On the eve of Hurricane Sandy, as the rest of Manhattan quietly hunkers down, Milk Studios—the famed fashion-shoot joint in Chelsea—is hopping. Indie rock blares through hidden speakers. The New York Giants game plays on the flat screen in the house bar. Katie Holmes, her made-up eyes as darkened as a raccoon’s, loudly scolds her daughter, Suri, for some unknown transgression as they wait for the elevator. And into an airy studio on the eighth floor of the building strides Heidi Klum. She’s wearing a white terry-cloth robe, slippers that clack noisily across the wooden floor, and a huge smile. The 39-year-old immediately makes the rounds on the set, greeting everyone—the stylists, the photographer and his assistants, and me—with pecks on each cheek and warm hellos in her mellifluous voice, tinted with just a trace of her native German accent. She’s coming off a nine-hour shoot, and her day is just getting started.
Yet Klum waves off the offer of a break. “Let’s do this,” she says. She sits on a stool under a set of klieg lights. Her assistants spring into action, flitting about her like hummingbirds. One primps her blonde hair, blown out and dark at the roots. Another carefully paints her eyelashes. Klum looks relaxed, as if she’s at a spa.
Then the photographer, Neil Francis Dawson, sees a shot and starts snapping off photos. Klum hears the familiar sound and, suddenly, she’s on, even with all of the commotion around her. Her focus—that incandescent smile—is totally on the camera now. It’s an object of affection, a recipient of warmth. This is a practised art, honed over two decades. “I love working with Neil,” Klum says of Dawson, a protégé of one of her favourite photographers, Rankin. “Neil is very good with light. When you’re pushing 40, light is very important.”
Then it’s time for a wardrobe change. Everyone is in motion. Camera equipment is shuffled to the next spot. Klum walks over to a standup screen to change. Except she doesn’t really stand behind the screen. Rather, she stands out front, near the lighted mirror. She disrobes right there, in front of everyone, without a stitch of self-consciousness. I look around bashfully. “It’s no big deal,” she later tells me. “I am completely comfortable with my body.”
And why not? That body, along with that smile, that face, and a heavy dose of confidence, has been her meal ticket, yielding one of the most impressive and long-lasting modeling careers in the profession’s history, from a 13-year stint with Victoria’s Secret to the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. And now it’s given her a platform for her transition from body to brain. Just as her highly lucrative modeling career darkens on the near horizon, the sun is lifting on her business ventures, which include two hugely popular television shows, a kids’ clothing partnership with Babies “R” Us, a sportswear line with New Balance, and jewellery and perfume businesses, all of which ForbesLife estimates will earn her $20 million this year.
Her career is not the only thing in transition. Her four kids are growing up, no longer babies. (They range in age from three to eight.) And after her recent, rancorous divorce from the singer Seal, Klum has moved on to a relationship with her former bodyguard. But rather than shrinking in the face of upheaval, Klum is relishing it. “I love what I’m doing”, she says, convincingly. “I love my life.”
We head to one of Klum’s favourite New York City restaurants, Jack’s Wife Freda, a café in SoHo. The restaurant, normally boisterous, is nearly empty, thanks to Sandy’s imminent arrival. Inside, I meet a man who introduces himself in a South African accent as Martin. He is muscled and sports a two-day-old beard and Daniel Craig-like creases on his forehead. This is Martin Kirsten, Klum’s former bodyguard and current boyfriend. He, in turn, introduces me to Brandon, an Iraq war veteran who is, maybe 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds. He is one of Klum’s new bodyguards.
With the winds swirling outside, the mood turns festive, as if everyone is sneaking a night out that they shouldn’t have. Drinks are poured. Dean Jankelowitz, the owner, brings out plates of fried zucchini chips and french fries. “Isn’t this fun?” asks Klum.
