Heidi Klum: A supermodel with a sense of humour

What kind of supermodel gives her breasts nicknames? One that takes herself a lot less seriously than your average catwalk queen. And maybe that's how Heidi Klum - businesswoman, mother-of-three, wife of Seal - has managed to carve out a whole new career.
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The day before I speak with Heidi Klum, I ring a few contacts in the fashion industry and stumble across a bit of a scoop. In catwalk circles, it transpires, the supermodel's famed breasts boast a pair of Germanic nicknames: Hans and Franz. Later, once enough of our conversation has been committed to tape for it not to matter if Ms Klum were to throw a minor wobbly and terminate the interview, I ask - strictly for professional reasons, of course - if I might use these exotic sobriquets. "Oh, sure!" she replies, cheerily. "They've been an ongoing joke for, like, 12 years. It started because I was from Germany, and people always make fun of ze Germans, yah? So when I began modelling I used to say 'These are German breasts, one is called Hans and one is called Franz'."

The names, Klum adds, are rarely used outside the fashion photographer's studio. However they do sometimes crop up in conversation at one of the idyllic homes she now shares with her second husband, the British musician Seal, and three young children. Either way, Hans and Franz tell you something important about Heidi Klum. They show that, behind the coquettish smile that has graced a coffee-table full of Vogues, lies a can-do attitude and a breezy sense of humour. For a supermodel, they reveal her to be splendidly, almost worryingly, unpretentious.

It doesn't have to be like this. Klum boasts one of the world's most famous and valuable "faces", with earnings estimated by Forbes magazine last year at £3.2m. She's the world's third richest model, with every right (should she so desire) to be as aloof and as frosty as our own dear Naomi Campbell. In Germany and the US, her fame rivals that of Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford combined. At the age of 33, in an industry where only the luckiest survive past their mid-20s, that face and her blonde river of hair are still selling countless fashion labels, lines of cosmetics, and glossy magazines. (omega)

Klum is more than just a famous clothes-horse and rock-star wife, though. She's something of a feminist icon, having returned to the catwalk just weeks after giving birth to her first child, and combining modelling with 16-hour days running a burgeoning global business empire. Today, this adds up to a sort of living, breathing brand. She owns two varieties of own-label perfume, has designed a range of Birkenstock shoes, makes jewellery for Mouawad, lingerie for the underwear firm Victoria's Secret, and helps market a flower named after her, the Heidi Klum rose.

In person, meanwhile, her mid-Atlantic accent reflects her international status. She hosts and produces two of the world's most successful reality TV programmes: in the USA, Project Runway, a sort of Pop Idol for fashion designers; in her native country, Germany's Next Top Model. Then, if you can still take this barrage of over-achievement, there have been acting and singing. Klum's had walk-on roles in, among other films, The Devil Wears Prada, and proper runs in the successful sitcoms Spin City and Sex and the City. At Christmas, she released a charity pop single, which reached Number 13 in the German charts.

All of which makes Heidi Klum one of the few supermodels who actually did something next, and did it well. As a mother, model and entrepreneur, she provides a cheerful two-fingered salute to cynics who reckon that women can't have it all. "The great models always know what they're doing in front of camera," says the photographer Rankin, who shot the portraits on these pages. "With Heidi, what you also get is an incredible level of professionalism. You don't just feel you're collaborating on a photo, but also creating something valuable together. She also always goes the extra mile, wanting one more shot, or trying poses that other models would complain about. Then after you've finished, she's straight on to the BlackBerry trying to help sell the pictures, or arrange another shoot. Don't be fooled by her sense of humour, or children running around in the background. Heidi's a high-powered woman. She never misses a trick."

S trictly speaking, Heidi Klum should never have become a supermodel. At 5ft 10in, she is below regulation height for the catwalk; her vital statistics (34-28-34, since you ask) are also on the curvy side of normal for the profession. Meet Klum, and you'll realise that while her smile is pretty, her skin perfect and her face classically attractive, she boasts none of the physical quirkiness that might usually attract the attention of influential fashion bookers or designers looking for the next big "look".

Her career was built away from the catwalk. She achieved fame with a series of celebrated magazine shoots and advertising campaigns in the late 1990s. Even today, at the top of her game, she remains firmly realistic about her own limitations. "I have always been too round to do fashion shows," she says. "I don't look weird enough for them to want me for the catwalk, and that's fine. The other girls are always much taller and skinnier, so it just isn't my thing. I stick to what I'm good at and have never been prepared to starve myself to death and do crazy stuff just to be like a thin rail, and fit into their clothes."

