Thanks to MTV's House of Style, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, Cindy Crawford is no longer a mere supermodel. As host of the show, she takes four million viewers beyond the runway and behind the camera. WILLIAM NORWICH charts Crawford's evolution from a pretty face into a style‑savvy reporter and commentator.
Sittings Editor: Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele
Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark
Show time: Crawford with House of Style producer Alisa Bellettini at the MTV offices in New York City. Crawford wears a Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel sweater and a shiny miniskirt by Istante by Gianni Versace. Bellettini's dress is by Todd Oldham. Hair George Kyriakos makeup Genevieve.
It's so cheesy," Cindy Crawford moans, shaking her head at her image on a TV screen. Sky‑high in a fiftieth‑floor office of MTV headquarters in Manhattan, the übermodel is devoting an hour to scrutinizing her flaws.
Flaws? Wearing a favorite black Chanel short‑sleeve turtleneck, a silver mini, black tights, and high boots, Cindy exhibits not the slightest detectable detour from perfection, despite the brilliant sunshine pouring in through the windows. Of course, that is, in part at least, why she earns an estimated $15 million a year, the result of a heavy modeling schedule, a reported five-year, $7 million contract with Revlon, and the profits from two best‑selling exercise videos.
Crawford is reviewing her hits and misses as the host and reporter on MTV's popular program House of Style, a pioneer in bringing the world of fashion to television. It is a cassette of the very first episode, in 1989, that elicits her chagrin, the one where she perches on a terrace overlooking Central Park and promises "the latest lowdown on high fashion" and a "survey of street looks ... and a sampling of style victims from some of our most visually oriented rock stars." This is the episode her modeling agent proclaimed her nuts for doing, when she could have shot a catalog that day. The one that inspired a reviewer to write that Cindy "emotes with all the passion of a voice‑synthesized 411 operator."
"Cheesy," Cindy repeats and laughs about her strained delivery, which consisted entirely of reading haltingly off cue cards. (She ultimately resorted to getting contact lenses.) "I used to be more concerned about the way I looked, and the way I was lighted," she adds. "Because at first I was hired only to look good."
But she must have done something right. This month House of Style celebrates its fifth anniversary, and each of its ten episodes a year is watched by close to four million savvy young viewers. Five years is an eternity on television, and Cindy is the only model to date to have succeeded in the fickle field of TV.
Crawford, 28, acknowledges that joining House of Style was one of the smartest moves she ever made. For the show's first year, she simply opened and closed each episode with scripted greetings and remarks, but since then she has grown to become quite an entertaining reporter, covering the style waterfront -from a tongue‑in‑cheek and behind‑the‑scenes look at the shooting of one of her own swimsuit calendars to a serious segment on breast implants in which she surveyed her fellow models for their opinions on the controversial subject.
Alisa Bellettini, who developed and produces the show, as well as occasional specials, with Crawford, says she hired Cindy because she saw her as "the all‑American girl, tasteful and beautiful but fun. And I knew that people would be interested in a model. Of course, for the first year, Cindy was a little stiff," Bellettini says politely. "But what happened was, about a year later we were at some event and I just put a microphone in Cindy's hand and had her start interviewing people. And everything changed."
It was at an AIDS benefit organized by Gianni Versace in New York. Crawford was scared when Bellettini handed her the mike, but luckily the first person she was told to chat up was photographer Herb Ritts, a friend whose mother had introduced Cindy to her future husband, Richard Gere, in 1988. "Then I interviewed Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bernhard, whom I didn't know. It was OK; we got some good stuff."
Bellettini's concept for House of Style was to present fashion as fun, with affordable style tips for the hip and happening masses, fashion news as entertainment, or "style‑o‑tainment," as insiders have come to call it. "I just want everyone to know that anyone can be stylish," explains Bellettini. "You don't have to be a model. You don't have to be rich." In the process, the show has also humanized Crawford's glamour-girl image. "I don't have to take myself so seriously anymore," Cindy says. "I don't have to go out with big hair and an Azzedine Alaia dress on, because my viewers have seen me on House of Style with rollers in my hair, putting on makeup, and holding in my stomach." And then she adds, "I'm not just one of the 'girls' anymore, and that is what models always get called ‑girls. I still like modeling, and doing shows, but now I have a voice, a point of view."
Fashion on television, especially cable, where it can fill countless otherwise‑unprogrammed hours, has become a big business. "Imitation is very flattering, but isn't it too much?" wonders Elsa Klensch, whose straightforward, journalistic half hour of fashion on CNN launched the field fourteen years ago and quickly became the network's number one weekend show. "This past fashion week in New York," Klensch continues, "there were camera crews not only in their own pen but in the pit, competing with the print photographers." Almost every network, from the majors to such cable channels as Lifetime Television and Comedy Central, has tried putting fashion on television ‑with various results.
"Poorly" is how Steve Friedman, executive producer of the Today show, rated network television's fashion coverage in a recent interview with Women's Wear Daily. "Because it's helter‑skelter, it's not a regular beat like health and science," Friedman explained. "What I found is that fashion is so eclectic these days. There's no such thing as the Paris fashion shows setting the trends."