Nearly an hour later, the tables are strewn with empty glasses and hors d’oeuvres plates bearing only crumbs. We all make the short walk to the New York headquarters of Heidi Klum Company, a skinny, one-room office space on Broadway, to check in. Dawson wants to shoot the room, and Klum changes into a red mini-dress. She shows me her back. The fabric is held together by a safety pin. “I ate too many fries,” she says. Dawson sets up the shot. Klum seems curious. She hops behind the photo equipment and grabs his camera, firing off a few shots. She looks at the images as they appear instantaneously on Dawson’s computer. “I like this angle best,” she says. Dawson agrees. He later tells me that he loves working with Klum because she’s never pouty, like so many other supermodels. “She always brings it,” he says. “She knows this is a business.”
Klum asks me later what I thought of the shoot. I tell her that maybe modeling isn’t quite as glamorous as I thought. “Really?” she says. “I think it’s pretty glamorous to wear $10,000 gowns. I get paid to, like, frolic on beaches. I’ve eaten the most amazing meals, stayed in amazing hotels. I’ve seen the world because of this job. I’ve been so lucky, you know.”
But luck is only part of the story.
Klum grew up in Bergisch Gladbach, a town near Cologne. Her father worked for a cosmetics company. Her mother was a hairdresser. Klum says, “We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have a lot of stuff.”
She says that she initially wanted to be a dancer, not a model, until she realised that “I wasn’t good enough to make it a career”. But in 1992 she came across a magazine advertisement for a televised modeling contest. On a whim, she sent in a few photos. Every week, she followed the show, in which viewers voted for the winner, and “laughed at how silly it all seemed with all of these dolled-up girls answering dumb questions”. Then the show called her. Klum would eventually win the contest, beating out 30,000 contestants. (In the finale, Klum—a gorgeous 18-year-old with long, wavy, Cindy Crawford-like hair—walked down the runway to the song Crazy, sung, of course, by her then future and now former husband, Seal.)
Her prize was a $300,000 modeling contract. The catch was that she had to earn it all back. She initially tried to make a go of it in Europe but had little success. She went to Miami, where there was “an ocean of girls just like me”, she says. Nothing really stuck there. Then she moved to New York, living in a dingy apartment with some fellow models. “I cried a few nights a week,” she says. “But I didn’t want to go home a failure.”
Finally, she started getting some work. It wasn’t glamorous: She did shoots mainly for catalogues such as JC Penney. But the people who shot her saw something. “They told me I had great boobs and curves and that I should start doing Victoria’s Secret,” says Klum. “I nagged my booker until I got a call with them.”
Victoria’s Secret signed her in 1997, the beginning of a contract that didn’t end until 2010. But she wasn’t in the spotlight right away. “I was a bench player. I didn’t have a name then,” says Klum. But that changed after the catalogue came out and she was featured as an ‘angel’ in Victoria’s Secret’s fashion show. She became the ‘new girl’, the heir to big, brand-name supermodels like Crawford. “She had all the confidence in the world,” says Ed Razek, senior creative director at Victoria’s Secret since the mid-1990s. “She stared right into the camera and developed a relationship with the customer. Women loved her. She was beautiful and physically amazing but not intimidating.”
Men loved her, too. She went on the David Letterman Show after her first Victoria’s Secret shoot, wearing what she calls “an outrageous dress that made it look like I had nothing on”. She was flirty, witty, and totally comfortable on camera. That marketability caught the attention of Sports Illustrated.
In 1998, at age 25, she shot what is perhaps her most memorable image, a breast-heavy cover for that magazine’s swimsuit issue. “I knew then that I’d just won the lottery,” she says. Her modeling career took off. She appeared on more than 150 magazine covers and became the spokesmodel for McDonald’s, Dannon, H&M, and Liz Claiborne. She acted in a handful of network television shows and had cameos in a few feature films. Off camera, she had a five-year marriage to the stylist Ric Pipino and a relationship with an Italian businessman, Flavio Briatore, with whom she had her first child in 2004. She married Seal in 2005 and had three more children, becoming one of the few models to actually pull off having a career and a family.
