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Gisele Bündchen: Supermodel turned environmentalist, entrepreneur and philanthropist

She may be one of the richest models in history, but that’s really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Gisele Bündchen has achieved.

There’s a reason why Gisele Bündchen is part of a rare breed of celebrities whose first name is all that’s needed to identify them. However, the moniker has been well earned throughout years of diligent hard work and savvy business acumen.

Early on in her career, Bündchen recognised that she could set herself apart from her competition – from those who saw modelling as simply showing up and utilising their flawless genes – and instead, grow and leverage her personal brand to do far more than just sell clothes and beauty products. In fact, it could transform the world.

Humble beginnings

When Bündchen was first ‘discovered’ by a modelling scout in a São Paulo shopping mall food court as a 13-year-old, she admits that a career in fashion couldn’t have been further from her mind. A gangly, self-professed tomboy, she remembers being teased by her schoolmates for her tall and skinny frame.

Bündchen is one of six daughters (including her fraternal twin Patricia) born to a writer and a bank clerk in the small Brazilian town of Horizontina, and spent her childhood in nature: running “around barefoot in the grass”, climbing trees and picking fruit in their backyard.

“My father, Valdir, was an entrepreneur,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2019. “He was innovative. Then he sold real estate. Now he is a sociologist and works with me on environmental projects.” Her mother, Vania, “always worked hard and prized discipline”, qualities that have helped define Bündchen throughout her life and career.

Ticket to the top

Less than a year after being scouted by Elite Model Look, Bündchen moved, first to São Paulo and then to Tokyo, before tackling her first ever fashion show season in London, Milan, Paris and New York.

After Alexander McQueen sent the then 17-year-old down the runway in little more than a white slip skirt and paint covering her torso, she was given the same title that Australian model Elle Macpherson had been awarded by Time magazine nearly a decade earlier. Bündchen was ‘The Body’.

However, even as her career gained momentum, Bündchen faced criticism for her appearance, which was at odds with the Kate Moss ‘heroin chic’ look that was in vogue at the time. That very same year, while shooting a campaign for Missoni, Bündchen was famously told that her nose was too big to go far in the industry – a claim that was verified by the Creative Director of the company, Angela Missioni herself.

“I always knew that, even if I was not the most beautiful girl, I’d be the most energetic and hardworking.”

But instead of viewing the comment as a professional death knock, Bündchen saw it as a challenge – an opportunity to prove herself despite whatever superficial faults the industry believed she possessed. “I always knew that, even if I was not the most beautiful girl, I’d be the most energetic and hardworking,” she told The New York Times in 2016. “If you want to know the truth, that’s the reason for my success.”

Before long, Bündchen’s stellar reputation preceded her. And more importantly, she learned how to capitalise on it. “Gisele always struck me as super-professional and likeable, but with an understanding of her role that went beyond merely turning up and delivering the goods,” stylist Joe McKenna told The New York Times. “She always understood that ‘Gisele Bündchen’ could be a business too. And though I loathe the word branding, that’s exactly what she’s always been aware of.”

An emotional Bündchen gives a speech on Amazon’s rainforest conservation at Rock in Rio in 2017

It’s never been more true that looks can deceive because her golden waves, radiant skin and sparkling, effervescent personality belie a steadfast determination and drive that makes her an utterly unstoppable force.

Bündchen entrepreneurial spirit is impossible to ignore – and has contributed to not only how impressively she has amassed her personal fortune, but also how she continues to leave her mark on the world and ultimately, transform it into a better place. It’s also no fluke that today, the 41-year-old’s net worth is estimated to be around US$375.1 million, and that Forbes calculates that on average, she earns upwards of US$120,180 each and every day.

Between 2002 and 2017, Bündchen held the top spot as the world’s highest-paid model, frequenting runways for the biggest brands in the world, including the coveted role of Victoria’s Secret Angel, and gracing more than 1,200 magazine covers. She even dipped her toe into acting, appearing in Taxi in 2004 and The Devil Wears Prada in 2006.

Strength through sustainability

However, as her star continued to rise, Bündchen realised that her modelling career needn’t be at odds with her personal passion for the environment. A turning point occurred in 2002, when she was confronted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protesters appalled by her new contract with fur brand Blackglama.

Animal rights activists rush the stage as Bündchen models an outfit during the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in New York in 2002

Speaking to Vogue, Bündchen described it as a moment of profound realisation. “Suddenly it dawned on me,” she said. “I was in the hamster wheel: I’m just going to go out there and be a good girl and do what my agent tells me to do. It wasn’t until that shock – it stopped me in my tracks.

“I wasn’t aware of what was happening, and I was devastated. So I said, ‘Listen, I’m not doing fur campaigns.’ It put me in the driver’s seat, finally.”

As time went on, working with brands that shared her values and position on sustainability became non-negotiable.

In the thick of it

In 2004, Bündchen spent time with the Kisêdjê tribe in the Xingu region of the Amazon. “It was there that I witnessed firsthand the devastating problems the community faced from the pollution of the river and deforestation,” she told Marie Claire in 2020. “After that, all I knew was that I wanted to help.”

