As the glamour industry bathes in the glow of the Milan, New York, London and Paris Fashion Weeks, supermodel Heidi Klum demonstrates that there can be life after the runway
Author Chris Wright Illustration Robert Hunt
The lifespan of a supermodel tends to be brief. The slightest droop, the faintest crinkle, can consign the most luminous beauty to obscurity. Heidi Klum offers a glimmer of hope. Now 41, she got her start at the age of 18 after winning a modeling contest in her native Germany. Klum’s 13 years as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, along with many appearances in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, made her one of the world’s most, um, visible models. They called her The Body.
With age, even the most super of supermodels can expect a career decline—but for Klum, this didn’t happen. As she entered her 30s, she branched out, co-founding the wildly popular television show “Project Runway” and going on to dabble in acting, singing, writing and painting. She has lent her name to fragrances and jewelry, and has designed a line of clothing for Babies “R” Us, along with an active wear collection for New Balance.
It’s her TV career, though, that has kept Klum in the spotlight. Now hosting the 13th season of “Project Runway”—for which she won an Emmy last year—Klum is also on her second stint as a judge on the ratings hog “America’s Got Talent.”
She spoke with Hemispheres from a television studio in Manhattan, skipping lunch to do so. But that was OK. “I like being busy,” she said. “When I’m not, I feel like something is wrong.”
Hemispheres: I understand you’re shooting “Project Runway” today. How’s that going?
Klum: Good. The designers are creating a dress for me this year and that’s a little nerve-racking because, um, you know, I’m going to have to wear one. Some of them were good, but some were pretty frightening.
Hemispheres: People want to get noticed, and I suppose that can go either way.
Klum: Yeah, or maybe they haven’t read enough magazines. I don’t know. There were a lot of “mothers of the bride” walking down that runway.
Hemispheres: “America’s Got Talent” is airing too. You’ve created a niche for yourself as an arbiter of talent.
Klum: I am judging again, yes, but “America’s Got Talent” is a very different animal. On “Project Runway” we don’t have a crowd. “America’s Got Talent” is in front of 5,000 people who are screaming, who are booing.
Hemispheres: And half the time they’re booing the judges rather than the acts—they’re booing you.
Klum: Yes! You know, sometimes we’ll be sitting there for the fifth or the sixth day and we’ve seen, let’s say, five ventriloquists already and now here’s the sixth. I can compare this one with the others I’ve seen from the past few days, but those people booing were not sitting here the day before and the day before that and the day before that.
Hemispheres: You obviously know a lot about the fashion industry and can make informed decisions about that world, but with “America’s Got Talent” you’re out of your element. It’s very different to think, “Oh, that woman’s got a nice voice” and predict that she’s going to sell a million records. Do you worry about making mistakes?
Klum: No. I have been in the entertainment industry for 20 years and I’ve seen a lot of shows. When someone comes on stage and has that special something, you see it immediately. Then other people come on and you’re like, “Eh, I’ve seen better” or “This is nothing new.”
Hemispheres: I think where the judges on these shows make mistakes is with novelty acts. You know, somebody will come out with five watering cans full of flaming oil and juggle them while singing “God Save the Queen.” It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, but that’s not show business, is it? That’s just somebody doing something weird.
Klum: We had this guy on who had five tarantulas. He put them on his face and everyone ran away. Howard Stern ran away, Mel B ran away, Howie Mandel ran away. They were saying, “That was amazing! Oh my gosh!” and I’m like, “Really? Give me those goggles and I’ll put five spiders on my head.” That’s not a million-dollar act.
Hemispheres: You have a reputation for being a nice person. Isn’t that a flaw when it comes to being a judge on these kinds of shows? Don’t you need to have a ruthless streak?
Klum: Well, I do have to say “no” a lot of the time, but you can say it in a nice way. I don’t think there’s a reason for being nasty to people and making them cry and run off the stage.
