Born on the 10th June 1992, Michigan-based model Kate Upton signed with Elite Models in 2009. Just a year later, Upton made the pivotal decision to switch agencies, moving to IMG in 2010. The decision to sign with this uber-agency, that not only manages models, but works with stars from the worlds of music and sport, was the key change Upton needed. IMG is an agency that specialises in self-branding, tailoring their management strategies to an individual client’s strengths and weaknesses. It is entirely plausible to attribute Upton’s current success – and huge popularity – down to smart branding.
Upton started in the sectors of the fashion industry where she would be well-received. Her first campaign booking was with Guess Jeans. Becoming the face of the brand at the age of 18, she stayed with Guess for two years. Also undertaking some modelling for the 2011 Victoria’s Secret catalogue, this was a classic case of Upton playing to her strengths.
Then came her big break. After appearing in the 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, she was invited back in January 2012 – to be their cover girl. An American institution, this annual cover can be a star-making deal – recent cover girls include Bar Refaeli and Brooklyn Decker.
It is not just the preserve of swimwear / lingerie models either: Tyra Banks famously graced the cover in 1996, during the height of her high-fashion career. Like Victoria’s Secret, this magazine offers huge cross-over potential, and Kate’s appearance on this year’s issue had the desired effect: she became a star overnight.
With Upton now on everyone’s radar, a new phase of her career kicked in: in early 2012, she appeared on the Spring / Summer cover of Muse magazine. Photographed by Sebastian Faena for both the cover and accompanying editorial, ‘Blonde Bombshell’, this was Kate’s first foray into the world of high-fashion and she proved herself more than capable of stepping up.
Upton also appeared in the Spring / Summer issue of V. This was a crucial booking for Kate, as V is an ultra-edgy, highly influential magazine. For Kate to appear in this magazine indicated that, while popular opinion was still locked into Upton’s triumphant turn for Sports Illustrated, the fashion industry was already starting to look ahead and see a different kind of potential.
In May, Kate appeared on two magazine covers: Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. The latter was photographed by Terry Richardson, along with the prophetically-titled editorial ‘The Shape of Things to Come’. Kate worked Hermes and other old-school labels, channelling full-on glamour. Richardson proved to be an inspired choice of photographer, being someone who is very comfortable at producing highly-sexualised fashion images. Richardson’s photographs may provoke, but they are always grounded in the world of high-fashion.
Upton’s affiliation with Richardson continued into July, when they created the cover for GQ magazine. Treading the line between appealing to men and adding that all-important high fashion gloss, Richardson’s gift for translating sexuality on film is self-evident here. The cover feels fun and spontaneous, a tricky balance but Upton and Richardson get the tone just right.
July was also the month that Upton made her inaugural appearance in American Vogue. ‘Bringing Sexy Back’, an editorial photographed by Sebastian Kim, profiled Kate’s career to date and her newly-unleashed charm offensive on the fashion world. It was a significant nod to Upton: American Vogue’s success rate at spotting the next big thing is unsurpassed.
In a busy month, Upton also appeared in the UK’s Sunday Times Style magazine. A supplement that has become both influential and highly significant (editorials were once presided over by stylist Isabella Blow), Upton is here sold as America’s latest pin-up. She models traditionally ‘sexy’ clothes, but it is styled sharply and cleanly – no sleaze, just fashion.
Kate’s final booking for the summer was with Spanish Vogue. In ‘Fuego en el Cuerpo’ (Body Heat), Upton gives a master-class in how to model swimwear. It is an undervalued area of modelling, despite its profitability. To model swimwear requires not just energy but focus; an awareness of angles and negative space. These tend to be highly technical shoots, replying on just the right angle to create that perfect shot. It is testament to what Upton has learnt in a short space of time, in that she makes the job of modelling swimwear look unnervingly easy.
Kate returned to American Vogue in September, appearing in ‘The Vogue 120’. Shot by legendary photographer Norman Jean Roy, this mega-editorial featured every current designer and model of note. Working in groups, Upton modelled with Candice Swanepoel and Chanel Iman. Placed side by side, the two ‘glamour’ models meet Iman’s high-fashion experience head-on: there is no weak link in this shot.
This month, Upton goes from cover girl to superstar. Coming of age in a Steven Meisel shoot for American Vogue, Kate, as ‘The New Girl’, models sports-luxe inspired fashion from some American greats: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Jason Wu and Donna Karan. The editorial, aiming to sell Upton as the new American sweetheart, directly draws a line between Kate, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.
As daunting as this proclamation is, Upton’s giddy ascent to stardom does beg comparisons to Mansfield and Monroe. But Upton’s own image is far from that of the ‘doomed blonde’. Depicted as a youthful force of nature, Upton’s appeal is rooted in a girl-next-door philosophy. Upton’s success stems from the fact that she is a girl from Michigan who was smart about grabbing the opportunities that would further her career. Her July cover for GQ keenly lays out the reason for Upton’s popularity: along with her beauty is an air of accessibility. This cover works because it never takes itself too seriously. It may also be the reason for Kate’s success.
This November has seen Kate upgrade from swimwear and catalogue work to fashion’s Holy Grail: the cover of Italian Vogue. Photographed by Steven Meisel, the cover titled ‘Seductive’ has made headlines around the world. Styled as an 80’s glamour girl, the magazine plays on old ideas of ‘sexy’ and ‘seduction’ by presenting them with a new face. The cover has not received all positive press, with lots of fashion fans being very vocal in their disapproval despite Kate’s stellar performance. Never afraid to court controversy, Italian Vogue has hit a home run with this cover.
Also appearing in the leading editorial of November’s Italian Vogue, ‘Miss Kate Upton’ is given the full Vogue Italia treatment. Kate works every angle here – her previous experience working swimwear and lingerie proves the perfect base for a shoot like this. Upton knows instinctively what works and what doesn’t: ‘Seduction’ may be a mind game, but Kate plays the game like a master. It is, without doubt, one of the most extraordinary transformations the fashion industry has seen. To go from modelling lingerie to the pages of Vogue in the space of a year is incredible progress.
Upton’s next challenge will be to keep the momentum going. As Kate has been accepted by the flagship publications of the industry, it will be interesting to see if she makes the next step from editorial to runway. While Upton has proved herself in print, runway is notably missing from her CV. Although a catwalk-friendly 5’ 10”, Upton has no high-fashion runway experience to date.
Right now, the odds of Kate making that leap are not in her favour. Upton’s curves would have placed her in good company during the Supermodel period – it is easy to imagine Upton modelling with the likes of Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen. But for the moment, the emphasis is on tall, lean girls who can handle fashion’s rapidly changing and increasingly-bold silhouettes.
It all hangs on what will emerge from the collections next February. Prada’s curve-hugging collection from Autumn 2010 is a great example of fashion doing the unexpected: Miuccia Prada’s work begged for a different shape, and models such as Doutzen Kroes and Lara Stone were hired to (literally) do the leg-work. All it takes is another collection like this, or a trend that requires curves to do it justice, and Kate could find herself a runway star as well.
For now, Kate must end 2012 with a huge sense of accomplishment. She started the year as the cover girl for Sports Illustrated, and finished it as a cover star for Italian Vogue. The fashion world was under no obligation to take to her the way they did, but her versatility and ability to grow is what makes Kate that one in a million. Whatever direction her career takes in 2013, Kate really is the shape of things to come.