It is the honorific most readily assigned to her, but “supermodel” doesn’t quite cut it when describing Heidi Klum.
The 43-year-old still scribbles “model” under “occupation” when filling out forms. But as the de facto queen of reality-television competitions, the former Victoria’s Secret Angel and Sports Illustrated cover girl is more media mogul than mannequin these days. And in an industry littered with the pulverised egos of models who have tried but failed to become actresses or talking heads, Klum has quietly conquered an entire genre, appearing on not one but three top-rated series: America’s Got Talent, Germany’s Next Topmodel and Project Runway, the latter earning her the 2013 Emmy for Best Reality Competition Host.
Fans of these shows know she does not coast on her looks, either, earning a reputation as a tough but fair judge and host whose pronouncements—delivered in deceptively dulcet Teutonic tones—are often right on the money. Yet the 43-year-old wears her showbiz power-player status lightly. In the middle of a day packed with design meetings for her swimwear and lingerie lines, she greets Harper’s BAZAAR at her Los Angeles offices with a sunny hello, and proceeds to be unfailingly charming and attentive—even though, it turns out, she is running on fumes today.
“I’ve been shooting America’s Got Talent for the last nine days. We were on a night schedule so I worked from 8pm to 2am, and by the time I was home it was 3am.” On top of that, Klum is a single mother with a brood of four. “My kids get up at 6.30am, and they don’t really care that I went to bed at three—they want to have breakfast and get to school on time. So I have to be there in the morning with my mum hat on even though I’m tired,” she says, softening at the mention of Leni, 12, Henry, 11, Johan, 10, and Lou, seven.
“It’s definitely harder how I have my family structure compared to mums who have a husband at home who goes to work every day and then comes home at six. In that sense, I am kind of the man as well,” observes Klum, who was married to the British musician Seal, 54, from 2005 to 2015, and is now dating art dealer Vito Schnabel, 30.
“But my children will not suffer from any of this—I want them to be happy and feel like they always have me and that I’m always there for them. It’s a bit of a juggle but that’s what I chose to do,” she says cheerfully.
It is clear the star has a ferocious work ethic, but that is not the only reason she managed to pull away from the pack. “You have to really want it. I think some models don’t want to work on weekends or after the end of the shoot, whereas sometimes I stay longer and do something extra with the photographer or client. I do everything from beginning to end, and I’m always creatively involved. I think that, and being passionate about what you do, is the key. I was always eager to learn more and do more, and I always had a lot of drive to do things outside of modelling.”
Like the many celebrities who put their name on products, Klum could simply rubber-stamp her Heidi Klum Intimates and Heidi Klum Swim lines. Instead, she pores over each design with the sort of attention to detail that makes her Project Runway contestants quake in their boots whenever she enters the workroom.
“I’m a little bit of a control freak,” she admits half-apologetically.
“A lot of people just stick their name on things and hope that it works—I’m involved in everything, from beginning to end. I believe that’s the only way. Then, if things don’t work, you can be mad with yourself rather than with other people. I think it’s important that you make your own bed.”
Another key difference, perhaps, is that Klum did not start out wanting to model. Growing up outside of Cologne, Germany, she had her sights set on becoming a designer. “The passion for designing was always there, and I’ve always made things like Barbie clothes or Karneval [a German festival] costumes with my mum. We’re a very arts-and-crafts family. I was accepted at a fashion design school in Düsseldorf, and that’s what my path would’ve been right after school. But then I won a modelling contest and everything shifted. And now it’s shifting back. ”
The second big inflection point in her career came when Klum was asked to host season one of Germany’s Next Topmodel, which aired in 2006. “That very first season, all these things went wrong in that show. And I was, like, ‘I’m not happy with this.’ I don’t want these girls to do weird challenges that have nothing to do with the preparation for being a model. They wanted me to sign a contract to continue for a few more years, but I said, ‘I’m only going to participate if I have creative control over what happens, because I know what the fashion business is like—you guys don’t because you are TV producers.’
“So they gave in and let me have final control over everything,” recalls Klum. “And 12 years later, we’re still here, and we’re the number one TV show in Germany—I’m not sure we would be if we’d done it how they wanted to,” says the star, now an executive producer and the lead judge on the series.
Yet even someone who is a mistress of her fate needs a little boost now and then, and Klum occasionally turns to her wardrobe for a power-up. “It’s not necessarily just about actions—a look can be very powerful too, and make people go, like, ‘Oh, she’s not a pushover’. There’s power in the way you dress. And, especially as a woman, sometimes you want to have that extra power. For me, that would be something like a red pantsuit—I feel powerful in that. Or I’ll wear a dress and a bright red lip because it makes me confident.”
Ultimately, though, she believes true power radiates from within. “At the end of the day, you have the power when you feel happy with yourself—physically, mentally, and in terms of where you want to be in your life and where you want to go. When I look in the mirror, I might be stressed out but I’m happy with myself— happy with the way I look, and I feel confident because I feel good in my skin. And I feel good with the path that I’m on.”
“But everybody has their own thing. For someone else, it’s not necessarily physical—it could be their passion for art or movies or politics or whatever subject they know everything about. Whatever it is that makes you feel confident, that is your power. You just have to look at what makes you happy in your life.”
By Alison De Souza
Photographed by Yu Tsai
Styling: Cat Wennekamp-Tapper
Makeup: Linda Hay/The Wall Group
Hair: Lorenzo Martin/The Wall Group
Manicure: Emi Kudo/Opus Beauty
Producer: Trever Swearingen/88 Phases
Digital technician: Massimo Campana
Photography assistant: Robiee Ziegler/88 Phases