Not too long ago, a person’s social media following was an adjunct to their fame, rather than its foundation. You had followers because of your career, rather than a career because of your followers. That era now seems laughably archaic. Gigi Hadid, the ubiquitous supermodel and global powerhouse, is the most visible example of how Instagram, a photo-sharing application founded in 2010, has become central to celebrity and the fashion industry. She is a new kind of supermodel, built via the popularity contest of social media, in which followers mean marketability.
Last week, she appeared on the cover of the first Vogue Arabia, which was this 21-year-old veteran’s 17th Vogue cover. It was also, however, the first controversy of her hitherto carefully uncontroversial career. The image of Hadid in a headscarf sparked anxieties over representation and influence, illuminated fashion’s uneasy relationship between idealism and business, and, ultimately, reminded us of this young woman’s huge power.
Most decisions in the fashion industry spring not from progressive ideals but from financial prudence. Now, directives are founded less on the speculative science of consumer trends and the hazy notion of zeitgeist and taste and more on the cold, hard numbers of social media followers. Hadid, who has more than 30m followers on Instagram, makes supreme business sense as a cover girl. Culturally, however, her presence on the cover of Vogue Arabia, where she appears in a bejewelled headscarf, is a lot trickier. That garment is ambiguous, but within the magazine she’s wearing what is inarguably a hijab.
Hadid is the daughter of Yolanda van den Herik, a Dutch-American model who features prominently on the reality TV show Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and Mohamed Hadid, a Palestine-born, Muslim, real-estate mogul. Gigi, though, is not herself a Muslim.
On Thursday, she posted an image of the cover, which she captioned: “… as a fashion community, we are able to celebrate, and share with the world, different cultures. Being half-Palestinian, it means the world to me to be on the first-ever cover of @voguearabia”.
Not everyone was buying it. Tweets were fired, many in the all-caps standard of online outrage, citing religious appropriation and speaking of the disappointment of a white girl from California being Vogue Arabia’s first cover star. Couldn’t they have used a Muslim model? Halima Aden, the Somali-American, hijab-wearing model and breakout star of Milan fashion week, was a name that kept coming up.
Fariha Róisín, a Muslim writer and cultural critic, told the Observer: “One of the crucial reasons representation is important is because it allows people to be seen. Gigi Hadid, though I appreciate her lineage, hasn’t ever talked about her background and in many ways navigates the world passing as a white woman, which makes it tricky when… she wants to claim a space, like the cover of Vogue Arabia. I understand navigating the world is one’s own journey, but as a Muslim woman of colour, I don’t have a lot of options to hide what I am. A lot of hijab’d women really have no option to hide what they are.”
As Róisín intimates, this is a difficult moment to be living in America as a Muslim woman. Donald Trump signed an executive order in January that forbade entry to refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim nations. It was widely denounced as Islamophobic and Hadid and Bella, her younger supermodel sister, were among the thousands who marched in protest in New York City. Hadid subsequently told Harper’s Bazaar: “We shouldn’t treat people as if they don’t deserve kindness just because of their ethnicities. It’s just not right.”
That statement, though simple, irrefutable and nobly put, fails to address the awkwardness of an industry grappling with identity politics. Hadid’s look does not immediately conjure the word “diversity”. She is slim, light skinned, with long blond hair. Her beauty is both remarkable and conventional. To state the obvious, this is also not her fault. Last month, she told Vogue: “It’s funny to me when people say that I’m this ‘girl next door’ because, although I know I can come off that way, from another angle, I’m pretty exotic. If I’m ‘all-American’, what does that even mean? But then again, my parents came to this country as poor immigrants. So… maybe I’m pretty damn all American after all.”
Teen Vogue, which has become a source of trenchant political commentary under the stewardship of Elaine Welteroth, the magazine’s first African American editor, echoed those sentiments. Last week, it ran a piece entitled “The Importance of Gigi Hadid’s Vogue Arabia Cover in Donald Trump’s America”. Eman Bare, a Muslim writer, praised the sister publication’s decision: “Vogue Arabia could have used a women in a scarf, or a Middle-Eastern icon, but they used an American. To show that as Muslims, as Arabs, as immigrants, we are not what others have decided for us. We are diverse, just like Americans.”
