Heidi Klum could have rested on her Victoria’s Secret laurels. Instead, she parlayed her goddesslike looks and innate charisma into a career that exceeded even her own expectations. Mickey Rapkin talks to the newly single supe arout not taking no for an answer and standing strong in the eye of a tarloid tornado.
If one word could sum up Heidi Klum’s early career, it might be no. At 18, she won a modeling contest in her native Germany; by 20, she found herself living in a lonely Manhattan apartment, struggling to be seen. Casting agents told her she was too curvy, too short (at 5’91/2“), too forgettable. While she and Michael Kors might be inseparable now on Lifetime’s Project Runway (entering its tenth season this summer), when she was an unknown model in Paris, and Kors was designing for Celine, he flat-out rejected her. “He looked at my book. I walked for him. He’s like, ‘Thank you so much for coming, but.. Klum says. “I still give him shit about it.” That’s the thing about intelligent women—when one door slams in their faces (and another, and another), they don’t quit. Rejection becomes a perverse form of encouragement—just another person to prove wrong.
Klum—with the Wite-Out smile, soul-singer husband (more on him later), and four beautiful children—proved them all wrong. She was a seriously hot earth mother in heels and Victoria’s Secret wings who tiptoed right up to the line of annoying perfection but never crossed it. It was her improbable goofiness that won us over—the on-air cackle; the now famous annual Halloween parties, for which she has dressed up as everything from a cadaver to a Hindu deity with blue skin and extra limbs. Now, at 38—an age at which most models are inching toward irrelevance—Klum is at the height of her powers, sitting atop an empire that includes Runway (now airing in 55 countries); a jewelry collection with QVC called Wildlife; a signature line of running shoes with New Balance; her fragrance, Shine; and her own lifestyle-and-advice channel on AOL.
And yet cracks begin to show. In late January, she and her husband of nearly seven years, the British musician Seal, announced their separation. Besides having four children under the age of seven, the couple share a $14.2 million Brentwood home, bought less than two years ago. Breakups are common enough in Hollywood, but this one caught the public by surprise. These two were the rock—so in love that they renewed their vows every year, complete with theme parties. Klum had always gushed about her husband’s enduring sex appeal, his unshakable devotion; as recently as this past Christmas, she was tweeting photos from their snowy vacation in Colorado. After announcing the split, Seal, promoting a new album, told CNN that while his love for Klum “has not waned one iota.. .I’m not going to sit here and BS you and tell you we haven’t had problems.” The day after that aired, an uncharacteristically subdued Klum—until then mum on the subject—spoke with ELLE about how she turned no into a resounding yes, and about what happens next.
ELLE: What do you recall about your first Victoria’s Secret show?
Heidi Klum: I had to grow some balls pretty fast. I was trying to fit in, but I really didn’t. I was just pretending. That’s what you learn in this industry. You’re always being looked at and judged. You have to learn to accept that.
ELLE: What was life like when you came to New York in 1993?
HК: I lived in a models’ apartment with three other girls—on 18th Street between First and Second avenues, right above a Laundro- mat. It always smelled like fresh laundry, but our water was never hot. It was horrible. They charged each of us $900 a month. There were roaches—you’d come home and turn the lights on and see them scatter. For some girls, it happens overnight. Some major designer picks you up, and you do their campaign and their show, and—boom!—you become the It Face. That wasn’t my path.
ELLE: Your mother was a hairdresser in a small city outside Cologne, and your father worked in the cosmetics industry. You must have at least looked good, right?
HК: No, it was horrible. I wore too much makeup. I’d put on foundation, way too much blush. I had the worst clothes. I didn’t have heels. Where I come from, where would I need to wear heels?
ELLE: How was your English?
HК: Bad. It would be like, “Hi! I’m Heidi, and I’m from Germany.” That’s it. They’d be like, “You’re so cute!” I thought, What’s “cute”?
ELLE: Were there early mistakes?
HК: I kept overdoing it. I was in the Maldives with Sports Illustrated for my first swimsuit issue. The editor was like, “Be strong in your eyes, but don’t put your bum out so much. Don’t put your boobs right into my face. That looks pornographic.” I thought I was hot. [At a later shoot, in Malaysia,] the photographer was like, “We have this eight-foot python, and I’m going to give it to you.”
