Soon after Gisele Bündchen started modelling at 14 years old, she worked 350 days a year. During fashion month, she would typically walk six shows a day, go to fittings until dawn, and then get up at 6 a.m. for hair and makeup for the next day. But she never missed an appointment and was never late to a job, she shares in her new book, Lessons, a work of memoir-meets-self-help, in which she writes extensively about developing her now-unmatched career in her teens and twenties. “I was determined,” she writes. “I told myself,I’m not going to go back home empty-handed. I’m not going to disappoint my parents and my sisters. I’m going to work as hard as I can and do what I have to do, even if that means working all day and all night. ”
Now 38, a mom, and living in Boston with husband Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, she tells me over the phone that she has a “much quieter life” and feels “much more removed from modelling.” She never planned to write a book, but she believes the universe was telling her to do so. “If I don’t pay attention to signs they just get stronger and louder until I pay attention,” she says. Three or four years ago, she started writing letters to teen girls dealing with issues like self-harm, anxiety, or bullying when friends of friends would ask her to. “I just didn’t want them to feel alone, because I know how it feels when you’re going through a big challenge and you feel alone and you feel like no one is going to understand you,” she says. “The feedback I had was always like, ‘thank you so much for writing, you don’t even know, that was so helpful.’” The book is an open letter to everyone else she couldn’t directly write to. The supermodel opened up over the phone about the memoir, modelling, her rat-infested apartment, Victoria’s Secret, and more.
You write in the book about starting out modelling at 14 and all of the challenges you experienced. Did you feel lonely during that time?
Gisele Bündchen: “I feel, in a way, very independent. I think when you are a middle child and you have five sisters, you kind of just tag along and figure things out as you go. I was scared of sleeping at night in a room [by myself] because I slept my whole life with my sisters in a room with a bunk bed. I used to be afraid of the dark because sometimes I watched horror movies as a kid, and I was freaking out all the time. And I used to sleep with the bathroom light on with the door kind of [open], so I could see. So that was the hardest part, because I was sleeping in a model apartment. I was in Japan at 14 years old, on the other side of the world, and I didn’t speak a word of English or Japanese. And I had a roommate who wasn’t into leaving the light on. That was more scary to me than living in Japan. Like, how was I going to sleep without the light on? I’m 14 – I was playing Barbies at 13, and the next thing I know I’m in Japan.”
You said that in one of the apartments you lived in in New York when you were starting out, you had a giant rat. How did you deal with that?
GB: “When I got [my dog] Vida and I showed up, they were like, you can’t have a dog in the model apartment, and I’m like, What do you mean? I didn’t even know she counted, she was literally two pounds, she was so tiny. But anyway, they said I couldn’t stay there. So, I ended up subletting an apartment — it was crazy, this apartment. It was actually on top of a deli and I’m sure it wasn’t the cleanest. The sounds, the smell — maybe that’s why the rats were there. I would leave the house to go work and when I came back, I put poison out. The apartment was literally so small. It was like a room. But I never saw the rat again, thank God.”
In the beginning of the book, you say that for 23 years you’ve been an image without a voice, and that’s something you have in common with lots of women. You write, “Haven’t most of us gotten the message that our voices aren’t worth hearing, whether we’re being ignored in a meeting or criticised online or reduced to a bunch of body parts?” Are you saying that you’ve felt objectified?
GB: “I’m not sure if you’ve been on the inside of the fashion industry, but it’s very fast paced and it’s also very changeable. I’ve been around for 23 years. I remember in the first five years, you saw girls come and go. Like one season, you see a girl all the time and the next season, it’s like you didn’t see her anywhere. I always thought, I’m just going to show up, I’m going to give 100 percent, I’m going to do my best. There are people who are extremely nice and extremely thoughtful, and there are people who are not. You can’t control how other people are going to act towards you, but you can focus on how you are going to react. I have always chosen love.”
Can you talk about your experience with Victoria’s Secret and why you decided to leave? You say in the book it was very difficult to decide not to renew your contract.
GB: “I was a runway model, that’s how I really started. When I was 18, I was on my first American Vogue cover, and I remember at that time, you didn’t do commercial [work]. I don’t know if you remember that time in fashion, 1999 – you had the fashion models and you had the commercial models. There wasn’t really a crossover. A lot of people in fashion were telling me ‘OK, you might not ever do fashion again if you choose to do a very commercial client because this is 1999’ — it was like a catalog company, it wasn’t really like anything else. They were not who they are today. But they were giving me a five-year guarantee and more money than I would have made since I was 14 working in fashion. [I thought,] I’d rather take that, because I don’t know — I have seen so many girls come and go, and who can guarantee that I’m going to be here five years from now? At least I won’t be going back home empty-handed.”