Hadid’s immigrant lineage is indeed beautifully American. But perhaps an even deeper facet of the American mythology is that of the selfmade millionaire. In America, money trumps (sorry) inclusivity and it’s Hadid’s ascent, not her heritage, which has been celebrated. Tellingly, it was this that Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, the Saudi princess and new magazine’s editor-in-chief, paid tribute to: “There’s no better first ‘face’ to lead the charge for Vogue Arabia than Gigi, a model who defines tomorrow’s entrepreneurial and dynamic generation.”
This entrepreneurialism is chiefly one of social media nous. What makes a supermodel now is not impeccable facial symmetry, pronounced personal style or a talent for finding striking camera angles. Instead, it’s the ability to turn all those things into social media traction. That means more than just artful selfies (which Hadid, naturally, does excellently). She and Bella are widely described as gracious, hardworking – “some of the nicest girls in the industry” – and Instagram is a useful medium in this respect; many of Hadid’s posts are captioned with effusive thank you notes and tributes to designers and brands.
She has also benefited from the sort of highly visible friendships that constitute a kind of brand symbiosis of individuals, whereby everyone’s marketability is raised. However heartfelt and genuine these alliances, they’re also great strategy – call it “friends with social media benefits”. Her boyfriend is One Direction apostate and generational crush Zayn Malik (20m followers). Her best friend is model Kendall Jenner, of the Kardashian clan (75m followers). Hadid is also photographed frequently with Taylor Swift and her sorority of models, singers and actresses.
Like many of her ultra-famous contemporaries, Hadid is not exactly a selfmade woman. She was raised in wealth and privilege in Los Angeles and began her career at the age of two, in a shoot for Guess. After graduating from Malibu high school in 2013, she moved to New York and signed to IMG models, joining a roster that includes Gisele Bundchen, Kate Moss and Chanel Iman. Within months, she was as famous as those names.
In 2014, US Vogue coined the term “Instagirl” to describe the new crop of models whose careers and Instagram platforms are effectively one and the same. Hadid told Vanity Fair: “It’s not a nine-to-five job. You’re on set for 15 hours, and then you go home and make sure you’re posting the right stuff on social media, and then you answer your emails. It never stops.”
The Instagirl is required to be “relatable”, a word freighted with feminist compromise. To watch Hadid chomp burgers with Jimmy Fallon on late-night TV (as she did last year, charmingly) is to be reminded of that near-viral passage from Gillian Flynn’s bestselling 2012 novel Gone Girl: “Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”
Yet having a pretty face is now nothing without also having a pretty enormous online reach.It’s commonplace for modelling agencies to list not just their client’s measurements but also their number of followers.
For Hadid, that figure lends extraordinary clout. When the 65-year-old American designer Tommy Hilfiger named a collaborative collection TommyxGigi, he was demonstrating that designers now need her just as much – if not more – than she needs them. The 21st-century supermodel occupies a position akin to the contemporary pop star: she is the head of a corporation that ultimately sells just one product – her.
THE HADID FILE
Born Jelena Noura Hadid, 23 April 1995, to model Yolanda and real estate developer Mohamed. The nickname “Gigi” stuck.
Best of times Winning international model of the year at 2016 British fashion awards.
Worst of times In 2016, she is assaulted in Milan as she leaves the Max Mara show. She retaliates later saying: “Practising self-defence is important so that when you’re in the moment, reacting from muscle memory comes more naturally to you than freezing up.”
What she says “If you don’t like it, don’t watch me, don’t follow me, ’cause I’m not going anywhere.”
What they say “She has a wonderful sense of freedom and loving her body. I think really, because of the enormous growth in social media, we have to recognise that there are different body types…
She’s proud of her body, as she well should be.”
– Anna Wintour
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010