Who knew Heidi Klum can sing? Like, on-key-soprano-a capella-Whitney’s-version-of-Chaka-Khan’s-“I’m Every Woman” sing. I know this because last month, as Klum posed for her StyleWatch cover, a busy Los Angeles photo studio suddenly freezes—with one audible gasp—as she breaks into the iconic anthem of female empowerment.
But before I can process that the America’s Got Talent host has, well, some serious talent, she’s already moved onto FaceTiming her daughter Leni. (“I can’t talk, Mom, I’m in a nice restaurant. Love you!”) Wait, now she’s got her glasses on and is behind the camera checking out the pictures of herself. She’s back in front of the camera, whipping her hair around and pouting, 1993-insouciance in full effect. “All the grunge is giving me start-of-my-career vibes,” she says of the ’90s-inspired styling. “Or back to school at 50!”
The woman—all 5-feet-9-and-1/2 inches of her—moves fast. And, let’s be honest, she’s always seemed a little superhuman, right? But Klum says her speed “is the Gemini in me. Never comfortable treading in the same spot.” And now, with the symbol of Supergirl and Superman across her chest—she’s wearing a sweater dress from Coach featuring the Kryptonian symbol for “hope,” by the way—and a tousle of her bangs, this Supereverywoman is returning to Earth and ready to talk.
Since being discovered three decades ago in her native Germany, Klum—like her ’90s contemporaries—conquered runways, magazine covers and ad campaigns. But while Linda and Christy earned supermodel status because of their abilities to change their looks, Heidi cemented her iconhood because she could never really shake her Heidi-ness. (She tries every Oct. 31, of course. What Mariah is to Christmas, so is Heidi to Halloween.)
But if you think about it, wherever Klum is, whatever she’s doing—posing, walking, talking, stepping over Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, even, somehow, as a worm (a worm!) — she’s Heidi. Eventually she noticed it too and then leveraged and even bottled herself. She’s created businesses: perfume, jewelry, swimwear. She’s starred (almost always as herself) in TV shows (Project Runway, Making the Cut, Germany’s Next Topmodel, America’s Got Talent).
Today we stand in the Second Coming of the Supermodel. Linda, Naomi, Cindy, and Christy are back on the cover of Vogue. Kate Moss is back on the runway. But Heidi, she gets to say, “Welcome back, ladies!” Because Klum’s not having any sort of comeback. She never left.
Klum did have to forge her own way, she says. Because she was never one of those supes.
“I was never really part of the real big supermodels at the time,” Klum says, of her early ’90s start in fashion. She began modeling after winning a televised model search contest in Germany. “The designers back then, they were always a little bit like, ‘You’re too commercial; you will never land on a real magazine cover.’”
Her first cover was Mirabella. At least she thought it was. But after months of waiting for the issue to come out, Klum was surprised when she didn’t recognize the face looking back at her.
“I was like ‘Who is this girl on the cover? I did the cover, I know I did the cover!’” The magazine had created a collage of several models’ faces. “I was just the cheeks,” says Klum. (Soon after, she nabbed Vogue Paris and has since appeared on the cover of hundreds more. )
But runway castings were tough. “I was also too big to fit in any of the clothes,” she remembers. “They weren’t lying! I remember going to Paris and trying all those dresses on. I could never fit in them. And I was thin, but they were even thinner. So I never got those jobs.”
Klum was also, perhaps, too happy. She cringes at the clichéd dourness on the runways back then. She was informed she smiled too much.
“I can’t not smile!” she says, laughing. “Then I don’t look as you want me to. So all the things that I first wanted to do, they didn’t work out. So I looked for things that I could do.”
“I always looked at things that I really wanted to do, and I went after them,” she says. “I always looked at my career kind of like a house where you don’t only just need the front door to get in the house. I was always like, ‘Okay, they don’t want me here for fashion. I’m going to go into other different places in the world.’”
Klum became a worldwide name in 1998, landing the prestigious cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.
“Getting that phone call telling me that I was on the cover, it was like when someone wins $20 million in the lottery. Because at that time, without social media, I think the numbers were, like, 55 million readers or something. I could really feel that reach too. I would go into a restaurant, and people all of a sudden would be like, ‘That’s that girl from Sports Illustrated.’ It just was such a big bouncing board for me to really make me go to the next step in my career.” That would be as an angel. Of sorts.
I was proud of being in Victoria’s Secret,” she says of the 13 years she spent working with the lingerie brand, which included walking in the televised fashion-show specials. “I was super appreciative that they would pick me instead of someone else. People would say, ‘Oh, and they made us wear these wings, and da-da-da.’ I’m like, ‘I always wanted the wings.’ And I was upset if I didn’t get the biggest ones!”
She laughs at her ambition. “I would go to the top, and I’d be like, ‘Why am I having these small wings? I want bigger wings.’ Because for me it was always like a moment; this is the VS show. Everyone is watching. I don’t want little chicken wings. I want the biggest wings you could possibly have, and I wore them proudly.”