While Today plays it safe by having a reporter come on a few times a year to talk about such standard subjects as back‑to‑school clothes and swimwear, other networks are taking a more lighthearted approach, à la House of Style. Naomi Campbell recently served as a special correspondent for Good Morning America. Christy Turlington was the subject of a full‑length documentary for the Lifetime cable channel. Model Veronica Webb has just completed a pilot on the lighter side of fashion news for VH‑1, where her mandate, not surprisingly, is "fun." VH‑l's Fashion Television never misses a stylish event or trend, and this fall, Anthony J. Guccione II, son of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, intends to launch FAD TV, a 24‑hour cable channel devoted to fashion and design.
Like Elsa Klensch, Crawford says she's "complimented" by the competition but thinks it maybe a passing trend. "One year all the models had little dogs at the shows, and another year they had their boyfriends hanging around backstage. Last year in Paris everyone had a microphone and a crew following them around."
Of course, using a model on television did not begin with Crawford. Back in the fifties and sixties former Miss America Bess Myerson, not exactly a model but a stylish spokesperson, turned up constantly on TV. Traditionally models opt to try acting, but Christie Brinkley, Rachel Hunter, Kim Alexis, Cheryl Tiegs, and Carol Alt have all, at various times, contracted the television‑commentator bug. Why does Cindy prevail?
"She's young and hip and entertaining," offers Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. "She's having fun, and that is communicated. Cindy has a rock 'n' roll personality."
Kicking back: Crawford takes a break and shows off the look that’s made her famous.
Bellettini says the hardest part about capturing fashion on television is "how to teach camerapeople to shoot it. You don't want people just twirling around, and you don't want to just do a pan up and down. You want to show the clothes, but in an interesting way. That hasn't always been easy, because it's not easy to shoot fashion in a really cool way." Her solution is to have Cindy, with her rock 'n' roll personality, take viewers behind the scenes, whether at a Helmut Newton fashion shoot in Monte Carlo or on a shopping spree with Duran Duran's John Taylor and Simon Le Bon at a Sears in California. Cool, too, was hiring the groovily goofy designer Todd Oldham as a regular. (Cindy's advice to Oldham when he started in 1993? "Don't let makeup give you a prominent mole.")
The House of Style staff of about twelve has monthly meetings (Cindy attends whenever her hectic schedule permits) to discuss ideas and to push concepts that have helped the show evolve from being simply a showcase for the latest trends to encompassing what Cindy and Alisa term their "cause" shows ‑segments covering topics from eating disorders to date rape. Sometimes these more serious subjects make the MTV powers that be a little nervous, but Cindy manages to assuage their fears. "So we had to open the date rape piece by saying: 'Do the clothes you wear affect if you get date‑raped or not?' But we till got to do the piece."
Crawford is nearly as busy as she is famous. (She estimates that she has accrued over 500,000 frequent‑flier miles.) She plans to continue with her high‑profile projects, including her work for Revlon, her yearly swimsuit calendar, taping more exercise videos, and a possible line of Cindy-designed clothing. And her marriage to Richard Gere still provokes an inordinate amount of gossip and tabloid coverage‑to such an extent that the couple recently took out a full‑page ad in The Times of London to assure "friends and fans" that they are "heterosexual and monogamous and take our commitment to each other very seriously" and to dispel rumors of divorce or a prenuptial agreement. "We remain very married," the ad stated. "We both look forward to having a family. " Clearly, this is not your standard marital situation, but it is one that Cindy addresses with her usual straight‑ahead approach.
Perhaps knowing that her career as a top model has a time limit, Crawford is increasingly focusing on House of Style, as well as other ideas for broadcast journalism, perhaps even a talk show. But if she does a talk show, it will not take the typical talking‑head approach. "People are less protective of their celebrity around me," she says. "I can ask questions as an insider." Celebrities also know she will protect them, in the same way she would like to be protected. "We did a piece on Linda Evangelista," Cindy recalls, "and I saw the tape, and Linda was eating cake. It was a really bad angle on her face and neck, and she wouldn't have liked it. And I said, 'You know what? We can take this out.'"
But she isn't always that careful if it threatens the authenticity of the show. "For instance, when we featured Naomi Campbell…Naomi can be a total brat," Cindy says and laughs. "But she can also be a really funny, great person. When we did the piece on her, we showed her like that: 'I don't care, I have to go to Prada, " Cindy says, doing her imitation of Naomi glamour. "But we also showed her putting on zit cream. I think people, especially models, know that if they do our show, they are going to come off as real people.
"And viewers get to know what it is like to hang out with these celebrities," she adds. "We're not trying to make a statement about them either way. I'm not a journalist, so I would never position myself like a Barbara Walters. But the format of the show also gives me a different kind of freedom, the freedom not to ask the obvious questions. Everything has already been asked of the people I would interview anyway, so why not ask them to spend an afternoon bowling?"
Crawford also suggests that the House of Style method is, well, more modern than standard television fare. "I love watching one‑on‑one interviews, but for most people of my age and generation, it is almost too slow, isn't it? We need more going on than that."
In other words, the generation that wants its MTV also wants its Cindy.