Klum's route to the top was circuitous. She was born near Cologne in 1973, and enjoyed a typical suburban childhood. Her father, Gunther, was a perfumier; mother Erna a hairdresser. At school, she wanted to be a designer, and won a place to study fashion in Dusseldorf. Everything changed in 1991 when, at the age of 18, Klum entered a TV modelling competition. Several months later, she won the public's affection and walked off with a prize of £150,000 in cash and a Sony Walkman. She also won a contract with a top agency.

Despite this glittering start, it was a while before Klum really took off. First she decided to finish school and (with typical restraint) buy a starter-flat near to home, using her prize money. Then she spent six years in regular, if hardly glamorous, employment as a catalogue model, based in both New York and Germany. Things didn't really happen until she landed the position of the "face" of Victoria's Secret, who signed her up in 1998. Then she was chosen for the cover of Sports Illustrated's influential swimsuit edition. Suddenly, comparisons were being drawn with another German blonde: Claudia Schiffer. A star was born.

Today, having once faced difficulties because of her own body shape, Klum has mixed views on the industry. She has never really bought into its flaky party circuit, and is perturbed by the hot topic of the moment: fashion's so-called Size Zero debate. "I always had work as a curvy girl, and made money, but it was for mail-order catalogues that perhaps were not so glamorous as the catwalk," she says. "In one sense, though, I agree that the industry should do something about it. They make the rules and ultimately book these skinny girls. On the other hand, though, and please give both sides of this argument, I have worked with so many girls in the past who eat like crazy and do not throw up. Some people are born skinny, and that's just the way it is. You can't point a finger at them and say they're ill or anorexic. It isn't fair to people born that way."

Having made it into the big-time, Klum has also found her colourful private life jazzing up newspapers both at home and abroad. In 2003, after six years of blameless marriage, she divorced a celebrity hairdresser called Ric Pipino, and embarked on a string of high-profile affairs with unsuitable older men. The first was Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After he disappeared from the scene (during a period in which she was also, wrongly, linked with Prince Andrew) came Flavio Briatore, the fifty-something Formula One magnate who, it is often joked, has squired enough models to open his own agency.

Then, on the day Klum revealed that she was expecting Briatore's child, he was photographed kissing Fiona Swarovski, a jewellery heiress. Accusations of infidelity swirled around (from both sides, it must be said) but by the time she gave birth, it was not the child's Italian father, but the British soul singer Seal who was performing paternal duties.

The couple were married on a beach near their home in Careyes, Mexico, in 2005. "It was very romantic. There was just the three of us: me and my husband and my daughter Leni," she recalls. "Then we met our family and friends afterwards. We weren't into the whole magazine wedding thing, and just wanted it to be a day for us." Since then, life for the hausfrau has settled into an enduring game of happy families. The couple have had two children together, both boys (Seal also treats Leni as his own) and own homes in New York, Los Angeles, Mexico and London.

It's from California, though, that Klum chooses to conduct the majority of her business. "On a typical day I can see the mountains and the blue sky, and look out over my lovely garden or pool," she says. "The great thing is that I can do most of my modelling work within half-an-hour's drive." As to domestic arrangements, the wild-child days appear to be well and truly over. "My husband and I have an office in the corner of the house," she adds. "We sit on either side of this big partner desk, which is an old French antique, and spend the day working, or talking, or watch the children playing by the pool. It is quite a beautiful life."

The great irony of Klum's career, of course, is that despite her celebrity status in both the US and Germany, she hasn't yet cracked the UK market, or threatened to usurp our home-grown collection of supermodels. On the day we speak, she's about to start filming the fourth series of Project Runway, before crossing the Atlantic to shoot Germany's Next Top Model, with her children in tow. When she returns, it'll be back to business designing a new range for (omega) Birkenstock's US and German ranges. Neither is likely to make waves in the UK, where she has to play second fiddle to her London-born husband who, after a quiet couple of years, is to return with a new album.

"I don't wake up and beat my head over not being recognised in the UK," she says. "It's actually rather nice. It's different if I walk down the street with my husband, though. He's known all over the place in Britain, and the problem is that he's also really, really tall. When people first see him, they say 'Oh my god, he's huge'. He just always stands out."