Hemispheres: There is an element of the Roman arena to these shows, though. I hate to say it, but part of the fun is seeing people run off in tears.
Klum: Yes, but you don’t have to be mean about it. And I don’t want people to stop what they’re doing if it’s a hobby, or they love to perform in front of their family, or at certain functions in the small town where they’re from. Maybe they’re really great there, but not for a big, fantastic show in Vegas.
Hemispheres: How about when somebody comes on and says, “I’m doing this for my goldfish, who has kidney disease”? How do you say no to that?
Klum: We had one guy, he was in the Army and he’s a super shy guy and he came onto the stage and said that when he was at war he would sing to the other soldiers, because they don’t have a lot of entertainment out there. You do hear stories, these very real, emotional and sad stories. But you have to be fair. You have to separate the personal stories from the act.
Hemispheres: You actually got your start due to a talent show, right?
Klum: Yes. I won a contest in ’92, a modeling contest. I cut out a coupon and I entered and I was on TV and Germany voted for me. That’s how I got started.
Hemispheres: Did this come as a shock to you, or were you such a gorgeous kid that it seemed inevitable?
Klum: No, it came as a full-on shock to me—my parents, too. The first few times when I had to go and do the show, they didn’t even come with me. There were so many beautiful girls.
Hemispheres: It must have been a big change of pace when you came to New York. Here you are growing up in a provincial German town and suddenly you’re caught up in this swirl of money and glamour and intrigue. It’s a wonder you didn’t get sucked in, chewed up and spat back out again.
Klum: I think I had a pretty good head on my shoulders from the very beginning. I never got into the party scene. I wanted to go to bed early. For me, it was work.
Hemispheres: You’re making it sound boring. You’re spoiling the modeling industry for me.
Klum: But that’s a part of it. You’re doing your taxes, keeping all of your receipts, dealing with the business side. Even the travel—you go somewhere for two days, then go to the next place, then go to the next place, then go to the next place, and you do that mostly by yourself, because models don’t travel in a herd. Most of the time you’re on your own.
Hemispheres: You have worked hard, and you’ve had obstacles to overcome—people saying things like, “Your look’s a little too wholesome” or “Your boobs are a little too big.”
Klum: Of course. But you can’t get every job you go for, and when you learn how to live with that it makes you stronger. Some people will like you and some won’t. That’s just how it is. It’s not always a yes—there are a lot of nos, and learning how to deal with them, that’s part of life and part of growing up.
Hemispheres: Speaking of which, you have four children of your own now. That must provide a welcome relief from the high-octane, competitive world of show business.
Klum: Yes. As soon as I come home I kick my heels off, remove my false eyelashes and real life begins—they’re jumping on top of me: “Let’s do this! Let’s feed the dog! Let’s run around in the garden!”
Hemispheres: Did your kids influence your Truly Scrumptious clothing line for Babies “R” Us?
Klum: Yes. I know that kids love color, sparkles, ruffles. It’s very different from designing for adults, who want edgy and cool and whatnot. Kids just want to have fun.
Hemispheres: You also have a line of sportswear for women—which is at the other end of the spectrum: from the least self-conscious members of society to the most self-conscious.
Klum: I like to have fun with that, too, though. When New Balance hired me to do this, they weren’t hiring me to make another pair of black leggings. My things are quite loud.
Hemispheres: I wanted to end by pointing out that you are probably the only woman in history who’s had a variety of rose and a type of bra named after her.
Klum: And a stamp!
Hemispheres: For me, details like that seem to be at least as important as money or fame.
Klum: Absolutely. But I’m proud of all the things I’ve done. I can remember running around New York—going to all these studios, showing my book to photographers—for months and months and months. So it’s nice to walk down the street and see yourself on a magazine cover. Even today, after 20 years, I still get a thrill.
Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright, who has spent 20 years in the media industry, still gets a thrill when he sees his name on a pay stub.