”

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As compliments go, it’s a backhanded one, but that’s fashion for you—a world in which veneration and vileness have always formed two sides of the same seductive coin. Today, by Evangelista’s account, her beauty has been rendered if not vile, then something close to it. In a heartbreaking Instagram post, she described herself as “brutally disfigured” and “deformed.” But as grainy, long-lens tabloid photos attest, while Evangelista’s face is indeed much changed, it could not be described as hideous, or even plain. She looks perfectly normal—an attractive woman in her 50s, cheeks plumped by the quotidian flesh of middle age. This reality in no way undermines her claims of mortal suffering. Because normal is not the face that Linda Evangelista was born with.

Most women over 40 can, to some degree, empathize with Evangelista’s plight. Anyone who’s suffered a head of bad highlights or been bruised by a syringe of Botox knows the shame of vanity laid bare. What Evangelista’s case invites us to consider is whether her trauma is of a different, higher order. Legendary beauty is a social currency many aspire to but only a few possess. It cannot be gained from talent or grit, nor can it be engineered or purchased. It depends upon the improbable, happy accident of human genetics conforming to (or, in Evangelista’s case, improving upon) the ever-shifting whims and impossible standards of fashion. Even on the rare occasion when such beauty manifests itself, it is then famously fleeting—a depreciating asset in a ruthless buyer’s market.

This brings us to Zeltiq’s CoolSculpting, the non-invasive slimming technique undertaken by Evangelista. The procedure entails the removal of fat through a process called cryolipolysis, in which, according to CoolSculpting’s website, a device pulls unwanted fatty tissue into an applicator and gradually cools it to near the freezing point for roughly half an hour, effectively killing off cells by freezing them to death. Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? In Evangelista’s case, the technique allegedly backfired, resulting in a condition known as paradoxical adipose hyperplasia (PAH). Instead of blitzing the model’s unwanted pudge, CoolSculpting reportedly had the opposite effect—it caused her fat cells to grow, making her face and body expand in the places where she wanted them to shrink. According to her lawyers, the condition is permanent, its effects as irreversible as a curse. (I made multiple attempts to reach Allergen Aesthetics, of which Zeltiq is a unit, as well as AbbVie, the pharmaceutical company that owns Allergen, for comment on Evangelista’s claim, but received no reply.) The allegedly botched procedure and her failed attempts to fix it via several painful cosmetic surgeries have sent the model into what she describes as “a cycle of deep depression, profound sadness and the lowest depths of self-loathing” for more than five years, ultimately rendering her “a recluse.” She’s suing for US$50 million on the grounds that she says she wasn’t told of the risks.

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The legal issue at stake is whether the procedure is indeed responsible for her transformation from goddess to mortal and, if so, the degree of suffering she has endured as a result. It’s fair to wonder whether a 56-year-old model should reasonably be entitled to the expectation of a prolonged career in fashion, an industry known for its savage devotion to novelty and youth. But, as she points out in her claim, many of her original supermodel contemporaries—Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen among them—continue to work either as models or in the celebrity sphere, leveraging the enduring power of their famous faces in exchange for hefty fees. How is it that the so-called Supers have continued to work into late middle age when so many other models fizzle out? The answer is timing—and luck.

Jeanne Beker, the long-reigning host of Citytv’s era-defining fashion news program Fashion Television, is part of a team at work on a documentary series entitled Kingdom of Dreams (Misfits Entertainment), slated for release this year. The doc looks back at fashion in the 1990s, a decade, says Beker, “when the fashion business was pushed to centre stage and illuminated by the light of international celebrity culture.” The power of glossy magazines and acclaimed designers and the global rise of luxury brands formed a tide that buoyed a generation of celebrity models who found themselves spectacularly famous at a startlingly young age.

Evangelista, Campbell and Turlington formed what was known within the industry as “the holy trinity” of models who seemingly overnight became household names, closing major fashion shows and dominating newsstands. This original gang are the faces that launched a thousand cosmetics contracts. Later, their ranks would expand to include Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer and a handful of others.

Legendary ‘Supers’ Evangelista, Crawford, Campbell and Turlington in 1991 (Paul Massey/Shutterstock)

Legendary ‘Supers’ Evangelista, Crawford, Campbell and Turlington in 1991 (Paul Massey/Shutterstock)

Hamish Bowles, host of Condé Nast’s popular fashion podcast In Vogue: The 1990s and Vogue’s international editor at large, identifies the moment when, in his view, the zeitgeist changed. It was March 1991, during Gianni Versace’s show at the Fiera in Milan, when Evangelista, Turlington, Campbell and Cindy Crawford walked down the runway lip-synching to George Michael’s Freedom! ’90, a gay pride anthem for the AIDS generation. The models were reprising their performance in the song’s famous video, in which Evangelista’s face played a starring role. “It was like this electric jolt had charged through the room,” Bowles recalls. “We were all at the epicentre of a world where everything was changing.” The Supers, he says, were elevated beyond the status of mere models into something greater. They were “a symbol, and even a vehicle, of that change.”

But with the turn of the century came the digital revolution and the subsequent dismantling and reorganization of the global media and marketplace as we knew it. In this sense, the Supers were a cultural blip—a kind of last-days-of-disco generation for professional pretty people. In spite of this, their fame and influence have endured. “To this day,” Beker says, “nothing has replaced the original supermodels, not in that dominant way. You have social media stars, but it’s not the same. It’s just an entirely different landscape.”

As a result, many of the original Supers—Evangelista’s peers—continue to command large fees, as their famous faces and bodies persist in selling perfume and cosmetics around the globe. The fact that these images are airbrushed to perfection hardly matters. In a sense, the Supers’ enduring legacy confirms what the fashion industry has long known: that “beauty” in all its forms is an illusion to begin with. Both its standards and its limitations are, like the images themselves, confected and quality-controlled by an industry whose interest is in selling stuff.

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“Never complain, never explain” is rumoured to be the motto of Kate Moss. Apocryphal or not, the dictum has held her in good stead. Like royals and Victorian children, supermodels are meant to be seen and not heard. If they dare to speak up, people get angry.

Take Emily Ratajkowski and her recent polarizing essay collection, My Body. While a handful of critics hailed it as an incisive meditation on beauty culture, the book was widely mocked as the faux-intellectual whinging of a spoiled celebrity influencer. As a former fashion writer, I found many parts of it riveting. That Ratajkowski received such opprobrium for describing the unvarnished reality of what is, by any measure, an utterly bizarre job says more about us than her. At 21, she became famous by dancing nearly naked in Robin Thicke’s controversial viral video Blurred Lines. She claims that she was groped on set (as well as on other sets), and a decade later she continues to be hounded by paparazzi. But she also has 28 million followers on Instagram. In her book, she describes both the harassment she has endured and the dissociation induced by the job of commodifying her own body for money. Ratajkowski isn’t a supermodel; she has almost nothing in common with Evangelista, and yet she describes a similar dysphoric lack of recognition when she looks in the mirror: “I have learned that my image, my reflection, is not my own.”

Evangelista is right to seek judicial remedy for her pain. It’s difficult to fathom the rage she must feel at having had her beauty irreparably damaged and her career curtailed by the very industry it served. But the larger, bleaker truth is this: long before her face was stolen, it had, effectively, ceased to be hers.

This article appears in print in the February 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The unbearable beauty of Linda Evangelista.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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