Gisele Bündchen: The charmed life of the mega-model

There are supermodels – and there is Gisele Bündchen. How did the girl from Brazil become the biggest star in fashion history? Harriet Walker unzips her extraordinary career

Tuesday 12 May 2009 00:00 BST

It was an extraordinary slip-up - one made all the more surprising since, throughout her 14-year career, Gisele Bündchen has maintained a reputation for being easy-going and uncontroversial. Talking to Vanity Fair last month, the supermodel enthusiastically embraced her role as stepmother to John Moynahan, the baby son of her new husband, the American football hero Tom Brady and his ex-girlfriend, the actress Bridget Moynahan.

“I understand that he has a mom,” purred the woman known as ‘the Boobs from Brazil’, “But it’s not like because somebody else delivered him, that’s not my child. I feel it is, 100 percent.”

Moynahan had announced her pregnancy two months after Brady left her for Bündchen in January 2007 - a complicated domestic situation that, to most, would seem to demand both delicacy and discretion.

Bündchen has been roundly censured for the gaffe. But her words also provide a glimpse of the strength of character - and force of will - that has catapulted her from humble origins to her current position as a global brand and cultural icon. Because, contrary to common belief, in order to rise to the very top, even a model can’t just sit around looking pretty.

“There are thousands of models out there who don’t become successful – you need to be beautiful, dynamic and clever,” says Domenico Dolce, one half of the Italian design duo who made Bündchen’s wedding dress when she married Brady in a low-key ceremony in LA this February. “If your brain doesn’t work, you won’t survive,” adds his design partner Stefano Gabbana. “Gisele hasn’t changed over the years: she speaks a lot, she is funny and she is not scared of saying what she thinks.”

Bündchen is known in the fashion industry for being charming, ebullient and, above all, professional. And it’s paid off. Forbes magazine estimates her personal fortune at $150m. She earned $35m in 2007 alone, making her the 16th richest woman in the entertainment world, and the highest-paid model of all time, according to the Guinness Book of Records.

“When it comes to money,” says Katie Grand, the fashion stylist and editor of LOVE magazine, “Gisele really knows her stuff.”

So how did her stock rise so high?


Bündchen came of age in the late 1990s, when the fashion industry looked to South America for up-and-coming models. Previously, the trend had been for waifish, fragile girls, but after the recession, there was a move to a more ‘bourgeois’ look; magazines and designers changed tack and sought out symmetrical faces, perfect teeth and big, glossy manes.

Bündchen was one of a wave of South Americans - Brazilians in particular - that was celebrated as ‘The Return of the Sexy Model’, as US Vogue proclaimed in its July 1999 issue, Bündchen’s debut cover. Peruvian photographer Mario Testino, a driving force in the craze for all things South American, recalls: “I started going to Rio a lot and photographing my stories there, so I |would cast the local people. I discovered a lot of girls and guys that I ended up putting in my |campaigns.”

Among a crowd of South American contemporaries, all of whom had equally perfect skin, glossy hair and luscious curves, only Bündchen has lasted this long. Over a career that’s impressively long by model standards, she has been the face of more than 20 international brands and been on more than 500 magazine covers. The only person to have appeared on more is Princess Diana. Bündchen has already retired once, in 2001, only to make a comeback – and she is only 28.

Her longevity is partly due to the careful and lucrative decisions she has made, but it’s also down to something ineffable: her ‘look’.

“Gisele is 100 per cent photogenic,” says fashion photographer Elaine Constantine. “It sounds shallow, but it’s in the way that her face and body are put together, they work every time.”

Of course, she’s beautiful. But fashion industry insiders are united in their evaluation of Bündchen as a woman possessed of a drive and ambition to match her phenomenal figure. Katie Grand has worked with Bündchen since the model’s second-ever shoot, an ad campaign for high street chain H&M in 1996.

“I thought she was the most perfect girl I’ve ever seen,” she says. “She’s exceptionally savvy – you really feel that she’s in control of her career. I’m sure she owed a lot to her agency in the beginning, but you do get the feeling that ultimately it’s Gisele’s decision what she does and, probably, how much she gets.”

She has commanded up to $20m for a single contract, and was rumoured to have ended her six-year deal with lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret because they had refused to increase her $5m-per-year pay packet. She knows that she’s a valuable asset: when Bündchen was signed by C&A in Brazil for a series of TV adverts, sales increased by 30 per cent.

Nobody is better at exploiting her commercial appeal more than Bündchen herself. As well as a hotel in the resort of Panambi, southern Brazil, she also owns a flip-flop company, called Ipanema Gisele Bündchen, which globally outsells the one-time cult Brazilian brand Havaianas. Design-wise, the two ranges are fairly similar; the only obvious difference is that one has her face on its website, and the other doesn’t.

Bündchen’s clients run from the mass market (H&M, Nivea) to the upper echelons of designer fashion (Balenciaga). She advertises Apple computers, American Express and Ebel watches. With the notable exception of Kate Moss, models aren’t usually allowed this range.

