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To most of the world, Gisele Bündchen is a bona fide supermodel—so famous she doesn’t need a last name. But to nine-year-old Vivian, Bündchen is better known as Mommy. And on a recent summer day in Paris, Mommy was up to something strange. Bündchen brought her along to a fashion shoot for the first time in years. This time, her youngest child was old enough to take in the whirlwind of activity that surrounds her mother’s unique skill set. “She saw me with all these different hairdos and makeup—she didn’t understand why,” Bündchen says, laughing in her distinctive, throaty timbre. “She’s like, ‘Mommy, you look so much prettier without all that! Why are they touching you? Can they stop?’ ” Her response to her perplexed daughter was simple. “Listen, this is fashion!”
Bündchen tells me this story a few weeks later, Zooming from a sunny terrace in the Bahamas. She’s on holiday with her family and back in Mommy mode—no makeup or hairdos in sight. Her trademark honey-gold tresses frame her tanned shoulders.
The anecdote was her way of answering me when I asked if her kids (including Benjamin, 12, and stepson Jack, 15) were aware of just how good she is at the job that turned her into a global celebrity. And by that, I meant—do they understand that she ushered in a new aesthetic era for fashion when she was just a teenager? That she signed record-high contracts and outearned all her peers for more than a decade?
For most of her kids’ lives, Bündchen has purposely downshifted her fashion career. She spent the 2010s living in Boston with her husband, the unstoppable quarterback Tom Brady (formerly of the New England Patriots), and limited herself to only a few advertising campaigns and magazine covers a year. She likens the shift from the full-throttle pace of her twenties to the quiet family routines of her thirties to summiting a mountaintop and then descending into a valley. Bündchen happily made the switch. “I’m so grateful to have been there in those moments that were really shaping who they are as people,” she says of her children’s early years.
Now that her kids are older, however, Bündchen is ready to start climbing mountains again. So what’s a supermodel to do after conquering the world and growing a family? Her peers typically turn their global names into product lines after their initial runway years, launching skin care brands or lingerie collections. Bündchen dabbled in that stuff years ago, and it doesn’t interest her right now.
“I feel very fulfilled, as a mother and as a wife. And now it’s going to be my turn.”
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The primary ambition for her next chapter is more urgent: the regeneration of our planet’s natural resources, especially in her home country of Brazil. Bündchen is no stranger to environmental action. Over the last two decades, she’s donated hundreds of thousands of trees to the Amazon; funded programs to restore water quality near her hometown in southern Brazil; served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme; and appeared in conservation documentaries for National Geographic and Netflix (serving as an executive producer on the latter). And that’s in addition to a wider range of philanthropic work, like putting groups of kids in Costa Rica through school or funding humanitarian relief services in Brazil during the pandemic.
Bündchen’s latest focus is biomes, specifically Brazil’s varied eco-regions (the most famous of which is the Amazon rain forest). To mark her 42nd birthday in July, she launched a new initiative to fund seven organizations working to restore Brazil’s biomes. Next, she wants to bring attention to her country’s ecosystems by producing a travel series. As Bündchen starts to tell me more about how she envisions the series and its potential impact, and how she wants kids to understand what’s happening to their planet, she stops herself. “There are so many things I’m working on, I’ll be here the entire day talking about it,” she says.
At that moment, I see her eyeing that mountaintop once again. “I feel very fulfilled in that way, as a mother and as a wife,” she says. “And now it’s going to be my turn. It’s not like I’m going to be in the valley forever.”
Growing up in the small rural town of Horizontina, in southern Brazil, Bündchen was always outside. Some of her favorite memories are of riding bikes with her five sisters and eating fresh vegetables from her grandmother’s garden. But it wasn’t until she reached her midtwenties that she realized the natural world that brought her peace was in danger. Needing a break from her relentless runway-to-photo-shoot schedule, she spent 10 days in 2004 living with an Indigenous tribe in the Xingu River region in the Amazon. Bündchen was shocked to discover that even though the community lived in complete harmony with nature, it was not immune to the destructive impacts of the outside world. Mercury runoff from a mining operation miles away upstream and pesticides from agriculture runoff were contaminating their food sources.
