When a supermodel dies early we lose the chance to see beauty at ...
We are meant to outgrow schoolboy crushes, but I cried this morning at the news of German supermodel Tatjana Patitz’s death from breast cancer, aged 56.
She was the Valkyrie-like beauty who seductively mouthed the words to George Michael’s Freedom ’90 through a cloud of cigarette smoke, alongside Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington.
In the music video that upgraded models to celebrities, Evangelista was the chameleon, Crawford the all-American pin-up, Campbell the trailblazer and Turlington perfection, according to the 90s standard of beauty – but Patitz was my favourite. Her name didn’t become a brand, like Elle (Macpherson), Claudia (Schiffer) and Kate (Moss), but that was part of the attraction. Liking Patitz, along with Marpessa Hennink, Karen Alexander and Yasmeen Ghauri, separated you from fashion dilettantes.
As a 14-year-old thumbing through US Vogue, I felt like a model scout when I discovered Patitz in a 1987 advertisement for Revlon, alongside Iman and Jerry Hall. It was crush at first sight because of her almond-shaped eyes, symmetrical features, milkmaid skin and vowel-laden name.
I wasn’t alone, with US Vogue editor Anna Wintour part of the fan club.
“Tatjana was always the European symbol of chic, like Romy Schneider-meets-Monica Vitti,” Wintour said in Vogue’s report of Patitz’s death. “She was far less visible than her peers — more mysterious, more grown-up, more unattainable — and that had its own appeal.”
Patitz scored countless Vogue covers with photography greats Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts, a role in a 1988 Levi’s commercial opposite male model Bruce Hulse that was banned in the UK and lucrative campaigns for Chanel and L’Oréal. On the airbrushed surface there is very little for me to cry about.
I felt a similar loss, when supermodel Stella Tennant, granddaughter of Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire, died by suicide in December 2020. The indie aristocratic Tennant, who worked with Versace, Alexander McQueen and Chanel, never reached crush status, my heart was already taken, but I felt robbed.
With the deaths of Patitz and Tennant we lost the opportunity to watch exquisite beauty mature beyond the shortcut appeal of youth. Both models had chosen an ageing route prioritising wrinkles over the pillow-faced appearance of filler devotees, with Patitz maintaining a healthy figure outside the confines of sample sizes.
“To be a size zero or a two when you’re tall is incredible to me. It would be nice if models were allowed to be a more healthy weight – for the models, and for the young women who look up to them,” she told the Guardian in 2009. “We were athletic and healthy, and we looked like women.”
“You don’t want to see the plastic-fantastic faces of some celebrities today,” Patitz said in 2016, after appearing in a L’Oréal Paris advertising campaign alongside Helena Christensen and Andie MacDowell. “That’s not a role model for young girls; that’s not a role model for an older woman, either.”
Former Estée Lauder model Paulina Porizkova has taken up the cause in her book No Filter: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful. “You need to be able to find yourself out there. You need to be able to look at a picture of a woman who’s your age and go ‘She’s hot and no, she does not look 39,’” Porizkova told The New York Times.
In 2019, Patitz walked the runway at Milan fashion week for Etro’s autumn 2019/2020 show, looking at ease, her resting haughty face captivating the camera. She also appeared in lifestyle profiles with her son Jonah Johnson, 19, which often focused on her love of horses.
“I hope you’re riding on a horse in endless meadows with that smile on your face and the wind blowing in your hair,” Christensen posted to her Instagram account.
For me, Patitz will always be singing about the freedom which she managed to find in fashion.
Make the most of your health, relationships, fitness and nutrition with our Live Well newsletter. Get it in your inbox every Monday.