“It’s fairly unheard of for anyone to hold down a commercial underwear campaign as well as Dior, the acme of luxury fashion,” says Penny Martin, professor of fashion imagery at the London College of Fashion. How has Bündchen managed to retain her credibility?

“She has always used her intelligence,” says Vogue’s fashion director, Lucinda Chambers. “When you are intelligently selective, you can manage your career in a way that keeps your profile up and on the highest level.”

Stylists, photographers and designers who have worked with Bündchen speak of her “transcending” the fads of the fashion world.

“She inspired designers and photographers in a way that moved fashion on,” asserts Lee Swillingham, creative director of LOVE, who shot Bündchen for The Face during the 1990s. “She’s one of those models who can do anything, and she’s the only one to do it, no-one else has managed, so what’s her secret? Her exuberance, her sexiness. She puts the work in and she’ll wait for the right shot, sometimes for hours and hours.”

The photographer Nick Knight worked with Bündchen on her first big advertising campaign, for Christian Dior in 1998. The pictures reconstructed a foam party at an Ibiza nightclub. “She was in foam from midday til midnight for five days,” remembers Knight. “That’s like a physical endurance test.”

Katie Grand has similar stories: “The only time I’ve ever seen her say ‘no’ – and I’ve made her lie naked on hospital floors – it was midday, 140 degree heat, Death Valley, in a fur coat. She said ‘I can’t stand anymore’, but the previous evening, wearing a bikini in a thunder and lightning storm, she’d been fine.”

Bündchen’s work ethic clearly pays off: whether she’s posing for bohemians or billboards, her clients feel they get value for money. “Where some models take the money [for commercial, rather than editorial, work] and are then embarrassed to enter into it, when she’s decided to do the campaign, she’s 100 per cent behind it,” says Knight. “If they ask her to say ‘This is the best lipstick in the world’, she does. It’s slightly tongue in cheek, but you get swept along with her enthusiasm.”

Bündchen is often compared to the original supermodels of the late 1980s. But there are no tales of tantrums or diva-ish demands that the likes of phone-throwing Naomi Campbell and $10,000-dollars-a-day Linda Evangelista generated at the height of their fame. On the contrary, Bündchen is known for her on-set ease, and constant chatter; Knight recalls her once cutting his assistant’s hair between shots.

Says photographer Elaine Constantine: “Before Gisele, you had a lot of silly cows getting away with a load of bullshit, and suddenly you had girls coming in with this professional work ethic, who were very well grounded. I think younger models aspire to be Gisele rather than anyone else. And she’s probably the ultimate supermodel, really, isn’t she?”


Gisele Caroline Bündchen was born to Vania and Valdir, a bank clerk and university teacher, in 1980 in Horizontina, Brazil. Near the border with Argentina, the city is mainly populated by Brazilians of German descent – hence Bündchen’s idiosyncratic mix of traditionally Latino features with elongated and angular Caucasian ones.

As a schoolgirl, her nickname was Olivia Palito, the Portuguese name for Popeye’s twig-like girlfriend Olive Oyl. A successful student, with good grades and the captainship of the volleyball team, Bündchen apparently didn’t think of herself as beautiful. Nevertheless, Vania Bündchen enrolled all of her six daughters on a modelling course, which culminated in a trip to an amusement park near Sao Paolo – it was here that Bündchen was spotted by an Elite model scout, eating a Big Mac, in 1994 at the age of 14. “It was the first time in my life that someone thought I looked pretty,” she has said.

Elaine Constantine is the only photographer to have shot Bündchen in her hometown of Horizontina, where she met and worked with her entire family in 1998.

“The thing that struck me about them was they were all very professional and enthusiastic,” she says. “Her father was an ordinary guy who had done well for himself, and it’s that work ethic that’s the real key to her success. That grounding, and the need to impress and show willing - I don’t think you lose something like that.”

Bündchen now employs four of her siblings, as her manager, her lawyer, her accountant and her web developer. The Bündchen Corporation, you might call it.

Constantine’s shoot in Horizontina was a commission for BIG magazine, an avant-garde fashion publication which in 1999 themed an entire issue around Bündchen, long before she achieved superstardom. Lee Swillingham, who was creative director of the project, says, “She’s so versatile that, instead of having eight or 10 stories looking similar, it was the opposite: she looked different in every one.”


Outside the fashion world, Bündchen’s remarkable earning power hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2007, her manager - and sister - Patricia informed Bloomberg: “Contracts starting now are more attractive in Euros because we don’t know what will happen to the dollar.” At the time, these were sentiments echoed by Warren Buffett.

The American press was outraged, and the model’s agent in New York, Anne Nelson, was forced to step in to smooth things over: “When she works in Europe, she gets paid in Euros,” she stated, “When she works in the US, she gets paid in dollars, and in Brazil, she gets paid in reais.” Whether Bündchen had insisted on payment in Euros or not, the episode revealed a telling degree of fiscal nous.