Bündchen understood the problem was much bigger than one river in Brazil. “In every major city, they’re putting toxins in rivers, and we have to think about what we’re doing, how we are jeopardizing the very ecosystem that provides us life,” she says. “We are all connected.”
“I have a huge list of things that I want to do. At 42, I feel more connected with my purpose.”
Her visit to the Amazon came at a time in Bündchen’s life when she was looking for transformation. Professionally, she was soaring. Seven years earlier, she’d had her breakout moment on Alexander McQueen’s runway at only 17 years old. Topless except for a slick of white makeup painted across her chest, she looked refreshingly different from other models. To put it bluntly, she had boobs and a butt. While admittedly being very slender, she was also muscular and athletic. She looked strong. Suddenly, she was the face of the moment, marking the end of the infamous “heroin chic” era of the 1990s, when photographers and designers favored extremely thin models.
The year after that first McQueen show, Bündchen worked with all the top photographers in the industry and starred in campaigns for major brands—Versace, Ralph Lauren, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, and on and on. In 2000, she became one of Victoria’s Secret’s famous Angels, which soon became the most lucrative contract in the industry. Bündchen wasn’t just exceptionally beautiful; she was dedicated and driven. She analyzed her photos and studied her angles. On set, she was unusually animated, jumping and twisting like a dancer. Her dedication and verve made her a once-in-a-generation fashion star.
By the time she reached her early twenties, Bündchen was working 350 days a year and on the verge of a crisis. “Looking back, I now see that I’d gone so numb I couldn’t see what was happening,” she wrote in her 2018 memoir, Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life, recounting her reliance on coffee, cigarettes, and red wine. “I was poisoning my body from the moment I woke in the morning to the moment I crashed at night.” She started having panic attacks.
Bündchen still relies on the healthy habits she developed during this challenging period. She ditched the cigarettes and overhauled her diet. She discovered yoga and meditation as a way to calm her mind and focus her thoughts. She pushed herself to examine her purpose in life and what truly made her happy. She became more discerning about her modeling commitments.
And after her eye-opening visit to the Xingu region, Bündchen saw an opportunity to help and acted on it. She had a line of sandals with the Brazilian brand Ipanema at the time and asked the company to donate a percentage of the sales toward a nonprofit’s national campaign to protect and restore the river’s headwaters and surrounding forest. The proceeds from the line helped fund a seed bank.
Years later, when she decided to celebrate her 40th birthday by donating 40,000 new trees to the Amazon, she thought again of the Xingu River region. The nonprofit organization told her the seed bank she helped start had restored 16,000 acres of land. “That just shows you [that] in life, you reap what you sow, literally.” (In the end, Bündchen’s birthday campaign funded more than 250,000 trees.)
Bündchen knows how easy it is to feel discouraged by the damage we have inflicted on our planet, but refuses to surrender to such a mentality. “Most of the media chooses to focus on things that are negative, so if you are tuning into that frequency, you feel hopeless,” she says. “My intention is to bring hope, to bring the possibilities, to show the beauty—to say, ‘Hey, we’re living in heaven, right here.’ ”
I ask Bündchen if she ever misses the runway, where her signature crisscrossing walk made an indelible impression. She decided to stop in 2015, with one final exception. During the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she proudly represented her country on a 400-foot-long stage viewed by nearly 79,000 people in the stadium and millions more around the world. “There’s never going to be a moment or a runway like that,” she says. “Believe me, every year [designers] ask, ‘Please, Gisele, do the runway,’ ” she says, adding that she has “zero desire” to return to shows. They don’t give her the joy and satisfaction that she feels working on set with photographers and stylists she’s known for decades and considers close friends. Those special collaborators include Inez & Vinoodh, who asked her to channel biker-chic strength in the Hamptons backcountry for ELLE’s cover. “It’s very easy for me to go there and create a character and play that role for the day,” Bündchen says. “It fuels me.… I feel inspired to go and create more beautiful things in the world in different ways, too.” (The two say they enjoy working with Gisele as well: “She’s always learning, improving, and curious about all possibilities to reach our full potential.”)
