Just when the era of the supermodel — a time when beautiful giants roam the earth, dedicating hamburger joints and hosting television programs — appears to be closing, along comes Laetitia Casta. Like Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth, twenty-year-old Laetitia Casta is making a transition: from mere model to supermodel. Her Victoria’s Secret catalog covers have already made her a household image; suddenly, she’s a household name. Her first movie is to be released in her native France this winter. Her new Victoria’s Secret TV campaign (in which Laetitia stalks through an empty mansion, demonstrating a new line of all-cotton underwear) is striking a blow for model freedom everywhere, extending the limits of what can be shown in prime time. She’s the antidote to the Kate Moss waif, suggesting that what models really need is not higher living or more exotic boyfriends but healthier eating and outdoor pursuits. Unlike Cindy or Naomi or Linda or Christy, she doesn’t try to make you believe that there’s anything tricky about being a model. “She’s completely comfortable with this insane body,” is how Ed Raisick, creative director of Victoria’s Secret, puts it.
Photographer Herb Ritts remembers being at a party last winter and running into Leonardo DiCaprio. All DiCaprio wanted to know was whether Ritts knew Laetitia Casta. “Oh, yeah, she’s terrific,” Ritts told him. DiCaprio, Ritts recalls, just said, “Oh, my God.”
Laetitia Casta is five feet seven inches tall. She’s not built along standard model lines — not tall, not thin. She looks healthy, like a girl you might see exploring Europe with a Eurail pass, living out of a backpack, the kind of girl who could make a pretty decent meal out of potato chips and a Coke. She has long chestnut hair and a wide face — when she smiles, it goes as round as a tomato. Her clear skin is so expressive that when she lifts her eyebrows, her forehead crinkles in three places: little dots of punctuation, exclamation marks, questions. She has blue-green eyes.
She’s never accepted the social dimensions of beauty — being standoffish and remote, being inaccessible. She’s accessible; she’s right there. But when she slips in front of the camera, something happens, as it does when an athlete takes the field. She fixes her blue-green look at the lens and her hair tosses, her skin smooths, her lips protrude — it’s as though her claws of beauty are coming out.
For four and a half years, Laetitia Casta has been living the fashion life, skipping from location to location, posing on beaches and mountaintops, moving in a noisy blur where sometimes there are photographers and sometimes there are strange cities and people asking for your passport. So, of course, sometimes she forgets things. Once she stepped into a taxi in New York, slipped off her sandals, paid her fare and watched the driver pull away with a new pair of lady’s shoes. Twice, on airplanes, she stuck the ticket for her connecting flight in the seat pocket in front of her, then got off the plane with no ticket. One time she heard a song she loved in a supermarket, forgot it was a place to buy food and started dancing. “Then everybody started dancing,” she says. “It was so fun.” This happened in New York. “Of course,” she says, “if I do that in France, they kill me. Because it’s so snob.”
Sometimes, when things slow down, Laetitia Casta will consider the model’s life — she’ll sit in a chair against the clapboard wall of a house by the beach and sigh, as if catching the scent of her own good fortune. “We’re so lucky: outdoors, beautiful views, nice people, good music,” she’ll say. “I have some times when it’s like ting! I look around and I feel full. I feel peace. I think, ‘Wow, I don’t have any problems.”‘ Then she laughs. She keeps a few friends in each of the three cities that revolve in the model solar system — New York, London, Paris — the way high-altitude climbers stash oxygen bottles for themselves on summits; her friends warn her not to sound too happy. People will read about her and say, “Why’s she so happy? I don’t like Laetitia Casta.” But Laetitia disagrees. “Why I shouldn’t be happy?” she asks. “Because everybody’s not happy? I don’t understand that, either — and I have a big French mouth.”
