The rise and fall of Kate Moss

The skeletal model's coke-fueled plunge from grace has exposed some ugly truths about the fashion industry -- not least its world-class hypocrisy.

Published September 23, 2005 11:49PM (EDT)

As the 1980s melted into the 1990s, a new breed of supermodel started stalking the earth. Her emaciated frame made Twiggy's look chunky; she appeared permanently prepubescent; her sunken-eyed pallor made her look like a junkie. She was embodied by Kate Moss.

Moss and her band of wraiths not only drove insanely beautiful but fleshy models like Cindy Crawford and Kathy Ireland from magazine covers, they also slammed a heavy door on Nancy Reagan's 1980s-era "Just Say No" campaign against drug use. Their message was louder and prettier than the prudish abstinence-pushing project led by Reagan. It was accompanied by the melodies of the drug-fueled conflagration that was the Seattle music scene. They were waifs. They were heroin chic.

Now, 15 years later, in a set of circumstances that have exposed the hypocrisy and sanctimony of everyone involved, Moss and the fashion industry are becoming accidental and unwilling poster children for a new anti-drug message.

Two weeks ago, during New York City's Fashion Week, London's Daily Mirror newspaper splashed its cover with an image of Moss -- still a supermodel at 31, as well as mother to a 2-year-old daughter -- cutting lines of cocaine on a CD jewel box. "Cocaine Kate: Supermodel Kate Moss snorts line after line," blared the cover. An inset photo showed her leaning down to inhale the lines of white powder through a rolled up 5-pound note. Moss' career is now in sudden free fall. She has since had her contracts with H&M and Burberry canceled; her longtime relationship with Chanel will not continue past October; and she's been publicly spanked by employers like Rimmel and Gloria Vanderbilt.

News that models do blow is akin to news that rock stars have casual sex: not news at all. But the Moss humiliation was special. While photographers and models haunt the same VIP rooms, presumably sometimes partaking in illegal activities together, rarely do we see photographic evidence of cocaine getting sucked into recognizable nostrils. In this case, the Mirror -- perhaps smarting from the pricey loss of a libel suit Moss brought in response to its allegation that she had fallen into a drug-induced coma in 2001 -- had sent someone on an "undercover investigation."

The "investigation" captured not only grainy still images of Moss' inhalations, but a videotape of the debauched evening, which took place at a West London recording studio where her boyfriend's band Babyshambles was laying down tracks. The boyfriend, Pete Doherty, is the heroin- and cocaine-addicted musician, burglar and all-around yuck-bomb whom the model has been seeing off and on for months. The press has been full of dire warnings to Moss about the perils of her relationship with him, with Doherty's ex describing him as "evil." Moss' press-happy friend Sadie Frost told reporters that Doherty is "not the sort of guy you'd wish for your best friend. He's very wild. Kate's got a history of partying hard. The idea of them together is terrible."

Of course, all this attention has made their romance all the more compelling, which in turn has lent the tale of Moss' druggy downfall at the hands of Doherty and his skuzzy friends an even more satisfying frisson of comeuppance. Thanks to Internet technology, the images and lurid reports of Moss' coked-out antics, including her twitchy nose-rubbing, conversational inanities, and chopping of 20 lines (she snorted five), have shot round the world in nanoseconds.

It's this readily available evidence, perhaps, that has made the usually lifestyle-blind fashion industry turn so violently on Moss. Though she has not made a public statement about her recent narcotic consumption, Moss has spent the week meeting with the companies she represents. Swedish clothing chain H&M had announced it would give her a second chance, but canceled her contract on Tuesday, citing customer complaints. Chanel, a company for which Moss has modeled since 2001, released a statement claiming that it will not renew her contract once her current cycle of ads is retired in October. And while Burberry's public statement was solicitous, pointing out that Moss has "worked successfully" with them over the years, and that she "has always been highly professional," they too brought their relationship with her to an end, a decision that will cost them a considerable amount of money, since they will have to reshoot an already finished ad campaign.

Now it's mostly a question of falling dominoes. Moss, who reportedly makes $9 million a year, will surely lose most, if not all, of her current gigs. Who will want to keep her on, when to do so would signal brazen public support of a woman whose drug use is now being investigated by Scotland Yard?