These days, Bündchen only wants to work with brands that are thinking seriously about the environment. She sits on the board of IWC Schaffhausen, the luxury Swiss watchmaker that was the first in its industry to release a sustainability report (Brady is an ambassador for the brand). She is happy to see that the fashion industry is finally reckoning with its damaging environmental impact, even if progress can be slow. “In the late ’90s and early 2000s, when I was having those conversations, [brands] probably thought I was insane,” she says. Now she can help by connecting companies with her own network of experts. She does similar work in advising roles outside of fashion, heading up environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives at the sports betting and gaming company DraftKings and cryptocurrency exchange FTX Trading Ltd.
For the most part, Bündchen no longer keeps up with what’s happening in the fashion industry. (“It’s not even on my radar,” she says when I ask her for her thoughts on Victoria’s Secret’s inclusive rebrand.) She says she didn’t even give Brady any advice on the new apparel line he launched earlier this year. He’s the clotheshorse in the family. “He loves fashion; it’s amazing.”
Her number one priority remains her family, which moved to Tampa when Brady switched teams to the city’s Buccaneers in 2020. The question looming over the couple now is when Brady will wrap up his decorated quarterback career. Six weeks after announcing his retirement in February, he reversed course and committed to at least one more season with Tampa.
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Although she and her husband have joked about his potential retirement for years, Bündchen is often depicted by the media as desperate for Brady to call it quits. I tell her the characterization seems sexist to me, and she agrees. “I think this is the system we’ve been living in. That’s what society has accepted and what society hasn’t accepted.” Ultimately, she wants him to be happy and she knows better than anyone how much he loves the sport. “Obviously, I have my concerns—this is a very violent sport, and I have my children and I would like him to be more present,” she says. “I have definitely had those conversations with him over and over again. But ultimately, I feel that everybody has to make a decision that works for [them]. He needs to follow his joy, too.”
Weeks after our interview, as the new NFL season approached, Brady made headlines when he took an unusual 11-day break from training camp in August, citing personal reasons. Various tabloids reported that the couple was taking some time apart, citing Brady’s career as the flashpoint. Bündchen declined to comment on the speculation when we reached out in September.
What is clear from our conversation, however, is that Bündchen is making her own plans for the future, content with her chapter away from the spotlight. “I’ve done my part, which is [to] be there for [Tom]. I moved to Boston, and I focused on creating a cocoon and a loving environment for my children to grow up in and to be there supporting him and his dreams. Seeing my children succeed and become the beautiful little humans that they are, seeing him succeed, and being fulfilled in his career—it makes me happy. At this point in my life, I feel like I’ve done a good job on that.” Looking forward, Bündchen is going to make more space for her dreams, too. “I have a huge list of things that I have to do, that I want to do,” she says. “At 42, I feel more connected with my purpose.”
Then I tell her something I think she’ll get a kick out of: While perusing fashion photography forums, I came across a comment on a recent shoot of hers exclaiming, “YES SEXY GISELE IS BACK like i love and respect her embracing the whole nature mom identity, but my gosh is this so refreshing and needed right now.” As Bündchen well knows, “Sexy Gisele” and the “nature mom” are interlocking parts of the same identity. “I never enjoy being put in a box because I think we can be anything we want to be. We have so many different sides to us,” she says. “I feel very lucky I get to do that in my job, and I get to wear all these different hats and experience all these different aspects of myself.” And she hopes that when women see her, they know they can contain multitudes, too: “Let’s go, ‘I’m a mommy and I can still be sexy.’ Let’s do this.” ▪
HAIR BY DIDIER MALIGE AT ART PARTNER; MAKEUP BY FULVIA FAROLFI AT BRYAN BANTRY; PRODUCED BY JOHN NADHAZI AT VLM PRODUCTIONS.
Lead Image: Jacket, $6,700, bra top, $670, pants, $2,950, Celine by Hedi Slimane. Earring (worn throughout), Katherine Wallach, $650 (for pair). Necklace (worn throughout), Claudja Bicalho, from $295. Boots (worn throughout), The Frye Company, $398. Backpack (throughout), Schott NYC x Duluth Pack, $330.
This article appears in the October 2022 issue of ELLE.
Chantal Fernandez is a fashion writer living in New York City.