Does the World Still Need Pinup Girls?
Glamour is a weapon and Precious Lee knows it. She’s sitting under a giant bronze crossbow wearing a Thom Browne blazer with a custom satin bodice, which adds to the whoa of it all. We’re in a 16th-century game lodge—the kind of place where you could play a convincing game of Bodies, Bodies, Bodies in the dark—talking about her latest gig as a Pirelli calendar model. “This is extreme,” she laughs. “This is someone’s extra castle—not even their main castle! Like a spare castle, just for hunting! And we’re surrounded by these beautiful, dangerous things. But that’s fashion. We love a theme.”
It is a risky time to be a pinup girl, even one armed with the charisma and beauty of Ms. Lee. OnlyFans and thirst traps have cornered a large part of the Hot Girl Economy. A corset resurgence is pushing lingerie further into the dual language of constraint and consent. And when fashion says, “Let’s be bombshells,” the decision requires a thumping chant of “Being hot is feminist!” so insistent, it can border on virtual signaling. Indeed, Pirelli’s own press junket channels Notting Hill, except reporters keep asking famous models about “female empowerment” instead of Julia Roberts adventuring through space.
It’s a fair question for the Pirelli calendar-curious. Born the same year as the miniskirt (1964, h/t Mary Quant!), “The Cal” marries highbrow art with freed nipples. Predictably, it’s been a mixed bag, with many naked and famous blondes (Gisele! Heidi! Kate! Repeat!) lensed by a few men who are now, mercifully, known as creeps. But the calendar’s also been quite progressive re: the female gaze. Its sixth-ever photographer was none other than artist Sarah Moon; Joyce Tennyson took a turn in the ’80s; Annie Leibowitz has shot it twice, and, this year, Emma Summerton takes the reins. So it’s not like Pirelli doesn’t want women to frame their fantasies. It just wants to make sure they still look, you know, like fantasies.
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“As a model, I get it. Creating an image is my job—and I love my job,” says Lee, a Georgia native who stars in the calendar’s October section. (For the record, she is actually a “hardcore Virgo.”) In her aforementioned glamorous ‘fit, Lee nails her camera-ready duties so well that when she steps out of her town car, she literally stops traffic. At the same time, the 32-year-old wants her impression on the world to be a 3D rendering instead of just a snapshot. “I have other fantasies, too. As a non-traditionally sized model, it’s very important for me to think about the character that I’m writing about—bringing something new to someone that we can see for the first time. Like, imagine having a curve girl be the lead in an action film, or a physical or psychological thriller…I’d like us to get to the point where we’re not just imagining it,” she smiles, “And I’m writing some things. I’m working on some developing projects.” Lee indicates she can’t say much about them yet, but if she has her way, they’ll likely speak for themselves.
For Karlie Kloss—Pirelli’s August persona—speaking for herself has been a gradual process. “The Midwest politeness gene is so strong in me,” she says, “Whether I like it or not, it’s always there…but there’s a fine line between being polite and being a people-pleaser, and I think being a model has forced me to really draw that line for myself.” Kloss “vividly” remembers the first time she walked off a shoot. “I was 19, and this male photographer told me to take off all my clothes. It was for an ‘editorial,’ which meant, to him, that I was there to do whatever he wanted—to take nude, really sexualized photographs. It wasn’t even a question, it was just, ‘This is what you’ll do!’ At first, I was shocked, then horrified, then embarrassed, and then finally afraid to confront him or say ‘no’ to his face…it was the first time I realized that being ‘easy to work with’ did not mean doing whatever people told you to. And even then,” she laughs, “I said ‘I’m sorry!’ when I ran out of there.”
Kloss wears a sheer lace suit in her Pirelli image, accented by dozens of raver glow sticks. Her photo is titled “The Tech Mogul,” and though Kloss has indeed created a network of STEM enthusiasts through her Kode with Klossy program, I can’t imagine she’s ever showed up to a tech conference—or even a Zoom meeting about her various enterprises—in something so vampy. “That’s fair!” Kloss concedes. “But don’t you think that as women, there are these boxes of identities that we are told we have to fit within? That’s why I love blurring the lines. I don’t want to be one thing, or think only one type of woman can work in tech…I’ve spent half of my life working in fashion, and I love the power of self-expression through beauty. That’s not trivial, and it can lead to us discovering our best selves.” Kloss is right: No matter what we look like, fashion can nudge other people’s perception into our reality.
“The whole point of this Pirelli calendar is that it twists the two together—what’s a dream and what’s reality—there’s a lot of magical realism,” says Summerton, pointing to mythic details in her pinup shots like Bella Hadid’s stag antlers and Adwoa Aboah’s golden hands in two key shots. “There was a lot of collaboration, so the models and I built our own dream that turned into its own reality. Because that’s all we’re creating—the type of power we want to see.” Summerton cites her own early work—nude self-portraits shot on Super 8 film—as another example. “I wanted to frame myself in my own gaze. I wanted to decide how I, as a woman, should be seen. I was so proud, but then some art director said to me, ‘If you keep taking these sexy Polaroids of yourself, how will you be anything other than a cam girl?’ And I just opened my portfolio and showed him 20 pages I’d shot with Claudia Schiffer. Because for some people—it always seems to be guys, doesn’t it?—you’ll never win, no matter what you do. Especially if you do it your way. And fuck that.”
Guinevere van Seenus, who’s shown taking her own self-portrait in another Pirelli shot, agrees. “Being able to look at a camera and decide how to frame your own ‘faults’ and come to terms with your own body and face, to me, that was part of how I freed myself after being ‘just’ a model,” she says. “Nobody gets to tell me what I look like or who I am when I have a camera. What’s weird now is, because of social media, people keep grabbing these shots of me from the ’90s! The Jil Sander stuff, the Calvin stuff…it’s a little disorienting, because back then, photo shoots took days. We shot so many looks and so many setups that I see these iconic ad campaigns and I don’t even remember making some of them. It’s like I’m not even looking at me. I can’t tell you how strange that is—and that’s part of why I picked up the camera and turned it inwards. Having Emma do it felt like an extension of myself. It felt like I was back in my own head.”
For Ashley Graham—Pirelli’s April icon—creating her own imagery via Instagram is also a reminder of her goals IRL. “I had a really interesting experience during fashion week this year,” she starts. “On social media, it looked like I was slaying and having the best time of my life. But the work that went into getting me dressed to sit front row? The realizations I had that so many designers still don’t have the infrastructure to dress bigger bodies, or manufacture for bigger bodies? It was a reckoning. It relit a fire in me, because I realized, ‘Oh wait, there hasn’t been enough change in this industry for us to stop talking about size representation.’ I actually think we’re going backwards! And I was like, ‘Not on my watch.’ To me, this pinup moment couldn’t come at a better time.”
“Her beauty and her brain go not together.” —William Shakespeare