But she realised, even during the white heat of her modeling career, that models are like athletes in that “they have a shelf life”, she says. For most models, there’s not much more than meets the eye. That wasn’t the case for Klum. “I liked modeling, but if I’m just in front of the camera for 14 hours a day, I’m not doing much with my head,” she says. Says Razek, “Heidi’s like a great pool player. As she lines up one shot, she’s making sure she’s set up for the next one.”
That setting up started at an early age. At 20, Klum designed a perfume with her father that was sold in Germany. In her early 30s, she did a 50-50 partnership with a company on a line of jewellery. She owns the line of kids’ clothing that’s sold through Babies “R” Us. She has a women’s apparel line with New Balance that’s currently sold on Amazon but will be featured in Lady Foot Locker stores next year. She designs jewellery sold on QVC. She’s created five perfumes for Coty and has an AOL website in which she and her staff dole out beauty tips. And, of course, she still models from time to time, most recently appearing in ads for Jordache. Klum is very hands-on with all of her businesses, poring over business reports and designs in her home office in Los Angeles. She says she has aimed for the midmarket. “I make more money that way, and it’s really powerful to have an idea that can almost immediately go out to 260 Babies “R” Us stores.”
But her television work gets the most attention. Project Runway, her designer reality contest show, is shown on Lifetime and is owned by the Weinstein Company. (Klum, who is the host and executive producer, owns a small piece that generates an estimated $2.5 million a year.) In January, the show will air its 11th season, and Klum has been nominated for eight Emmy Awards for her work on it. “She’s the hardest-working woman in television,” says Nancy Dubuc, president of entertainment and media at A&E Networks. Klum also produces and hosts Germany’s Next Top Model, a consistent ratings winner in her native country, in which aspiring models compete for a contract. Both shows hark back to Klum’s own professional start, and that, according to Sara Rea, the executive producer of Project Runway, is one reason she’s found such success with them. “She knows what’s at stake for these contestants,” says Rea.
On the day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, I meet Klum at Nougatine, in the Trump International Hotel & Tower. She’d been staying at a hotel in SoHo when the power went out in Lower Manhattan. A friend offered to put her up here. When she went to find a cab, the hotel concierge told her there were none. Then, she says, she took off her knit cap, and as her blonde tresses fell around her world-famous face, the concierge stammered a bit before saying, “Oh, I’ll get you one.” Being a supermodel has its privileges.Now that Klum is off duty, her hair is no longer blown out and looks darker. She’s wearing a simple long-sleeve black T-shirt and no makeup. She looks less like a supermodel than a beautiful woman you might spot at a hot Manhattan brunch spot. We talk about her ambitions. She’ll continue to dabble in modeling and run her shows. But what she really wants, it seems, is to somehow have her business career emulate her own life. She is an über-mom, a hardworking single parent who wants to look good and wants her kids to look good, too. Dubuc, for one, thinks she’s already there. “She’s made the transition from a brand as a sex symbol to a mother figure,” she says. Klum’s push in the coming years will be on her kids’ clothing line. “I want to be one of the biggest brands in children’s clothes,” she says.
Image: Getty Image
Halfway through lunch, Kirsten walks in. He sits at the table, checks his phone idly for a few minutes, then stands and gives Klum a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll be upstairs,” he says.
Klum then starts to talk about her divorce from Seal, clearly still a painful event. The tabloid scrutiny of her life was particularly hurtful then. “I’m okay with people speculating about my job but not my family,”
she says, her voice rising. “They said I left my children at home and went and lived at a hotel. I would never leave my children!” Her kids—and her Los Angeles home—are off limits to the media, though everyone, including Oprah Winfrey, has asked for the home interview. “It’s hard for me to balance work and family, just like it is for any parent,” she says. The kids are in LA, with Seal. She’ll see them tomorrow.
For now, there’s business to attend to. And she has one more night in New York. “I’ve been sitting here all day,” says Klum, stretching her arms and attracting the attention of nearby diners. “I’m going to grab that hot guy upstairs and take him out.”
(This story appears in the 08 February, 2013 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)