05.31.10

The World's Savviest Supermodel

The Brazilian bombshell, just re-named the world’s top-earning model, is also its shrewdest businesswoman. Dom Phillips reports from her home country on the unstoppable Bündchen empire. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY.

The announcement that Gisele Bündchen would be the new “propaganda girl” for the Brazilian lingerie giant Hope took even seasoned Gisele watchers—and there are legions of them here in Brazil—by surprise. Just four months after giving birth to her first child, here she was doing a shoot for lingerie, of all things, and looking every inch the $150 million she is reportedly worth.

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The deal with Hope is the latest coup for the 29-year-old bombshell, and another confirmation that she has become, without question, the most money- and marketing-savvy supermodel of our time. Last week, Forbes once again dubbed Gisele the top-earning model in the world. Last year, she raked in $25 million. In 2008, pre-recession, $35 million. She’s done it by landing high-profile mega-contracts—starting with her famous $5 million deal with Victoria’s Secret in the mid-‘90s—which has allowed her to mostly give up doing catwalk shows. No. 2 on the Forbes list, Heidi Klum, doesn’t come even close to Gisele’s numbers.

Which is why, after two years of Hope covering Brazil’s billboards with the face of actress and carnival queen Juliana Paes—as close to a “national sweetheart” as Brazil gets—the lingerie company has traded Paes for Gisele as its official spokeswoman. Paes is such a big celebrity in Brazil that some were skeptical that Hope had really given her the boot, but a Hope spokesman confirms, “She’s not coming back.”

Because the bottom line is, in Brazil, whatever Gisele touches, Gisele sells. “In the Brazilian market, she has become number one, a total icon,” says Joyce Pascowitch, owner of Brazil’s influential Glamurama celebrity/fashion website and the Pascowitch and Poder (Power) glossies.

Her image, worth so many millions, has been fortified to the point that knowing who she really is might now be all but impossible.

In America, Gisele has advertised everything from jeans to Apple computers. In Brazil, she is currently pushing shampoo, clothes, sandals (a portion of the profits go to rainforest charities), lingerie, and digital television. Her campaign for Brazilian department store C&A helped push sales up 30 percent. In three years, her advertisements for Proctor & Gamble’s Pantene hair products have seen market participation triple. According to San Francisco financial journalist Fred Fuld, who runs the Stockerblog site, over the last three years Gisele has far outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average. “Last year her index was down about 2 percent, compared to the Dow Jones average which was down 23 percent,” he says.

Gisele is also—unlike the dark-eyed, dark-haired, curvier Juliana Paes—blond and blue-eyed, a genetic asset in a country where half of the Brazilian population is black or mixed race, yet most of its top models have Northern European features. “More traditional, less daring, easier to accept,” says Pascowitch of Gisele’s more corporate-friendly look. “Every girl in Brazil wants to be Gisele” no matter their skin tone, says Jéssica Lengyel from beachwear brand Colcci, another of Bündchen’s long-term clients.

She’s used this look to help brand herself as an aspirational figure for women. Unlike the hip, nightclub-centric lifestyle embodied by Kate Moss, or the aloof, untouchable persona that’s fueled Heidi Klum’s ascent, Gisele has created an image that oozes wholesomeness. She does yoga and has a line of organic skin-care products. She married American quarterback Tom Brady. And Gisele, say people who work with her, is “super-nice.” Efficient. She shows up on time. “Her charisma conquered clients. She was smart and funny. And she had talent,” says her former agent, Monica Monteiro. “At a shoot, she will offer to help the girl doing the ironing. She sees no difference between her and the guy painting the set.”

Everything she does is obsessively tracked by the Brazilian press. “Clients generally renew contracts with her because, as well as selling product, she generates spontaneous media,” observes Monteiro. But this so-called spontaneous media is itself tightly controlled by Team Gisele. Her image, worth so many millions, has been fortified to the point that knowing who she really is might now be all but impossible. A June 2009 interview for Brazilian celebrity magazine Istoé Gente, for instance, was limited to 20 minutes, with questions about her then-rumored pregnancy and her marriage off-limits.

In March, Gisele launched a new Pantene hair-product range on a São Paulo stage in front of an invited audience. She bounced on to cheers and stayed just a few minutes, whisked away before the crowd had even started on the Champagne and canapés. “We had very little time with her,” I was told afterwards by a publicist for the company who handles Pantene’s PR. The next day, she was filming two commercials for Sky TV with two of Brazil’s most famous soccer legends, Pelé and Romário.

Gisele comes from a sixth-generation German family. She was discovered on a school trip to São Paulo at 14 and moved to the city. Three years later, she moved to New York. “Gisele didn’t get to finish high school, so her father would send books to her and say, ‘You are going to Paris? Go to the Louvre,’” says Monteiro. As Gisele later told Istoé Gente, “I sacrificed my adolescence. I had responsibility, I had to pay my bills, and I was still a child.”

At the Sky TV shoot, says top director Nando Olival, who shot the campaign, Pelé gave her a signed Brazil football top for her son Benjamin, signed “amor”: with love. He joked that it was good her husband didn’t speak Portuguese. Gisele dismissed the flirting with a smile—she is very discreet. There was never kiss-and-tell during her on-off relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio. After him, she dated a couple of Brazilian playboys—businessman João-Paulo Diniz and polo-player and businessman Ricardo Mansur. According to Monteiro, Gisele always had a check-list for what she was looking for in a man.

“They had to be good humored, athletic, good looking, charming,” says Monteiro. “Treat women properly. Like to travel. And they had to do sports.” She got what she wanted: She married a jock. The first ceremony was held in secret in Los Angeles. It was at the second, more high-profile event, on April 4, 2009, at one of her properties in Costa Rica, that one of the few cracks in the carefully guarded Gisele image appeared. A private security company at the wedding allegedly seized two paparazzi photographers, demanded their cameras and memory cards, then, when they refused, opened fire on their car as it drove away. The photographers have reportedly filed a $1 million lawsuit.

I met Gisele just once, very briefly and by accident, after one of her few catwalk shows for Colcci at São Paulo Fashion Week in June 2009.

The show, which also starred Madonna’s boyfriend Jesus Luz and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Hilbert, was the hot ticket of the week. I was trapped backstage with a rabble of photographers behind a security fence as the models filed out. Gisele rushed back and forth, smiling and giggling throughout. After the show, I managed to follow some foreign Colcci distributors into an inner sanctum. Inside, I found sushi, Champagne, and TV presenter Luciana Gimenez, former girlfriend of Mick Jagger and mother of his son Lucas.

Inside this inner sanctum was yet another black door, another secret chamber: the VIP of VIPs. As the distributors queued up outside it, I joined them, not sure what I would find inside. We were ushered into a big, empty room, where an unnervingly tall Gisele sat on a chair, the big smile fixed in place. In less than a minute, she charmed everyone, huddled us into a group photo, and bundled us all out of the door. The distributors were overjoyed: They had “met” Gisele and would be pushing the new season's collection hard. Another mission accomplished by the Bündchen money-making machine.

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British journalist Dom Phillips moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2007 to write his book Superstar DJs Here We Go (Random House/Ebury 2009) and works as a correspondent covering news, economics, and celebrity. He now writes for The Times, People, Financial Times, and Grazia.