“Gemma’s in a different stratosphere. She’s got that extra thing, that inexplicable thing.”
— Kristie Clements, Vogue Australia
In 2004, Paolo Roversi photographed then rising-star Gemma Ward for the cover of W Magazine. The Australian model was barely 17 at the time, a child with wide-set eyes and a downturned mouth, a little baby bombshell in the making. Her alien, supernatural beauty would inspire a sea change in the industry, superseding the models of Tom Ford’s oversexed Gucci days and paving the way for the subsequent success of ethereal stunners like Sasha Pivovarova, Snejana Onopka, Vlada Roslyakova, and Abbey Lee Kershaw. That cover, in all its dusty romanticist glory, signaled a new era in fashion, and Gemma Ward was placed squarely at the helm.
For five years, Ward had a meteorically successful run, racking up more than twenty Vogue covers, not to mention those for the likes of Numero, i-D, and V Magazine. Then came the campaigns: Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Burberry, Balenciaga, Prada, the brand formally known as Yves Saint Laurent. For a long while, opening a magazine was like flipping through Ward’s own personal career archive. She was on top of the world, a supermodel of the post-supermodel era.
But then came that infamous Chanel bikini, a career destroyer if ever there were one. Something happened between the Fall 2007 and Spring 2008 show seasons, and that something was – by industry standards — a catastrophic weight gain. Fearing it was losing one of its best, the fashion world scrambled for explanations, was it then-sort-of-boyfriend Heath Ledger’s death? Was it Ward’s calculated retaliation against the industry’s brutal game? Or was it, more simply, that Gemma was no longer a teenager? Whatever the reason, this much was clear: Fashion’s shooting star was on a fast and rapid descent. Game over. Done.
Over the past six years, there have been a handful of stories anticipating a Gemma Ward comeback, the most recent of which has apparently been stymied by pregnancy. While the future of Miss Ward’s career remains vague, the Gemma Ward of the early aughts lives on online, decade-old pictures kept in regular Tumblr rotation with a nostalgia one normally reserves for Kate Moss’ early career. It is a catalogue of all of Ward’s successes and none of her failings, her beauty preserved in the same way pop culture embalms idealized representations of our cherished dead: James Dean, River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain. Forever young. Forever beautiful. The difference here is that Ward is clearly still of the living, but her career, in effect, has died, and the person that we associate with said career no longer exists, not in the same way. Thusly, we mourn its passing and, in a way, pretend that whole downfall never happened.
When Gemma Ward effectively fell off the fashion rails, she committed one of the industry’s cardinal sins: She broke the surface, destroying that thin veil separating Us from Them. It is a designer’s greatest hope that their clothing drag us from the doldrums of every day living, and their vehicle for such a feat are models. Models have to be perfect. They have to be tall and thin and unspeakably beautiful. Anything less and we, as viewers, see fashion for what it really is: just a bunch of dresses and sweaters that we don’t really need, some laughable rouge on aging skin, four-inch heels wreaking havoc on metatarsals. Models provide the warped mirror into which we stare full of blurry self-delusion. Through them, we ourselves – with our short legs and our crooked noses, our ears that stick out — are capable of great beauty by proxy.
Industry outsiders normally don’t see models fall from grace in the same way Gemma did. Just like cows, they are kindly put out to pasture, left to age and succumb to life’s indignities away from the spotlight. But in that last show season, Gemma forced us to look past the con, to watch a career crumble before our very eyes. It was horrible to watch – not because of the weight gain, but because the illusion of perfection had been violently and unexpectedly stripped away. Gemma Ward, right in the middle of a Chanel runway, proved that she was no different than the rest of us. But instead of bolstering the confidence of mere mortals, it made us grossly uncomfortable. Where was the fantasy? That warped mirror? The beautiful, otherworldly con?
As spectators, we live in willful denial of the grim realities of highly competitive fields like modeling. It is easier to think of such beauty as being effortless, seemingly preordained by the heavens, because if we acknowledge how hard the industry really is on these young women, then we are at least partially responsible. Instead, we choose to catapult girls like Gemma Ward, these sacrificial lambs, into that otherworldly stratosphere and hold them there, however briefly, so that in that moment we can pretend that such impossible perfection exists, because if it does, then we are better than just simply human, we are closer to gods.