The supermodel phenomenon tracks the outgoing, rising-crime phase of the cocooning-and-crime cycle. It took off during the '60s and culminated in the early '90s, then falling steadily into oblivion by the mid-2010s. It was also dormant during the cocooning, falling-crime era of the Midcentury.
I don't think it has to do with the outgoing phase being more sexually charged. The Midcentury and Millennial eras have their sex and style symbols, they're just from an existing celebrity "brand" with instant recognition. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Katy Perry, Victoria Beckham, Kate Middleton.
The model comes to us as a more mysterious figure, without a pre-established credibility as a celebrity or someone worth paying attention to. She seems to exist purely within the realm of persona-creation, not even having an identifiable role for us to link her with (such-and-such character from a hit movie, a performer of such-and-such hit song, etc.). And she arrives connected to no apparent social circle, from which we could learn something about her -- what other actors she tends to work with, what other singers she performs with, who her family is, and so on.
The model is fundamentally a pop cultural stranger. This suggests that the rise in popularity of models from the '60s through the early '90s was more about the greater social risk-taking of the time, searching out the mysterious, and trusting that unfamiliar people weren't always going to be your undoing. Once the cocooning mood began to set in, folks became more socially risk-averse, came to view the mysterious as "sketchy" or "shady," and only trusted what was instantly familiar. The shadowy model had to get lost from the magazine cover to make room for the hit singer, the hit actress, and the reality TV star.
This rise and fall of the model has been noted over the past 5 to 10 years, although not so much what the causes of the rise and fall were. But there's an interesting layer underneath this change over periods, which is the differences across generations.
During the first wave, supermodels were Boomers, with a handful of late Silents who were probably chosen because the bulk of the Boomers were too young to be modeling during the '60s. Like all Boomers, they were libertines -- carefree, do what feels good, lacking in self-awareness. See Christie Brinkley playing a mysterious carefree supermodel who tempts Clark Griswold in Vacation.
By the mid-'80s and toward the peak of the phenomenon in the early '90s, the supermodels were drawn from Gen X. Naturally the "model look" became more aware of the viewer, and a bit more guarded of their true personality, playing up more of whatever their persona was. Christy Turlington embodied the generation's balance between guarded and revealing, withdrawn and interactive, introspective and curious about the spectator.
That was over two decades ago -- who are the supermodels today? According to former supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, the only one around by the late 2000s was Gisele Bundchen. She and Alessandra Ambrosio are about the only supermodel types I see in the news anymore. There may be models du jour among the fashion cognoscenti, but I'm talking about those who you'd recognize because their career and everyday lives are covered in the mass media.
Bundchen and Ambrosio were both born at the very end of the Gen X cohort, in the early '80s, and by now are 34 and 33 years old, having worked in the modeling world for well over a decade. Today's supermodels were born only 10 years later than their predecessors of over 20 years ago, evidently not having been displaced by younger rivals. It's not as though all birth years are going to eventually get represented as time moves forward. That assumes that they're equally capable of the job of supermodel.
But what if there's no there there? Millennials are a generation without personality, suited to constantly staring down at a glowing screen to block out their social awkwardness. They can speak lines of dialog and approximate the right body language, so they can find work as actors. But in a way, becoming a star model is more difficult because there is no dialog, plot, or character traits provided in a script to guide their performance. They have to tantalize and mesmerize the audience with only a shadowy yet distinct persona. That subtlety of intuition is way beyond the abilities of Millennials.
Apart from subtlety and intuition, you also need a basic curiosity about the viewer and willingness to interact with them, a little give and a little take. This hardly requires you to be a born salesman, but it's still too extraverted for the socially awkward Millennials.
I do see constant references in the news and at Blind Gossip to a 1992-born model named Cara Delevingne, but she's no supermodel (or anti-supermodel). She hasn't created a persona, instead falling back on the default Millennial mood of a bratty toddler on the verge of throwing a temper tantrum. A quick check shows that her family is very well connected in the publishing industry, so her 15 minutes of fame owe to nothing more than nepotism. She doesn't look very cute either -- more like a pre-pubescent Kurt Cobain who grew his hair long.
An earlier post looked at who the subjects of reality TV shows have been, and for better or worse it has consistently been X-ers (and a minority of late Boomers), ever since the beginning of the genre in the early '90s. With their mixture of introspective and extraverted tendencies, they have been a natural focus from their college days on the original Real World up through their married, middle-age years on the Real Housewives series.
Millennials, on the other hand, don't have much personality to reveal, don't have many experiences to share, and are in any case too creeped out by other people to connect with an audience even if they did have something to offer.
In a way, models and reality TV stars are alike -- they do not come from an established brand (aside from the "celebreality" subjects), and they offer a stylized view of their true personalities. The difference is that the model is mysterious and reserved, while the reality star is obvious and TMI. Still, it's no surprise why both domains show such a profound generational split, to the point that audiences find the middle-aged more interesting than the young.