Kate Moss

The ironies of her downfall.

If rumors that a model has a coke habit no longer raise an eyebrow, photos of her mid-binge apparently do. On Sept. 15, the U.K.’s Daily Mirror published grainy camera-phone stills of supermodel Kate Moss perched on a leather couch in a London recording studio, allegedly chopping and snorting multiple lines of cocaine with the quick sureness of a practiced user. (According to most reports, Moss used a £5 note to vacuum up five lines in 40 minutes.) The Swedish clothing giant H&M, whose upcoming ad campaign for its new Stella McCartney line was to feature Moss, responded that it would give the model a “second chance.” She had signed, like a contrite schoolgirl, a written statement promising to remain “healthy, wholesome, and sound.” But H&M reversed its position last Tuesday, announcing that the campaign would be ditched altogether. The next day, Burberry and Chanel, two retailers in Moss’ robust portfolio of contracts, followed suit: The former dismissed the model from its fall ad campaign, and the latter stated, cryptically, that it had “no plans” to use her after her contract ends.

The response to H&M’s action (and the subsequent domino effect) has been twofold. In one camp are the irate customers and furious bloggers who maintain that the Swedish retailer, a company that markets its inexpensive clothing to teenagers and young adults, had a duty to denounce such behavior publicly. “After the feedback from customers and other papers,” an H&M spokesperson told the New York Times, “we decided we should distance ourselves from any kind of drug abuse.” Not on principle, mind you, but because feedback indicated that the company’s pardon would harm business. This leads to the second contingent, which calls the company out on its hypocrisy. Drug use among fashion models, this group contends, is rampant, a problem H&M was surely aware of. Moss has thus been unfairly singled out by a company hoping to save itself, as well as by a corrupt industry in need of a sacrificial cleansing. While there is some truth to this—Moss is not the only model who has been reported to indulge, she was just unlucky enough to be caught with her nose in the apparent powder—it does not take into account the fact that, as the face of several multinational brands, Moss has a public image and a responsibility to protect it. And she has not exactly been assiduous about doing so.

There’s no question that H&M’s action was hypocritical. It’s an open secret that models dabble in drugs, particularly cocaine. (“Shock; horror—models do drugs? Oh my God, the world is going to stop,” Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, said in response to the incident.) It’s even sort of understandable: How else to stay as thin as a prepubescent boy? Though we are regaled with stories of fast metabolisms, of Gisele’s miraculous ability to inhale ice cream and yet fit into Victoria’s Secret’s smallest panties, most of us know that it is a rare woman who can consume an adequate amount of food and remain a good 20 pounds underweight. Many models subsist on a diet that includes generous quantities of cigarettes, caffeine, and cocaine, which doesn’t exactly make for a person who is healthy, wholesome, and sound. Moss has, in the past, admitted to trying drugs because she was worried about getting fat. And at 31, post-pregnancy, she looks not all that different than she did at 14, when her gawky body defined the term “waif.” This emaciated look is what the fashion industry demands of its models, so the policy toward methods of weight-loss has generally been don’t-ask-don’t-tell. If there weren’t pictures to substantiate the drug allegations, it is unlikely a word would have been uttered.

Hypocritical though H&M may be, the fact is that any celebrity in Moss’ position would have met with a similar fate. And indeed they have: Lavazza Coffee dropped Ingrid Parewijck, a Belgian model, after she was caught at JFK airport with several grams of cocaine. McDonald’s and Nutella decided not to renew their endorsement deals with Kobe Bryant after allegations of his possible sexual misconduct surfaced. The reason for the dismissals is obvious: Featuring a celebrity in an ad campaign associates the celebrity with the product (and brand) being pushed; if that celebrity gets into trouble or falls out of favor, it reflects poorly on the brand. Arguably the world’s most famous supermodel (her sloe-eyed visage is on almost every other page of fashion magazines), and a frequent tabloid presence (she’s been involved with Johnny Depp, Evan Dando, Leonardo DiCaprio), Moss is a genuine celebrity. She is not paid just to be a pretty clotheshorse, but also to bestow on a product her glamorous aura. Her lucrative contracts—totaling  approximately $9 million a year, by most accounts—surely hinge on the maintenance of the commodity of her celebrity, on staying out of legal trouble and at least nominally above reproach.

Kate: Did she blow it?

For years, Moss has managed to dodge any real trouble. But there have long been chinks in her image. In 1998, she checked herself into a rehab clinic for “exhaustion.” In a rare interview, she admitted that she modeled drunk throughout much of the ‘90s. She is almost always photographed with a cigarette in one hand—she is said to have an 80-a-day habit—and a cocktail in the other. Earlier this year, she won libel damages from the Sunday Mirror for false claims that she had collapsed into a cocaine-induced coma in Barcelona. And, over the last nine months, she has fueled rumors by dating Babyshambles frontman Pete Doherty, the music world’s current Sid Vicious. Doherty has been jailed for burglary and last month was arrested in Oslo for possession of heroin and crack. As a spokeswoman for designer Robert Cavalli hinted to the Times (of London): “She is not going to be going out with Pete Doherty and having milk and cheesecake every night, is she?”

The irony is that the rumors of bad behavior, the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, have always been part of Moss’ allure. The fashion world has long courted, and profited from, her edgy, bad-girl image and her gaunt, post-hangover looks. It was Moss, in fact, who ushered in the controversial “heroin chic” look when she graced the cover of The Face in 1990. But whereas a gangly body is a natural state for an adolescent, for a woman, it is, well, much harder to maintain. And perhaps H&M, understanding this, waited to take the measure of the public’s pulse before acting. An anonymous marketing executive linked to H&M told the Independent, “There has been a period of a few days where people have waited to see which way the wind is blowing on this.” As it happened, the appearance of drugged-out chic was acceptable; the reality was not.

But the peculiar logic of the fashion world may rehabilitate her yet. A weird sort of awe ran through much of the writing on the incident; writers marveled at how amazing Moss looked, dressed in hot pants and Nancy Sinatra boots, even while allegedly getting high in the wee hours of the morning. Others wondered how she treats her body with such disregard and still remains  “miraculous and miraculously unimpaired”: What’s her secret? Not surprisingly, in the fashion industry, image is everything. Moss knows this as well as anyone. Like Garbo, she rarely grants interviews, and she never leaves her house in sweatpants but only in some artfully unstudied, impossibly chic ensemble. Last week, after the news broke, she emerged from the Mercer hotel as stylish and as silent as ever. More than a week later, she made only a brief and elliptical statement, released through her agency, saying that she is taking “difficult steps” to address her “various personal issues.” Perhaps, after 17 years, Moss knows to battle the industry on its own terms and that, sadly, if she can come through with her looks intact, that may be enough.