Klum won't give any clues as to the progress of Seal's current project, though the man himself is said to be something of a tortured musical genius; in 2001 he went as far as to cancel the launch of an album called Togetherland when he felt it didn't make the grade. As to her own musical ambitions, the novelty single she recorded at Christmas was a one-off. "Warner Brothers wanted to release it all over Europe, but I told them not too, because people wouldn't understand outside of Germany. I had fun in the studio, despite being very pregnant at the time, and it gave me an insight into what my husband does all day, but I won't be trying it again." She has a similar awareness of her own limitations when it comes to acting, which she regards as a "hobby" and confines to non-serious roles, saying: "I am into comedy. If I had to cry, say, I just couldn't. I'm not that good an actress."

With Project Runway, which she also produces and has a hefty stake in, Klum is talking global domination. The show was recently tried in the UK, with Liz Hurley as host, but fared disappointingly ("You never know why something works or doesn't") but that's unlikely to make her give up. "I always think back to when I won my competition. It was a modelling competition and I was 18, and I just had to get out there and try hard and try thousands of castings, from city to city. You've just got to keep going, and that's what I advise people in my show." If they show half the ambition of Heidi Klum, they'll be doing very well.

Not just a pretty face What five models did next

Naomi Campbell m, a veteran of more than 50 Vogue covers, is still pounding the catwalk at the grand old age of 36. She's also appeared in 16 films, launched a brand of perfume, and had a successful pop career (in Japan, at least). In 1996, Campbell published a debut novel, Swan. When a journalist discovered that it had been largely the work of a ghost-writer, she declared: "I just did not have time to sit down and write a book." These days, she officially runs a "lifestyle, branding and events" company in New York called NC Connect. Her hobbies also include helping close friend Nelson Mandela sort out Africa, and litigation.

Helena Christensen q was catapulted to fame after winning Miss Denmark in 1986, and became one of the best-known models of the 1990s. The Scandinavian beauty went on to launch a small retail empire. She founded a clothing line, Christensen and Sigersen, with an old chum, and opened two shops in New York. One, Butik, sells clothes, the other antiques. Now 38, she devotes more time to photography than modelling. She also co-founded the fashion magazine Nylon (though later resigned in circumstances that remain unclear), and spends time campaigning on behalf of breast cancer charities.

She sells most of her hand-me-down clothes through a store run by her mother, in her native Christianhavn.

Elle Macpherson o was nicknamed "The Body" on account of her jaw-dropping swimwear shoots for magazines like Sports Illustrated. An acting career soon followed. Her first Hollywood film role was opposite Hugh Grant in the 1994 flick Sirens, and she played one of Joey's girlfriends in five episodes of the television series Friends in 1999. Today, at 43, Macpherson is still occasionally seen on the catwalk. She also heads a successful business empire selling luxury lingerie and bikinis. Based in London, the Australian icon has two sons by the financier Arki Busson. She is also a long-term supporter of Unicef, and was named as one of the organisation's "baby-friendly" celebrity ambassadors in 2005.

Cindy Crawford q owned the world's most famous mole for much of the 1980s and 1990s and was also the first supermodel to disrobe for Playboy. She attempted several forays into TV presenting and film. But her screen career peaked with a 1993 Pepsi commercial, despite the longstanding support of (then) husband Richard Gere. Today, Crawford, runs a firm called Cindy Inc. "Cindy currently enjoys an extremely successful career off the runway as an entrepreneur and spokesperson for various companies and charitable organisations," reads its internet site.

"She is one of the most beautiful women in the world, yet at the same time has the appeal of the girl-next-door. Consumers feel as if they can approach her, relate to her, and trust her, making her an extremely valuable asset as a company spokesperson."

Tyra Banks m achieved fame as a model, getting breaks with Sports Illustrated and Victoria's Secret but these days is an author, actress, singer, TV producer and talk-show host. Her acting career has touched such highs as the films Higher Learning and Coyote Ugly, and reached such lows as the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Aged just 33, Banks is now one of the biggest TV presenters in the US. Her eponymous chat show is a younger woman's version of Oprah, and she hosts and produces the popular America's Next Top Model. Despite a failed pop career, Banks is a prominent black icon, and runs an eponymous charitable foundation providing scholarships for Afro-American girls. Time magazine rates her as one of the world's 100 most influential people.