Back in the day, you knew you’d made it when the world knew you by only one name: Twiggy, Prince, Cher, Liberace. Today, the effect is somewhat diluted by a few worthy candidates — Beck, Drake, Madonna — and a seemingly endless array of the undeserving (Miley, Enya, Fabio). Proto-supermodel Veruschka belongs in the former category. Before the name was co-opted by every drag queen who couldn’t think of a decent pun (Crystal Decanter, Stella Trajectory, Gale Force; c’mon, ladies, it’s not that, ahem, hard), Veruschka could be only one person.
Veruschka’s story is all the more intriguing because it came close to not happening. Now 77 years old, she was born in 1939 as either Vera Grafin von Lehndorff-Steinfort or Veruschka von Lehndorff (you know how vague Prussian nobility can be when it comes to names). Burdened by the inconvenience of a conscience, her father, Count Heinrich von Lehndorff, joined the German resistance after reportedly witnessing the execution of Jewish children. His involvement in what became known as the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler in his East Prussia field headquarters — which also happened to be the von Lehndorff family home — led to his execution.
Veruschka, her mother and her three siblings were interred in a camp for the children of resistance fighters, where they survived the war but lost everything else. Like many post-war refugees, they drifted around Europe in search of hope and opportunity, eventually settling in Florence, where the young Veruschka harboured modest dreams of becoming an artist. She got it half-right, in that she would play an integral role in creating some of the most iconic images of her day, albeit infront of the lens.
At 6’3” she was hard to miss, and atop the seemingly endless limbs and torso, more willowy than a summer river bank, was a face that could vacillate between little girl lost and imperious Romanov princess. Her backstory is quite the departure from the clichéd, ‘Yeah, I was a bit of a tomboy, and then, one day at the mall, a lady at Starbucks asked if I’d like to be a model, which was weird because I just like skateboarding’.
Although she would eventually command the then gobsmacking fee of $10,000 per shoot, not everyone wanted to get on board the ‘V’ train to begin with. “I had a hard time,” she has said. “I was too tall, too baby-faced, and they just didn’t think it worked together.” It was only when she teamed up with photographer Johnny Moncada in 1964 that this curious amalgam found its rhythm — which turned out to sit halfway between a dirge and torch song, as almost every Veruschka image was underpinned by a note of melancholy. “I saw modelling as a way of getting out of my dreary life,” she said of the years after her father’s execution and nomadic existence. “It was a fantasy that had nothing to do with the reality I had dealt with. Even though I was happier, I still couldn’t let that pain go.” No less an authority than Richard Avedon called her “the most beautiful girl in the world”, and Diana Vreeland put her on the cover of Vogue 11 times. In one memorable 1967 shoot, Veruschka was teamed with a cheetah, and managed to out-feline the cat. It was the same year in which she appeared on the cover of Life magazine with the headline, The Girl Everybody Stares At.