“My career was never based on pretty,” one of the world’s most beautiful women was saying recently, straining a listener’s credulity. The woman was Gisele Bündchen. And if what should have seemed disingenuous or else a bad case of false modesty somehow rang true, that is because the listener had already heard the tale of the nose.
People in the business often repeat, as an example of the ways in which fashion is deeply disordered, the story of how two decades ago when Ms. Bündchen was starting out in a field she has dominated ever since — becoming not just the most highly paid model in the world but the richest, according to Forbes — some misguided types routinely advised her to correct what they saw as a glaring feature flaw.
“It’s true,” Angela Missoni, creative director of her family company, said last week from Milan. “Gisele did our first campaign with Mario Testino and we used a beautiful shot, but with Gisele’s hair all across her face.”
For that 1998 Missoni campaign, the Brazilian with the pore-less complexion, the wide toothy smile, the symmetrical although slightly square-jawed face appears almost entirely concealed behind a veil of hair. Imagine, if you can, Ms. Bündchen with a comb-over. “Mario wasn’t 100 percent sure about her,” Ms. Missoni said. “He was worried about her nose.”
What can you do about moments like that, Ms. Bündchen asked. You keep the nose nature gave you and move on. “Even before I got into the business, I was used to being bullied because I was always tall and skinny and stuck out,” she said. “I got really red all the time from playing volleyball, red like a pepper. So I thought bullying was just the way life is.”
Shrugging, she scoops up Fluffy, a rescue mutt she found online, and snuggles her into the folds of a designer sweatshirt so deliberately tattered it looks as if the puppy had a role in its fabrication.
Ms. Bündchen and I are seated on a deep white sofa in her $14 million, 48th-floor Madison Square aerie. Beyond a window wall at her back lies a landscape that might have been drawn by Saul Steinberg, with views encompassing much of Manhattan and, across the Hudson, New Jersey and possibly the border between Missouri and Kansas. It says something about Ms. Bündchen’s command of any space she inhabits that after roughly two minutes in her company the panorama has all but disappeared.
Along with her husband, Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback, and their three children — a boy and a girl from their marriage and a son from Mr. Brady’s previous relationship — Ms. Bündchen divides her time among this place, a house in Boston and a vacation compound in coastal Costa Rica. Neither Mr. Brady nor the children are anywhere to be seen today and, thus, all is quiet in a room where a scented candle emits the fragrance of sandalwood.
Ms. Bündchen, whose diet once skewed improbably toward Coke and hamburgers, now observes the more stringent dietary practices favored by her athlete husband. Roughly 80 percent of what she consumes is vegetable in origin; her family’s meals are prepared by a private chef. She is a practiced yogini and, Ms. Bündchen said, a deeply spiritual person, so much so that after reading the legend printed on her chamomile tea bag, she urges a reporter to record what it says. Put that in the article, she said. And so let the record show that love, compassion and kindness are the anchors of life.
Then the 35-year-old woman who has appeared 11 times on the cover of American Vogue; who has a personal net worth estimated in excess of $300 million; who enjoys a daily income flow Forbes calculated at $128,000; who, during a year she refers to as her sabbatical, maintains contracts with Pantene, Procter & Gamble, Under Armour, Chanel No. 5, Carolina Herrera, Emilio Pucci and Balenciaga; and whose name appears on products from jelly sandals to underwear explained how it was for her when she first appeared on the scene as a gangly 14-year-old tomboy from the south of Brazil.
“In the beginning, you know, everyone told me, ‘Your eyes are too small, the nose is too big, you can never be on a magazine cover,’” Ms. Bündchen said. “But, you know what? The big nose is coming with a big personality.”
No one anymore would dispute that the enduring success Ms. Bündchen has had in a cruelly objectifying business (one in which the average shelf-life of the talent is optimistically five years) owes much to her beauty. And yet there are “many, many beautiful girls,” in the world, whose names no one remembers, as Ms. Missoni rightly observed. “With Gisele, there is something different, her energy,” the designer added. “Of course, she is super beautiful, but she also has this charisma, this presence, this very sexy normality.”
Sexy normality is a curious way of describing someone whose Amazonian strut on a thousand runways, a walk she recently taught on television to Jimmy Fallon, had the effect of making other models look like automatons. And it seems a far cry from the images on display in “Gisele Bündchen,” (Taschen, $69.99), a new 536-page monograph that assembles, in one gravestone-size volume, images of the model from throughout her career.
Here, for instance, is Ms. Bündchen as a bronzed and long-limbed sexpot in a shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, clad in vertiginous platform sandals and a studded Versace bustier as she descends a ladder into an empty swimming pool. Here she is a sexy goofball girl-next-door photographed against cheap motel curtains by Terry Richardson, unaccountably lending innocence to the scene though clad in just underpants and bra.
Here she is a tawny adventuress with a butterscotch mane leading a brace of donkeys along a Sicilian dirt path in Steven Meisel’s images for some long forgotten Dolce & Gabbana campaign. Here she is Kabuki princess hugging tight the Polish model Malgosia Bela in a Richard Avedon hyper-stylized studio portrait, storm-battered orphans dressed in Dior haute couture.
Here she is again and again, captured by the lenses of Helmut Newton, Juergen Teller, Peter Lindbergh, Bruce Weber, David LaChapelle, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Michel Comte, Mario Sorrenti, Nino Muñoz and David Sims. And what is striking about these images created by a lustrous roster of prominent photographers and artists is that the most compelling element of any photograph she appears in is not the clothes, the setting or the backdrop but the preternatural vitality of Ms. Bündchen herself.
“I always knew that, even if I was not the most beautiful girl, I’d be the most energetic and hard-working,” the model said. “If you want to know the truth, that’s the reason for my success.”
When industry insiders talk about Ms. Bündchen, the praise most commonly proffered has less to do with her beauty than with her indomitable good spirits, a canny though untutored intelligence and an almost animal energy.
“Gisele always struck me as being super-professional and likable, but with an understanding of her role that went beyond merely turning up and delivering the goods,” said Joe McKenna, a stylist behind some of the more influential fashion campaigns of recent decades. “She always understood that ‘Gisele Bündchen’ could be a business, too. And, though I loathe the word branding, that’s exactly what she’s always been aware of.”