Bündchen began channelling her resources and funds into projects that were working to protect forests and water sources, particularly in her home country of Brazil, but still felt that there was more she could do. Enlisting the expertise of her father, Projeto Água Limpa (Clean Water Project) was born. Just five years on, more than 40,000 trees had been planted, which also had the effect of improving drinking water quality and repopulating the area with native wildlife.

“For many years, I didn’t know what my voice was or how to use it.”

Officially transcending her supermodel status, in 2009 Bündchen was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In a statement released by the UN, the organisation applauded the model’s efforts, explaining she would “help the agency raise awareness and inspire action to protect the environment, taking on some of the biggest threats facing the planet, such as climate change and environmental degradation”.

“We must act now, so future generations have the same opportunity,” Bündchen said at the time. “Mother Earth is our fundamental life support system, and by becoming aware and responsible now, we can assist in preserving the planet.”

Bündchen poses with actor and fellow environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio during a visit to the Xingu tribes

Then UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner described Bündchen as a “committed” environmentalist, adding that she has a uniquely global reach. This is putting it lightly, given she boasts a cool 18.9 million followers on Instagram alone and regularly uses the platform to encourage and educate her followers to live more sustainable lives.

In 2011, Bündchen was awarded Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment’s Global Environmental Citizen Award, and later that year was named Best Green International Celebrity at the International Green Awards in London.

By 2014, she had been appointed to the Rainforest Alliance’s board of directors, commenting, “I look forward to calling upon my experience not only as an international spokesperson but as an entrepreneur and global citizen to support the Rainforest Alliance’s on-the-ground efforts.”

Before long, Bündchen’s involvement in the business of sustainability, so to speak, evolved into something even deeper. She travelled the world, visiting far-flung locales including Nairobi with UK charity Practical Action in 2012 to aid in the organisation’s mission of building biogas centres to tackle energy poverty, and started creating more of her own foundations, such as the Luz Foundation in 2007, to support humanitarian, educational and environmental causes. In recognition of her environmental activism, Bündchen was honoured at UCLA’s 2019 Hollywood for Science Gala.

In 2002, Bündchen started creating her own range of eco-friendly Ipanema sandals, owned by Brazilian footwear brand Grendene, which is reported to have sold up to 25 million pairs each year across 150 countries, with the proceeds from sales channelled into different environmentally focused charities each collection. In fact, by 2013, her line comprised more than 60 per cent of Grendene’s annual exports of US$234.8 million – Bündchen clearly knows how to make things sell.

Using her voice

In September 2017, Bündchen was invited by the UN and French President Emmanuel Macron to speak about deforestation in the Amazon at a meeting of the Global Pact for the Environment. “For many years, I didn’t know what my voice was or how to use it, so to be speaking alongside world leaders about a cause I am deeply passionate about is really motivating,” she told Marie Claire of the event.

Unafraid of calling out those who stand in opposition to her mission, in 2017, Bündchen successfully prompted Brazil’s then-President Michel Temer to rethink his plans to abolish the protected status of a substantial section of the Amazon.

With husband and NFL legend Tom Brady

And just two years later, she made headlines again after Brazil’s agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina Dias, labelled her a “bad Brazilian” for her criticism of the government’s lack of environmental action and climbing deforestation numbers – inferring she was little more than a model without all “the facts”.

Bündchen responded calmly and eloquently, reminding Dias that she had “participated in countless meetings with corporate presidents, universities, scientists, researchers, farmers and environmental organisations, where I was able to exchange information and learn more and more about how to take care of our planet”.

The next chapter

Even since calling time on catwalks in 2015, Bündchen has maintained lucrative contracts with Pantene, Under Armour, Chanel and Balenciaga (to name just a few), that help to keep things flowing in her empire. There’s no denying that whatever she touches turns to gold. However, that said, she is destined for far greater things than flicking her hair in front of a camera – something she is acutely aware of.

“My goal in life is to leave the Earth in a better place for future generations.”

Bündchen’s main priority? Ensuring that she and her husband, Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL legend Tom Brady, who she has been married to since 2009, leave a legacy they’re proud of and a healthy planet for their children – Benjamin, 12, and Vivian, nine (Brady also has shared custody of his son Jack, 14, from a previous relationship with actress Bridget Moynahan) – to enjoy.

“Our responsibility is to take care of the Earth and its natural resources,” she told Marie Claire. “Our survival depends on it. My goal in life is to leave the Earth in a better place for future generations.”

Because ultimately, modelling has always been a means to an end for Bündchen. “Modelling is a job that I do, a career that I’ve had,” she told Vogue. “It allowed me to see the world, and I was well paid for it. But it never defined me.”

Instead, she has used her profile to champion environmental causes. “My life is devoted to this,” she told Savoir Flair in 2012. “I know from the outside, people think this girl just poses for pictures, but in my head, all I’m thinking the whole time is, ‘OK, if I take this job then I can have more money to put in to this action’, so that’s what I’m doing because that’s the form that God gave me to do what I can do, right?”

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