Throughout the nineties Susan Holmes McKagan was part of an elite group of models that dominated magazine covers, international runways, and whose ubiquitous presence dominated popular culture. She was a perennial favorite of photographers Steven Meisel and Arthur Elgort, the latter of whose book I Love…she appeared on the cover. From her stellar modeling career, to swimsuit designer, to author, and multiple television appearances, Susan has maintained the type of traction few others have been able to emulate. I recently spoke to her by phone from her home on the West Coast.
I thought that we could start with how you were discovered.
My older sister Cynthia modeled—I always thought she was much prettier and smarter than me, I just idolized her—and I thought it looked so glamorous and fun. I loved fashion, and I wanted to dip my toes into that world so she inspired me to try. I went with my mom on a trip to New York and we did all the things a mother and daughter would do on a trip there. We went to see a Broadway show, went out for a lovely dinner at the Quilted Giraffe—an iconic restaurant—and it was there I was spotted. The whole restaurant had 10 tables and was very chic and exclusive. While we were dining, I stood up to use the restroom and was stopped and asked if I was a model and represented by anyone. It turned out to be the amazing fashion photographer Marco Glaviano. He happened to be there dining with Jodie Foster, so that was pretty cool.
He suggested I go and see Eileen Ford the next day and tell her that he sent me. I was only 16 at the time and I lived in San Diego. I come from a family of scholars. My dad is thrice a Fulbright Scholar—he never left school, it’s his whole world—and my mom has a master’s degree. In their world modeling didn’t compute so we settled on a happy medium and I signed to an agency in Los Angeles and modeled locally in San Diego and LA. After high school I went off to Paris and got a modeling contract. I was poached by an agent in San Diego who wanted me to compete in the Elite Look of the Year competition.
When you arrived in Paris how well were you received there? Did things take off for you quickly?
In my mind I was the San Diego beach girl—the big fish in a small pond—on the cover of San Diego magazine, who booked pretty much everything. When I arrived in Paris I thought I’ve got this. I did a job for Elle magazine and a couple of other shoots but it wasn’t an overnight thing at all. I’m grateful because I may not have been the biggest model, but I have longevity.
There is still a real thirst for models from the 90s today. What do you attribute your longevity to and why do you think people are still so obsessed with that period in fashion?
That was the era of the supermodels. The models were the ones on all the magazine covers, walking the runways, and were coveted. It was mysterious because you didn’t have cell phones or access like now. It was glamorous, romantic, and hard to get into. It was difficult to get into fashion shows or even meet a model. That increases the desirability and want to get closer to that circle even more, I suppose. I am very blessed that I am still working a lot today. I am doing more covers than I ever have, and I am walking in runway shows. I am very grateful and humbled.
Outside of modeling, I know that you have your swimsuit line and you wrote a book The Velvet Rose. I wanted to talk a little bit about the book. The premise has parallels between your life and the protagonist. Why did you choose to write a novel as opposed to a memoir?
That’s an interesting question because the obvious direction I could have gone in was to write an autobiography.
Like a tell-all?
Yeah, but that’s not my style at all. I have never been one to kiss and tell.
I respect that.
I think sometimes you can convey more through a fictitious novel than a tell-all. Remember the Jackie Collins novel Rock Star? I wouldn’t typically read that and then everyone I knew was reading it. I wanted to write a novel because I have been working fastidiously at honing my writing craft. I have been writing front page articles for the Huffington Post for years, and with more time during COVID-19 I went back to college and recently completed my first graduate level class at Harvard University in Feature Writing. I am thrilled and proud to say I have a 4.0 GPA. I wanted to not only dispel a lot of fantastic stories I had within me, but to tell them in a way that wasn’t gossipy or throw anyone under the bus; that’s not my style. I am a writer’s writer—or at least I like to think that I am.
Can you talk about how you think the fashion industry has evolved? There have been periods where diversity in size was touted—Sophie Dahl and Crystal Renn being two that come to mind—but both lost weight and became ‘straight’ sized. There have been very few models of color at the top too. Do you think it’s better today?
I think there is some progress—which I love—and I think it has been much overdue. The last cover I shot for Glamour was with a black photographer. I can’t think of a time when a black photographer shot me in the 90s. I could be wrong, but off the top of my head I can’t think of one.
That’s a really interesting point. I think when we talk about diversity we are always framing the conversation in terms of what’s in front of the camera.
Yeah, he is from Haiti. He is great. You know, he’s going to put a different paradigm and spin on the fashion and the message in the photographs. Yeah, of course we need more models of ethnicity and size and age. We haven’t talked about ageism, how about that? I think in America they need to get on the horn a little bit faster just as they do in Europe and embrace older women. Maye Musk, Joan Didion, Carmen Dell’Orefice are beautiful women. At the same time, I hate the portrayal of women as either young and vibrant, or older with gray hair. What about all the women in the middle?
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