Veronica Webb, the Legendary Supermodel, is in bed, having just woken up. It’s early morning in New York, where she lives with her husband and children. She’s talking to me about her career, keen to start work before the distractions of family life kick in. I’m across the world in Sydney, Australia, where I live with my two bulldogs. It’s midnight here, and the bulldogs and I are huddled on the sofa in my office, one of us interviewing a Legendary Supermodel over FaceTime. I’m nervous, so I’ve just told Veronica about my father, who grew up half an hour away from her hometown of Detroit. Like Veronica (and Charlene Dash, Billie Blair and Donyale Luna before her), my dad was a black kid who saw modeling as an opportunity to get the hell out of Michigan. That’s why Veronica is now telling me about empathy, because unlike my dad—whose modeling career was mediocre, at best—she was able to analyze what makes a good model, to identify why people kept booking her, and harness it all into a career spanning over three decades. The secret is empathy, everybody. That and a love of fashion itself.
Veronica’s passion for the fashion industry has never been a secret. Before model street style was a thing, countless articles ran about her love of clothes. In an American Vogue feature, Veronica described her look as “part James Bond, part James Brown,” and Calvin Klein once enthused, ”She’s funny and exciting and she has a great sense of style.’’ All of this is to be expected of a woman who spent two years of her early career living with designer Azzedine Alaia. He and Veronica had connected at a casting, when Alaia, mistakenly assuming the new model was a fellow Tunisian, tried to converse with her in French. Veronica, in Paris for the first time, didn’t speak a word of the language. But something passed between them, a connection so profound Alaia and his partner Christophe von Weyhe began to refer to Veronica as their daughter. To this day she considers the couple to be her “adopted parents”. And while the experience in Paris helped hone and evolve her sense of style, Veronica’s love of clothing and appreciation for the creative arts is something she attributes to her mother, Marion.
Marion Webb served as a nurse at Pearl Harbour during World War II, and during Veronica’s childhood worked long, tough hours in the emergency ward at Detroit General Hospital. Veronica was born in 1967, a few months before the Detroit Riots, which left Motown with the stigma of being poor, black, and crime-riddled. Once known as the birthplace of America’s middle class, Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s was in the throes of white flight. Car manufacturing, once the lifeblood of the city, was in decline. The voter base had fled to the ‘burbs and the money followed. Working families like the Webbs were left in a town that was chronically underfunded. They lived modestly, all income going towards the education of Veronica and her two older sisters. At home, Marion dedicated herself to her children. Everything they had they made themselves—from entire outfits to all home furnishings. Marion instilled in her children the value of resourcefulness but also an appreciation for items that were well made. “She could make anything and do it impeccably with incredible detail,” recalls Veronica. “She was very creative.” That’s perhaps why Marion, despite not having much interest in fashion herself—Veronica says her mother preferred to dress simply and sensibly—understood when Veronica decided to leave academia to pursue modeling instead.
There’s another thing about Veronica that has never been a secret: she’s very clever. Any article published about her during the 80s and 90s invariably mentioned three things: Veronica Webb is black, she’s beautiful, and she’s smart. So it comes as a surprise to me when she confesses that becoming a model wasn’t just happenstance but an ambition harbored since childhood. It’s surprising because whenever models are celebrated for their intellect it comes with the implication that the fashion world for them is just a temporary distraction until a worthier industry beckons. For Veronica, though, modeling wasn’t settling, it was the ultimate—but her intelligence definitely didn’t hurt. After she was initially noticed for her beauty by a Revlon executive at 1991’s Black and White Ball, it was her eloquence and astute negotiation skills that sealed the Revlon deal. The resulting contract was the first-ever awarded to a black model by a major cosmetics brand. In the intervening years, Veronica employed a similar level of shrewdness by leveraging her celebrity into other areas like journalism, acting and presenting. She knew how to be critical but insightful when discussing sensitive issues like race (as evidenced in this video from 1992) and feminism. She’s navigated her career with incredible astuteness but she also knows that she didn’t do it alone. In addition to Alaia, she credits Karl Lagerfeld, Isaac Mizrahi, Elizabeth Salzmann, Pamela Hanson, Bethann Hardison and agents David Brown and Riccardo Gay as being instrumental to her career. And, ten years ago, when her career came to a halt because high fashion wasn’t interested in booking her or any older models, Veronica rightly sensed that it was time to sit back and just wait it out.
A mixture of nostalgia and diversity consciousness is currently permeating through the industry. Ageism is a talking point. Older models, particularly those who were major in the 80s and 90s, are making a resurgence. This coincides with Veronica feeling more confident than ever, more positive about her looks and body than she did during her heyday. There is no fashion PTSD here—no regrets (other than not learning more languages) and no nightmarish professional experiences (with the exception of one European agent). She has pioneered and remained outspoken without creating mortal enemies. By some fashion miracle, in a profession where a model’s reputation is often her most valuable currency, the facts today remain unchanged from back when Bush Snr and Clinton were in the White House. Veronica Webb: stylish, smart, supermodel.
Veronica is represented by Iconicfocus Models (New York). Many thanks to Lori Modugno.