Tatjana Patitz, the quietest and perhaps the most intense of the original supermodels, has died. She was 56. A representative for the family stated that the cause of death was metastatic breast cancer.
“I never sold my soul,” Patitz said in a 2020 interview. Born in Hamburg to an Estonian mother and German father, she moved with her family to Skanör, an idyllic seaside town in the South of Sweden when she was quite young. In 1983, as a 17-year-old tomboy and competitive horse rider, she entered an Elite Model Contest in Stockholm. She placed third in Sweden. The prize was a trip to Paris and a limited-time contract. But, as Vogue wrote in 1988, “a star was not quickly born. Tatjana found no work for a year.”
Enter Peter Lindbergh, the fairy godfather of Patitz’s career. The German photographer, noted for his unretouched images and preference for a “natural” beauty look, would shoot Patitz for the famous image, “White Shirts: Six Supermodels, Malibu,” in 1988, and again for British Vogue’s January 1990 supermodels cover. When George Michael saw that issue, he invited the same cast of “girls” to appear and lip sync in his “Freedom ’90” music video.
One of the original supermodels, Patitz never seemed to be part of “the pack.” In part that’s explained by her choice to make her home not in New York or Paris, but in California, where she could be closer to nature and her animals. Geography aside, there was a certain element of mystery to Patitz’s beauty, something in the gentle oval of her face and the shape of her eyes that spoke of self-possession and passion. “Tatjana was always the European symbol of chic, like Romy Schneider-meets-Monica Vitti,” remembered Anna Wintour, chief content officer of Condé Nast and global editorial director of Vogue. “She was far less visible than her peers—more mysterious, more grown-up, more unattainable—and that had its own appeal.”
Patitz’s allure was womanly and knowing, not that of the wide-eyed ingenue, and with her training as an actor, she was a force to be reckoned with. As she told Vogue in a 1988 profile, “Tatjana: Million Dollar Beauty,” “people always said that I looked special; that I didn’t look like anyone else. And I was going to make it because of that.”
Tatjana Patitz had long-standing working relationships with Lindbergh, Herb Ritts, and Patrick Demarchelier, who often shot her on location. Her more recent appearances in Vogue were family affairs. The model was reunited with her peers for “Good Jeans,” a supermodels-in-denim story shot by Annie Leibovitz. In 2012, Patitz and her son Jonah Johnson were captured in a pastoral idyll at home on their ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley by Lindbergh. Again in 2019 the mother and son made an appearance in a Tina Barney portfolio. Speaking of her son last year, she declared, “Jonah is my source of happiness.”