Sometimes I look at this woman, perhaps the fifteenth or twentieth most recognisable woman in the world, and wonder what would have happened to her and her strange, melancholy, uncomprehending-looking face if she’d been born a couple of years earlier or later. As it is, we know what happened to the face. It was spotted, when she was 14, at JFK airport by Sarah Doukas, head of the Storm model agency in London. This was 1988. Later, when asked exactly what it was she’d spotted, Doukas just said, “Bones. Great bones.”

We know what happened to these great bones over the next few years. For a while, nothing much. And then - whoosh! This was not exactly classical beauty. But it was something. Kate Moss, a slim girl who looked surly and not-quite-healthy, summed up people’s feelings. First, it was the people at The Face magazine, in 1990 and 1991. By 1993, it was millions. Moss was on magazine covers and billboards all over the world. She was the first new woman to be called a “supermodel” since the term had been coined. She was blamed for introducing a a generation of teenage girls to the world of eating disorders. Like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton before her, she was far from perfect, but exactly right.

Look at this woman for a moment. She evokes emotions, certainly. She’s from Croydon. She’s 22 3/4, more or less. She is not beautiful, but she definitely “has something”. A truck driver probably wouldn’t fancy her. She looks a bit blank and slightly worried in a lot of pictures, like she might be about to go home and cry. She is roughly speaking, a cross between Uma Thurman and Ian Beale from EastEnders.

The rise of Kate Moss tells us some interesting things, not about her, but about ourselves. In the Eighties we wanted women to be tall, slim, glossy: we wanted them to look as if they knew what they were doing. Linda Evangelista, Helena Christiansen, Karen Mulder: in photographs they looked as if they might be the sort of people who ran their own businesses. They looked smart. Kate Moss does not look smart. There is no glossy Eighties-looking facade about her. She looks lost, stymied; she looks as if things haven’t quite worked out for her. This is the face of the Nineties, the face which reminds you that the optimism you had was misplaced.

So Moss, the phenomenon, happened because people needed someone just like her. In 1992, she arrived at Harper’s Bazaar in New York. “The second she walked in to our office,” said Liz Tilberis, the magazine’s editor, “model editor Sara Foley and fashion director Paul Cavaco knew they were looking at a true beauty; someone whose face and attitude were the personification of the time.” On being discovered, Moss simply says: “I don’t know why any of this happened. The chain of events that followed has led me to where I am now and I wouldn’t attempt to question any of it, or ask why. It’s none of my business.”

Kate Moss smokes a lot. She says she eats a lot. She’s naturally slim. She’s got a calorie-burning metabolism. For a while, in the early Nineties, as she flew around the world in order to look a little surly and taciturn in endless countries, she didn’t know what had hit her. She went out with Johnny Depp for a while. She almost never looks seductive, in the sense of looking like she wants someone to make a pass at her. When she is photographed wearing underwear, she does not usually pose like other models do; she looks as if she’s been caught unawares, spied upon. She lets her feet stick out at odd angles: she is slightly bandy-legged. Famously, she has a “lazy eye”, which makes her look more like an urchin, or, in the more famous phrase, a “waif”. You can look at a picture of Kate Moss and think of words like: toenails, moles, cigarette butts.

There is one photograph which sums things up. It was taken by Glen Luchford, in April 1994, for Harper’s Bazaar. The location is New York. Here Moss appears in a shiny synthetic-looking dress which hangs loose on her because she is thin. She is standing in front of a strip of tacky clothes and video shops - I think it’s 42nd Street in Manhattan. She is in a defensive boxing pose, legs apart, leading with her left. She has a fake tattoo on her left upper arm. Her hair is scraped back. And she looks…ratty. She’s dropping her chin, revealing the flattish plane between her eyes, the expanse of flat forehead, the low bridge of her nose. She looks really slaggy; also coiled with aggression. It’s a brilliant photograph. You can just, just, see that this is a picture of a not-quite beautiful woman. But almost not.

Now, imagine showing this photograph to someone 60 or 70. Imagine showing it to Margaret Thatcher. What would the response be? It would be “Ugh!” It would be “This is exactly what’s wrong with the world, summed up in one picture.” Here is an image in which all optimistic, old-fashioned ideas have taken a beating. You see gender confusion, fear, stains on the the sidewalk; a world of cheapness and discomfort. It’s a picture that makes you realise you have got a lot to think about. And here’s another of the qualities of Moss - just as her extraordinary not-quite-beauty can be seen in all this rattiness, the reverse is also true. Even at her most glamorous, something of the other side always shows through.

William Leith Arena magazine October 1, 2008
Posted on October 1, 2008