ELLE: Were you afraid?
HК: Yes! But when do you have a chance to shoot with an eight-foot python? Bring it on. Wrap that snake around me! I was game.
ELLE: After you booked your first Victoria’s Secret gig, David Letterman invited you on. What do you remember about that night?
HК: His humor is very dry, and it can put you down. You have to pretend you’re strong, or he’ll eat you up. He’s like, “You’re from Germany; you must know how to yodel.” I said, “As a matter of fact, I do.” And so I yodeled for him! I wore this crazy Marc Bouwer dress that was open all the way down the side. Sometimes you just have a few shots at it. I didn’t want to blend in and be a quiet mouse. I thought, I’m in New York City with David Letterman.
ELLE: For a time, casting directors thought you were too commercial, which is kind of a dirty word.
HК: Right. And tough to come back from. I was doing JCPenney and Newport News….
ELLE: If Michael Kors rejected you when you were starting out, you two certainly seem to be past that now.
HК: On the show, sometimes we laugh to the point where they have to stop the cameras because we’re crying. We’re eating Cheetos— there’s Cheeto dust everywhere. Michael has it on his black shirt and on his fingers. There’s orange everywhere.
ELLE: Cheetos? Really?
HК: During the elimination round, we’re in a room without windows. It’s not glamorous. They turn off the air conditioning so we don’t have problems with the sound. We’re in this incubator, sweating under the lights for five or six hours. If something goofy happens, we lose it. Once there was this challenge: Design outfits for female wrestlers. They were lovely girls, but they’re not models. They came out and did this crazy stuff. And they’re super-tan. We couldn’t stop laughing. The producers had to wipe our tears off. The wrestlers knew we were laughing. We felt bad, but it was so funny.
ELLE: You cocreated Runway, which now even has a local version airing in the Philippines. Do you own a piece of that global pie?
ELLE: Smart. Did you ever imagine the show would grow so large?
HК: No. The first year, we didn’t have the advertising dollars, and we were filming in the dark. The network wanted to start with an unconventional challenge where the designers go into a grocery store and can pick anything they want for $50.1 was afraid. I was like, “This can really backfire. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this doesn’t look like some home-sewn arts-and-crafts project and we’re all going to look stupid.” I thought, The fashion industry is going to give us the thumbs-down.
ELLE: What’s the silliest product anyone’s asked you to endorse?
HК: Ten years ago, one company had an idea: People could bid on me. Like, you could bid to play basketball with Kobe Bryant. Or have dinner with me.
ELLE: You didn’t like that one?
HK: It’s kind of odd to make yourself a prize. I don’t want to go to dinner with someone I don’t know—someone who might be weird!
ELLE: In 2010 you parted ways with Victoria’s Secret after more than a decade as an Angel. Was that a tough decision?
HК: Yeah. But I’d rather be the person who says it’s time to hang up my wings than be told to hang them up. It’s time for someone else to take my place. But you do it with a crying eye.
ELLE: The tattoo on your arm is beautiful. What does it say?
HК: It’s my husband’s name and my four children.
ELLE: With all that’s going on right now, how do you feel when you look down at that tattoo?
HК: It’s part of me, you know? It’s part of my life.
ELLE: Right now, there are photographers waiting for you outside this building. I can’t even imagine what that’s like.
HК: I feel like I’m in the eye of the tornado. It’s emotions inside of your body that are a tornado. And then the outside world doing all this craziness—with you wanting it or not wanting it—is another tornado. But as hard as it is, so is life. And sometimes I think a curve-ball just comes at you. Instead of something straight that you catch, it hits you in the head from the side that you didn’t expect.
ELLE: Your split from Seal seemed to happen so quickly.
HК: Well, to the outside world, you don’t really share all the things that happen. You kind of share just the most amazing sides. I think that’s a natural instinct. But I don’t really want to get into any of that stuff. With my life, my family, my business—I want to go forward.
ELLE: Forward in your life?
HK: Yes. I feel like already there are so many things being said about us—about him, about me. I’m not going to comment. Otherwise it makes you angry. You can’t always call and say, “This is not true, but this part is true.”
