Supermodels are among society’s most ubiquitous figures.
You might not notice them at first, but if you start paying attention to commercials, magazine ads, and billboards, you’ll start to see the same faces over and over again. Supermodels, heralded as the world’s most beautiful people, sell everything from cheeseburgers to lingerie, and once you become familiar with them, their faces are almost impossible to ignore.
And the stunning models of today are not without precedent. A woman by the name of Audrey Munson is known as the world’s first supermodel, and although her life was full of opulence and glamour, her story culminated in tragedy.
In an eye-opening piece for The New York Post, journalist Reed Tucker details the events that led to Munson’s journey out of world renown and into obscurity.
Some say that it all started with a stroll down Broadway. While she was out walking one day in 1906, Munson, who was 15 years old at the time, was stopped by a photographer.
Other accounts claim that she was hit by a car and made famous by the photographer sitting inside. In any case, Munson rose to glory at an early age. After being introduced to artist Isidore Konti, the young woman found immense success as a figure model.
Creators traveled around the world to get a glimpse of her. They came out in droves to hire her. You might not have known her name before this point, but if you’ve ever admired the sculptures and fountains around New York City, you’ve probably seen her face.
The figure in this sculpture at a south entrance of Central Park, for example, was modeled after Munson. Over the course of her illustrious career, she inspired various works of art and appeared in quite a few films. In fact, one of her scenes in the 1915 film Inspiration went down in history as the first display of nudity in a non-pornographic production.
But everything changed when Audrey Munson got tangled up in the web of a notorious crime. Dr. Walter Keene, who was once the model’s landlord, murdered his wife. People began speculating that he killed her because he wanted to marry Munson.
The doctor was eventually found guilty and executed. All of this negative publicity effectively shattered Munson’s career and reputation, so she left Manhattan to live with her mother in a small town in New York State. Her mental state quickly deteriorated, and she attempted to kill herself in 1922 by overdosing on mercury bichloride. After that, she was committed to an asylum in Ogdensburg.
And that is where she died in 1996. By that point, however, the world had all but forgotten about the woman who paved the way for every model thereafter.
While we’re more than willing to consume their work, we often fail to think about the lives behind famously beautiful faces. Audrey Munson’s swift spiral into obscurity says less about her and more about the nature of consumerism, not just in the early 20th century, but today.