is sitting at lunch in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood, putting her mum, Marisa, on speakerphone.
“Mum, which airline did I fly when I moved to New York? Was it People Express? Where we would pay nothing, $88 round-trip?” “Hmm, yes, I think so,” Marisa says. “How old was I when I came to Newyork? Eighteen and a half, or 19?” “I think it was 18½,” Marisa says. “Right?” Evangelista laughs. “no one remembers anything!”
Well, that’s not entirely true. after she moved to Newyork in 1984, the first person Evangelista called was her mum. “She always called,” Marisa explains. “From a phone booth,” Evangelista adds. “I wanted to know she was safe and where she was,” Marisa says. “Thanks, Mum,” Evangelista says. “Ciao, ciao!”
ON THESE PAGES, Evangelista, 51, recreates her life in the working-class city of St. Catharines, Ontario, before she left for New York, beginning a legendary career as the definitive supermodel. To reaffirm her superness, some numbers: more than 700 magazine covers, iconic campaigns for Versace, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, among others; at least three wildly influential hair colours; and, famously, two super-modular companions, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell. Not to mention, these days, an archive in Canada full of designer pieces. “they will get donated sooner rather than later,” she says. “what am I going to do with it? I can’t hold on to this stuff anymore.”
But back to back then. “everything is where I frequented. The car I drove, my house, the store, the church … that’s what happened.” She and photographer Nathaniel Goldberg cast model Raquel Zimmermann as a young Linda, more for her ability to convey emotion than for any physical resemblance. “She is phenomenal,” Evangelista enthuses. “She reminds me of what I believe Janice Dickinson was, this little animal that can turn and move and tweak, and she gets it. I loved watching her translate what I wanted. She’s my alter ego.”
Of course, there is a little poetic licence in this story. Evangelista did not take a train to Grand Central (rather pricier than People Express). And her arrival in New York comes first, before travelling backward. “I love her feet planted on the ground, because she’s arrived,” Evangelista explains. “This is the beginning. Here she is, and this is where she came from.”
After arriving in the city, Evangelista went straight to what now seems quaintly named, a model apartment. “it was full of cockroaches,” she recalls. “But I just thought everything was the way it was supposed to be.” She started going on go-sees. “i did eight to 10 go-sees a day for a month, learnt to take the subway. I remember going to Soho, and it was like going to Mars. Just trucks and abandoned buildings.” She barely scraped by. “My mum sent me $100 here, $100 there.” Evangelista got precisely one modelling job in those early days. “it was for Jean Louis David, an ad in Mademoiselle. I made a few hundred dollars. And Elite [her agency] told me, ‘don’t get disillusioned. we’re sending you to Paris.’”
So off she went, staying with two other models at “the Hôtel Saint-andré des Arts, near where Jim Morrison died”.
One of her first editorial jobs, a cat-eyed magazine cover, was with a makeup artist who made her sit in a room and not move while the rest of the crew had lunch. For two hours. “When she came back, there was a little black powder sprinkled on my cheeks that had fallen and she went ballistic.”
But Evangelista thought that was how it was. “My father worked on a foundry line his whole life, so I understood what a job could be.” She continues, “i was naive, so naive. Many good things happened to me after that, and many bad things happened to me after that. It took me three years before I got to work with great photographers like Arthur Elgort, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel. It all fell into place, but it was not quick. It was a very slow climb up the ladder.”
Evangelista’s ladder started in a redbrick suburban house, surrounded by an Italian Catholic family who lived near one another in the same neighbourhood. She lived in the home pictured in this story with her parents and two brothers (poignantly, the family just sold it in July). “it was emotional shooting there,” she says. “In my bedroom, you would almost touch both walls from the middle. But at least I didn’t have to share it! I had exactly what everybody else had. I didn’t have more, and I didn’t have less.”
The bedroom picture in this portfolio is, in fact, at Evangelista’s aunt’s house. “my grandmother crocheted that blanket. This is exactly how things looked when I was growing up — my parents’ house, my grandmother’s everything. It’s like a time warp.and we all had religious paintings all over; in every room. The Last Supper.”
Evangelista worked multiple jobs, among them at a jewellery store (“I can grade diamonds better, just as good as GIA [Gemological Institute of America] gemologists; I was so passionate about them,” she says with some pride) and a Hollywood wax museum. “Hooray for Hollywood! Michael Jackson, Marilyn, they were all there. I was in the booth with the cage around it, and I sold the tickets. I always had three jobs. I had to because I needed money to buy fashion. I worked every single minute I wasn’t in school.”
Her fashion obsession started early. “i was, like, 11 or 12 when I sat my mum down in tears and said ‘I need more outfits. It’s so important.’ It sounds silly, but there was no other way to express myself. I needed that blouse with a little ruffle Peter Pan collar to go with the corduroy pants with a wedge.and she was like, ‘i’m on it.’ She did it.”
Evangelista was never not pulled-together .“i always had my next outfit picked out, and it was always, like, a suit,” she remembers. “a blazer, a skirt with a blouse, the earrings and the shoes. It was from the mall or we’d go over the river to Niagara Falls, Newyork or to Buffalo, where our currency at that time went further.” to score a deal, though, she had to be dedicated. “you’d have to wear the outfit in the car home not to pay the duty.”
The car? A bronze 1982 Cadillac Eldorado. “There was a hole in the tank, so every time I turned left I would lose gas. My brother and I shared it.” When Evangelista had time off, she would hang out with her friends at the 1950s and ’60s hotels around the falls (like the Space Motel, pictured opposite). “They were so deluxe and special in the ’50s. People would go on their honeymoon there.” But in the ’80s, “everything would close down so early, and we would just go find a place to hang out”. that, or they would all go to dinner at a dive-y Chinese restaurant (“but not wearing Chloé,” she says, laughing, while looking at Zimmermann lounging).
Speaking of hanging out, did Evangelista leave a mournful young man at Niagara Falls — or the People Express gate? “Ah, no,” she replies with a smile. “I was seeing someone, but I didn’t leave him for modelling.”
Even though she has built a storied international career, Evangelista never really left home. During this shoot, she remembers, “all the neighbours came, the Nowakowskis came, the guy across the street. It was the same, it was like the old ’hood. My aunt Zizi was feeding everybody, all the crew, everybody. That’s my family — we feed, we feed, we feed.”
On that note, Evangelista finishes her lunch and gets ready to go home to her nine-year-old-son, Augustin (“Augie” in mum speak). She puts down the folder of photographs — the one of her childhood home, with Zimmermann in flowing Gucci, resting on top.
“You know what? A castle would not have changed my upbringing,” she says. “neither would a tent.”
“I was SEEING SOMEONE, but I didn’t leave him for modelling.”
CALLING MUM Etro gown, $8485, top, $2050, and locket, $590; Tiffany & Co. pendant necklace, price on application.
THE FALLS Max Mara jumper, price on application.