Of course, Moss' real error was in getting caught on tape, a situation that is certainly unfortunate for her, but just as inconvenient for fashion companies, now forced to place their favorite clotheshorse in the stocks, and to distance themselves from her by proclaiming their wide-eyed innocence.

What this drama has done is lay bare the ugly skeleton that holds up a fashion industry that for some time has prized hollow cheeks and vacant eyes, stunted, prepubescent frames, and jutting collar bones from which fabric drapes beautifully. In other words, the body that is appealing to designers -- and thus to consumers -- is a body that looks like it has been ravaged by drugs. In order to stay employed, models must maintain this shape; to maintain the shape they must do something besides eat right and exercise regularly. Whether it's cocaine or speed or heroin or caffeine or cigarettes or anorexia or bulimia or some combination of the above, most adult women cannot get bodies that look like Moss' healthily, because hers is not a healthy body.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for cosmetics firm Rimmel announced that the company was "shocked and dismayed by the recent press allegations surrounding" Moss, and that it would reconsider its relationship with her. Earlier, the CEO for Gloria Vanderbilt denim had told the press, "We would have second thoughts about using Kate Moss" again, and that "we weren't aware of any issues with Kate prior to this campaign."

The fashion companies' professions of surprise are hard to believe. Would it be more embarrassing for them to admit they hired a model who they knew had done drugs than it is for them to admit to never having picked up a paper? Moss has spoken of her own drug use many times, and did a widely reported stint in rehab in 1998. She has denied heroin use, and often claimed she was clean, but in 2003 she gave an interview in which she said that dabbling was fine, but that an earlier period she'd spent immersed in drug use "wasn't a nice time."

Moss' record alone renders Gloria Vanderbilt's and Rimmel's assertions of naiveté ludicrous. And what about H&M's statement to the New York Times, that "If someone is going to be the face of H&M, it is important they be healthy, wholesome and sound"? The spokeswoman also told the Times that after feedback, "we decided we should distance ourselves from any kind of drug abuse."

Remember Capt. Renault's assertion to Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" that he is "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here," just before the croupier hands him his winnings?

If it were important that the face of H&M be healthy, wholesome and sound, the company would have very few working models to choose from, and everyone -- both in and out of the fashion industry -- knows that.

This week, London Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair told the Mirror that they're pursuing an investigation of Moss' drug use because "We have to look at the impact of this kind of behavior on impressionable young people." But measuring the impact of Moss and her behavior is long overdue. How many eating disorders have been launched by a fashion industry that put Moss' look -- no fat, no flesh, no physical sign that she has consumed nutrients -- on every billboard and runway? For more than a decade, awkward 15-year-olds have scanned the pages of fashion magazines, trying to figure out what they are expected to look like if they want to be considered attractive. And what they found was Moss and the consumptive figure she made popular.

In truth, the impression that Moss has made in the past two weeks has probably been one of the healthier ones in her history -- simply because this chapter of her life has made drug use and addiction look not like giggling fun for beautiful people, but like a habit that can be sad and grimy, and which can produce terrible personal and professional results. Those pictures of her were ugly. They looked sad. The rolled-up fiver was skanky, as was her outfit. This was not the glamourous Mediterranean bar-top bacchanal that some might fantasize about when they think about a model's hard-living lifestyle. This was a filthy room with gross people.

And her professional offloading certainly hasn't seemed like it's been fun. Reports had Moss in tears when she heard that Chanel would not be renewing with her. The industry that sent her to the stratosphere has cut her loose without much of a second thought. When cornered by reporters after the Mirror story first appeared, a distraught Moss told them to, "Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off, fuck off! Just fuck off!" Her father, caught at his home in West Sussex, England, and shown the pictures of his daughter doing illegal drugs, said only, "It doesn't surprise me." A London Sun report today had Moss smoking crack, a drug that has no street glamour at all. The only good news, as reported in the gossip columns, is that she may have broken up with Doherty again.

But between her personal humiliation, professional tumble, declining economic prospects, soured romance, and dire image problems, Kate Moss -- avatar of 1990s heroin grunge -- has this week become a walking D.A.R.E. ad.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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