In 1939, in Konigsberg, East Prussia was born a girl who would grow up to be one of the 20th century’s sexiest women. Grafin Vera von Lehndorff — later Veruschka — was destined to be the world’s first supermodel, but her first appearance on print and film was for Nazi propaganda. The cute little girl was filmed playing with the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop for propaganda purposes until her family fell out of favor for its involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
A lanky 1.85 m tall in a time when tall models were still unfashionable in Europe, she was discovered by photographer Ugo Mulas and was sent to the U.S. to do full-time modeling. The 1960s were altogether a different age — the models were encouraged to pursue their independent art projects with various photographers, and through her creative and quirky photographs (including one which juxtaposed Veruschka’s slim body with that of a sumo wrestler), Veruschka made a name for herself. Changing her name to a more exotic sounding Russian one, and posing wearing nothing but body paint (her lifelong artistic pursuit that set trends) didn’t hurt either. The 60s were a truly different era; she went with photographer Peter Beard to Kenya, and there painted herself black with shoe polish — which took weeks to remove — to “go native”. We can all imagine what would be the outcry if such an act is repeated today.
In 1966, she was cast as herself for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up; she had only a few scenes in the movie, but the above scene where she was being photographed by David Hemmings’ character was usually voted as one of the sexiest scenes in the cinematic history. (Interesting photo-related sidenotes: the photographs that made up the plot were taken by none other than Don McCullin; David Hemmings’ character was based on Swinging London’s anointed fashion photographers Terence Donovan and David Bailey, who was originally considered for the role).
The movie was controversial as one of the first British films to feature full frontal female nudity. The MPAA Production Code in the United States banned the movie, but its wide distribution by MGM through a subsidiary in the US, and its grossing $20 million on a $1.8 million budget encouraged the studios, undermined the MPAA Production Codes, and greatly contributed to the Code’s demise. Blow-Up made Veruschka an international star, although her name was misspelt in the credits and she appeared on screen for five minutes. She would go on to earn as much as $10,000 a day. Finally in 1975, her disagreements with Vogue — a magazine that once called Veruschka “one of the wonders of the world” and used her on the cover for the record 11 times — finished her off. Slowly descending into depression and bankruptcy, the women whom Richard Avedon called the most beautiful in the world slid away into a quieter obscurity. But even in the community where age and beauty were daily mantras, Veruschka left behind enormous shoes a younger generation of supermodels had trouble filling.