It was in response to this story that the economist Fred Fuld developed the Gisele Bündchen Stock Index on his website It charts the performance of companies employing the model, such as LVMH (which owns Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Guerlain), Volkswagen (for whom Bündchen is a spokeswoman) and News Corp, who financed the fashion flick |The Devil Wears Prada, in which Bündchen had a cameo role. His findings, represented in a graph, reveal much about Bündchen the |business.

“She could have become the spokeswoman for General Motors or Ford, both of which have received government bailouts and may yet declare themselves bankrupt. But Volkswagen is in much better shape, and is even considering buying Porsche,” says Fuld. By the end of 2007, Gisele’s index was up 29 per cent in comparison to the Dow’s 6.5 per cent. And when she terminated the Victoria’s Secret contract, parent company Limited Brand’s share price fell 31.5 per cent. And, although the Gisele Index is down 15.7 per cent between 2007 and 2009, it still managed to outperform the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which was down over 30 per cent during the same period.

Bündchen is also an avid property tycoon. Photographer Alice Hawkins once shot in model at one of her homes, a Manhattan penthouse triplex.

“She was pointing out other skyscrapers through the window and telling us which floors she owned in which,” recalls Hawkins, “She likes buying property, doing it up and selling it on. She’s very clever about making money – it’s an interest of hers.”

She hasn’t been immune to the credit crisis; her New York flat, which boasts a ‘party sized’ hot tub and views over the Hudson River, has been on the market since last summer, and she has had to drop the asking price from £6.1m to £3.3m. Unlike mere mortals, though, she and Brady are not tied into the ‘sell before you buy’ bind, having recently purchased a £6.6m property in LA. Her main residence is a £10.6m brownstone in Manhattan, but she also has homes upstate, and, in Porto Alegre, the Brazilian city in which she was scouted. Her beach house in Costa Rica, where she and Brady recently renewed their vows, was bought for her by Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom she had a high-profile romance between 2000 and 2005 . She and Brady now divide their time between the East coast, where Brady’s team, the New England Patriots, is based, and the West, where his son lives.

So Bündchen is rich, married and beautiful – but is she having fun? Although female models and male sports stars may epitomise a work hard, play hard ethos, they need a certain amount of rest and recuperation in order to perform at their best. Bündchen and Brady are not the party-scene regulars you’d expect.

The model has spoken about her experience of nervous exhaustion in her busy early years: “I was travelling everywhere, I was eating junk food every day, working 10 to 12 |hours. How much can your body take?” She reportedly drinks very little alcohol and turns in early; trains daily at her favourite |sport, kung fu; enjoys riding and reads self-help books. And Brady is no Jermaine Defoe either. His wife describes him as a “good man” with “the purest heart”. The couple are unapologetically Catholic (although Bundchen did once anger the Pope by speaking out in favour of condoms in the Third World), and Brady’s admiration for his parents’ 40-year marriage is well-publicised.


Bündchen has discovered speaking carelessly to the media on the subject of children can have explosive consequences. While Brady’s ex-girlfriend Bridget Moynahan declined to comment on the “100 per cent mine” furore, controversy surrounding Bündchen’s domestic arrangements has raged on; the model has also been pilloried for expressing an interest in adoption.

“I would also love to adopt a child from Brazil. When you come from Sao Paolo, you see five-year-olds sniffing glue on the corner,” she has said. Far from acknowledging any good that Bündchen might do, press focussed on what a loss it will be to Brady (who, predictably enough, has escaped judgement throughout). It’s of a piece with the treatment of Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker, whose maternal skills and decisions have been critiqued.

No doubt Bündchen has learned to be more cautious when giving press interviews. Her and Brady’s careers are analogous in many ways – they’re both required to be the apogee of physical perfection, and they’re both better off being seen and not heard. Who hasn’t been disappointed by either Kate Moss or David Beckham’s lisping falsettos?

Bündchen’s allure, and that of most models, lies in remaining a tight-lipped enigma; only recently has she entered, or been pushed into, the realm of celebrity where her words are scoured for any controversial PR slip-up. Her volubility in front of the camera doesn’t translate into the tabloid arena, where a celebrity’s words are frequently weapons to be turned back on them.

Still, she’s the darling of photographers, marketing men and the fashion industry and looks set to remain so.

“She’s a goddess,” purrs John Galliano. “She has the look, the personality, the strength, the sexy side, yet as well as this, she’s so warm, so likeable.”

Despite the high-octane glamour she’s paid millions to symbolise, the woman herself is low-key, normally found in jeans, a T-shirt and not a scrap of make-up. She is diffident, casual even, not only about her success but also about the phenomenal physique that has brought her so far: “It’s just a shell,” she has said. As well she might be nonchalant. As Katie Grand says, “You imagine, looking like that, Gisele would be difficult, or she’d be working all the men in the room. The thing is, she doesn’t need to.”

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