We drive to Montauk, on Long Island, where an international clothier wants Laetitia to make its clothes look stirring and dreamy beside the water. We speak for two hours in the back seat of a van while the wardrobe, hair and makeup artists whose jobs during the next two days will be to make Laetitia even more striking pretend not to listen. “I feel like I know your whole life story,” the makeup artist says. Laetitia gasps, and her voice turns soft. “Ah, no!” she says. “I didn’t start my life yet.”
Laetitia has posed on close to 100 magazine covers; she’s figured as the jeans heroine in a series of Guess? advertisements; she’s reclined seductively in Victoria’s Secret catalogs and appeared in a bikini, surrounded by stunnedlooking Maasai warriors, in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She’s endured descriptions of herself as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” What she thinks about is love. Whatever she’s doing — sailing through airports, keeping still in makeup chairs — Laetitia is thinking about love. When she faces the camera lens, she’s thinking about love. When a shoot ends in a beautiful location and everyone else breaks for the parking lot — “They hurry to the car, to the hotel, to telephone the girl,” Laetitia says. “I think, ‘Why they don’t look around?”‘ — she walks and stares and dreams. “I feel the wind on my face,” she says. “And I feel that there is a person that I love beyond the end of what I see. And I’m like, ‘Hey, guy, you should see me. You should hear me. Just come. And I say hello to you. Hello, and you are welcome — you come when you want. I am here, and you know it. I’m waiting for you, and I know you’re waiting for me.”‘ Sometimes she worries that this man might be asleep while she’s awake — but maybe he’s dreaming about her. During a break on the Montauk shoot, while everyone heads to the trailers, Laetitia walks to the water. She has collected a fistful of souvenirs: a flat piece of driftwood, a pebble, a shell. She stares over the water and shows me the driftwood. She’s been drawing on it, a small cartoon of a naked woman with cascading hair in which there are five hearts floating around the French word amour.
In August 1993, Laetitia Casta was a civilian in the would of fashion — worse than a civilian, because she didn’t even know a war was on. She’d never realized that modeling was a job. Once, when she was fourteen, she and her family crossed a Parisian sidewalk where a fashion team was doing its business. “And they were so surprised to see this girl — they say, ‘Look, look! Look, look!”‘ remembers father Dominique Casta, a businessman. “It was the first alert.” A year later, the family was on vacation at a beach in Corsica. Laetitia was making sand castles with her three-year-old sister, Mary-Ange. (Her mother, Lynne, and older brother, Jean-Baptiste, were nearby.) A photographer and a booker for Paris-based Madison Models happened to notice her; Laetitia’s father saw them nosing around. Explanations were stammered, cards were offered, invitations to Paris were made. “That photographer is my best friend for life,” says Vincent Peter, owner of Madison Models, who speaks of that day the way he would of the afternoon someone told him to buy stock in Microsoft.
Laetitia grew up in rural Normandy, a country childhood: Laetitia getting her clothes dirty in the woods; Laetitia swimming in the river (where someone asked, “Are you a girl, or are you a boy?”); Laetitia mock-fighting with her older brother, who liked to lead her outside, remove her shoes and plant her feet in cow shit. In school she had long staring crushes on boys (beauty rarely comes to models immediately; they’re gawky, awkward when young). “No boys came to me,” she says. “I always be the one to be alone and look at them and say nothing. If I was loving a guy, I didn’t know that you can go more far than that.” When she began to go out for modeling jobs, she didn’t tell anyone. But when word got out, one girl came to Laetitia. “She said, ‘I can do it, too!’ So she try. But nothing happens. They think it’s only about beauty,” Laetitia says. “It’s not about beauty.”
What is it about? Laetitia pauses. “From inside.”