ELLE: The announcement came days before his album dropped, and he’s been giving interviews. He told CNN that you two already broke the news to your kids. That’s about as personal as it gets.
HК: He’s going to be 50 next year. He’s a grown man. I can’t tell him what to do and what not to do. It’s hard.
ELLE: What do you want to tell people?
ELLE: But you can understand why the world is so curious, right? You’ve built a brand on letting people into your life.
HК: I understand. But people don’t need to know who did what. I don’t want to talk positively or negatively about the ups and downs that we had. Every couple goes through things. Unfortunately, we’re in the public, so the highs are out there. But I don’t think it’s necessary—especially for our children—to have the lows being printed in magazines and talked about.
ELLE: Have you paid any attention to the headlines?
HК: I haven’t seen the magazines. I’ve been home. Especially the first week, when everything broke. I haven’t gone many places. I was at home with the kids. I haven’t exactly been out shopping.
ELLE: How do you explain the media attention to your kids?
HК: They don’t know any other way. They’re not all of a sudden asking, “What’s going on?” But I’m a lioness. I have four cubs. I’m a mom. I want to take care of my kids and protect them. I don’t want to talk about them, or him, or me.
ELLE: Do you say to friends, “Don’t tell me what’s being written?”
HК: No. Our friends know what is the truth and what is not true.
ELLE: Have you ever been with someone who was intimidated by your success? Some people suggest that was behind this separation.
HК: I’m a strong person. But I’m also a soft person. I can hurt. I’m not a robot. I’m not made out of stone.
ELLE: Your parents have been married for 38 years. What’s their secret?
HК: Sometimes it’s hard to know. Is there a secret? It’s different for everyone. What is good advice for one person is not advice for someone else. Sometimes you just have to struggle through life yourself and find your own way.
ELLE: In an interview, you once listed your guidelines for happiness. The first was “Don’t be afraid of change.” Does that still hold?
HК: You can’t be afraid of change. Sometimes things have to change.
ELLE: Are you scared about what happens next?
HК: A little bit, yeah. But I’m also a lioness.
ELLE: You were married once before, for five years, to the hairdresser Ric Pipino. What lesson did you learn from that divorce?
HК: I was very young when I was married to Ric. We didn’t see each other for a long time after. I was playing with my kids at the park recently. My daughter Leni was playing with this girl called Roxy. I thought, That name sounds familiar. But I didn’t put two and two together. Then I hear him. I’m like, Oh my God. It’s Ric Pipino.
ELLE: Was it awkward?
HК: Time is sometimes good, because it heals things. I don’t like to be negative to people, even though we didn’t get along at the time. We chatted for a while: “Can you believe this? Our two girls here are playing?” It’s not like we called each other afterward and are having lunch anytime soon. But it was a very nice moment.
ELLE: You once paraphrased Sophia Loren: “Beauty is in the eye of the beheld.” When was the last time someone made you feel beautiful?
HК: Really beautiful? To be honest, it’s with my children. In my job, people tell you that all the time: “This shoot was great. You look amazing.” But you never know what they say when you turn away. You can’t think about that—you’d go mental. But the kids don’t edit anything. When they kiss you and tell you they love you and say, “Mama, you’re the best”—that’s really the only thing you care about.
ELLE: What do you want for your kids when they grow up?
HК: To find themselves. To do what they enjoy doing. To find someone they can share their lives with and be happy. They’re all different. As a mom, I’m trying not to put them into a box.
ELLE: In what way?
HК: I’ve done that in the past. I think, Henry is the artistic one. But I want him to figure out for himself who he is.
ELLE: You and Seal are famous for your Halloween parties. Will the parties continue in some form?
HК: Yeah. I love Halloween. People are like, “Why do you do this crazy stuff?” But I love the art of it.
ELLE: What’s the best advice your mother gave you?
HК: She always said, “Be yourself.” And she told me, “Never depend on anyone. You have to stand on your own two feet.”
ELLE: That feels prescient.
HК: You have to make things happen. There are bumps in the road: my agent, my weight, an industry looking for cool girls more than a commercial look. These are hurdles, and you have to find your way. You have to find out: How do I fit in here?