Here’s what Laetitia means. Laetitia went to her first casting with her father. Before she stepped through the door, Mr. Casta took her aside: “He said, ‘You’re my daughter, and for me you are the best and most beautiful. But for other people, maybe not.’ He didn’t want me to get hurt; he didn’t want me to dream too much.” When Laetitia walked inside, the other women were so beautiful, they made her mouth drop open. “So I go up, and I see all these girl,” she says. “And I say, ‘What I am doing here?’ I feel like a big sausage! I was with my big eyes looking at those beautiful girls — this kind of girl that if you saw on the street, you are like, ‘Wow!’ — and I said, ‘OK, Laetitia, be strong, be strong.’ I think I have to try something else. I have to give something that someone else doesn’t have. Be open, be sincere. So for me it was to maybe give — maybe gonna sound stupid for you — but give some love.” She smiles. “And I’m very lucky, they pick me.”
Laetitia did her first runway, for the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, a few weeks later. Sitting in the front row, her mother was so overcome, she tried to stand and give Laetitia a kiss. (“My father stopped her,” Laetitia says.) The show was the first time Laetitia had ever worn makeup, and when she saw herself in the mirror, she screamed. “I looked at myself,” she says, “and I was scared. Because it was not me. Something changed. It was something new — a woman. And when I came home, my little sister opened the door and she looked at me and she was like, ‘Aaaah!‘ She was so afraid, she ran upstairs. She was like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re a monster.”‘
Then Laetitia’s life began to move at a model’s pace. Planes, hotels, photo shoots. She hit her first three covers in the same month, when she was sixteen. Her parents allowed her to model full time and leave school. Did she miss it? “No, no, no. If I say yes, I am lying.” Her father made a speech to her. She would have to work hard. She would have to stay at home. And she would have to stay nice. “They said, ‘We can’t say no, because we don’t want you to regret,”‘ Laetitia remembers. She flew to America and met with Ralph Lauren in a conference room before a small battalion of marketers and planners. “She could hardly speak English,” says Richard Phibbs, one of the first American fashion photographers to work with Laetitia. “But even back then, Ralph said she was going to be a star.” The designer asked Laetitia to turn around so the room could get a better idea of her proportions. “Do you know how hard that is?” Phibbs says. “It was like twenty-five sets of eyes staring right at her. She did it with such a kind of grace and sweetness. Most people would have buckled.”
Victoria’s Secret’s Ed Raisick remembers a shoot a few years ago in Barbados. About fifteen people were having dinner at a beachfront restaurant. When Laetitia walked in, all dinner conversation stopped. “For a moment,” he says, “I thought the ocean had stopped. And she’s completely not affected by it. I think she thinks that’s just kind of what happens when people walk through a restaurant.”
Before long, Laetitia discovered she was no longer a girl. It was exciting. “I feel I can do something,” she says. “At this time, I start to enjoy being a woman. It’s what I learned from four and a half years’ experience. You learn how to seduce, how to be sensual, how to play. It’s very important for a woman, I think.” When she turned twenty, in May, her parents let her leave home. She now has an apartment in London, which she shares with her brother. Laetitia is impulsive. “I have a lot of energy,” she says. “If I don’t spend it, it’s bad.” One day in London, she was eating at a restaurant when a homeless man walked by; she invited him inside to dine with her. Another time, she was bored in a New York hotel and started flinging water balloons off her balcony.
Unlike many people in her profession, Laetitia eats: hamburgers, mashed potatoes, chocolate especially. “Sometimes, when I’m with other models and someone doesn’t eat, I feel sympathetic,” she says. “Because it’s like a circle — when you love food, you love life; when you love life, you love to do love. I love those things.” She watches movies on TV. “Oldies movies,” she says. “Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren. They have something so strong inside — sensuality, charming things — that maybe it is going to come out. They make me dream. The women of today, they’re afraid to need a man; there is good acting, but they never make me dream.” (Her first movie, Asterix and Obelix, co-starring Gerard Depardieu, will be released in France next year. Laetitia had been leery of film work: “I didn’t want to do everything just to say, ‘Hey, look at me: I do everything!”‘) She isn’t dating anyone. “It’s hard to find the man of your life,” she explains in the van. When I ask what sorts of things she likes to do with men — talking, taking walks — she looks at me with a surprised expression. “What do I like to do with a man? What do you like to do with a woman? I would love to do love.”