“[Victoria’s Secret] was 80 percent of my income when I decided to not re-sign with them.”
You said when you signed with Victoria’s Secret, you didn’t have to work 350 days a year anymore.
GB: “My friend Ed [Razek, chief marketing officer], who got me in Victoria’s Secret, he had the idea to bring more fashion models in and create the show and all that. I was very grateful and I loved him. In fashion, you usually work two seasons for somebody and then you work for other brands, so it’s very rare when you have a very long-term relationship with different clients. It felt like a family; I love the people, I love working with them. When I started I was 19. When I got to 27, I kind of felt like there were other things I wanted to do. It was 80 percent of my income when I decided to not re-sign with them. They were always very respectful. They knew that I didn’t really enjoy being in G-strings on the runway, so they always gave me a cape. I could have continued maybe three or five more years there, but I felt like I had done that chapter. When you say no to something, you say yes to something else.”
You also say throughout the book that people read the news and it makes them miserable and you should stay away from it if that’s the case. Is that something you do?
GB: “Where your energy goes is what grows. Our mind wants to hold onto things. Like the news comes up, and you hold onto that idea, that thought, and then you go down this rabbit hole of emotions about that thing that was just presented to you. That’s one reality, because there’s billions of different realities happening simultaneously at the same time — it’s like a radio station. You can be listening to hot rock metal or you can be listening to soft rock or hip-hop. There is a frequency of fear, it paralyses you. That vibration of fear brings lots of different emotions, brings anger, brings sadness, brings insecurity, brings all that stuff, because it vibrates at that lower vibration. That is not a vibration that I like to stay in, because it’s not really constructive. There’s a difference between looking at something and being aware of something, and allowing it to consume your existence. I’m aware of what’s happening in the world. It’s really consciously choosing what vibration you’re inviting into your life. They always say that life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Where you let your attention go, that’s what you’re going to experience.”
Are you following the #MeToo movement in fashion?
GB: “I wouldn’t say that’s just modelling, in my opinion – that’s acting, that’s music, any entertainment industry.”
I think it’s everywhere. I was just wondering your perspective on it as a model.
GB: “At first, being in the business that is fashion, I didn’t really have a lot of experiences with boys, let’s say, because my business is mostly women and my house is mostly women. When you think of the big scope of things, women are not necessarily the most supportive of other women. There’s more competition. And I think men don’t have that. I think the biggest thing that I’ve noticed from the #MeToo movement is women actually supporting other women, which I think is the most beautiful [thing], because I’ve always been supportive and love my sisters. But I feel like when I started in fashion, that wasn’t what I experienced from other women – it wasn’t support.
“Men kind of stick together and support one another, and I think with this, women more than ever are really saying, ‘Hey, we’re not in competition, we are stronger, we are better when we are together, and we’re better when we can support one another.’”
Tell me about the charity supported by the book and what young people can do to be better activists for the environment.
GB: “For me it’s very simple. We are floating in space on this blue dot called Earth, and everything in our survival depends on our natural resources. Obviously, we’ve had more natural disasters – they’re more frequent than ever before and everyone just seems to be like, oh, nothing is happening. But there’s a lot happening and I think we can choose to live in denial or we can choose to do something about it.
“I come from a village of 10,000 people in the south of Brazil, and the water quality in my city was really bad. My dad, who was a sociologist and is very passionate about making a difference in the world, he says, ‘Gisele, we can try to do something about this because we’re not going to have clean water.’ So we started this project that I funded, my father actually made it happen. Now we have basically guaranteed clean water because we created protected areas around the river bed so toxins and stuff couldn’t go in the water.
“You see, cities like São Paolo, 22 million people for three to four months, they didn’t have water last year. Natural resources are finite. This is really happening, and it’s happening in our lifetime. And when its finished, it’s like, we’re going to look at each other and do what? Buy bottled water and keep putting plastic [into the ocean] and killing off the rest of the sea life we have? The idea is, use what we learned in the Agua Limpa project, and do it with the Jacqui [River in Brazil]. I want to give 100 percent of the proceeds to fund the project. The first one I funded personally; it was 18 kilometres and took four years to do. This one is 800 kilometres and obviously I cannot do 800 kilometres by myself, so really I need the support of anyone I can get. So I figure, well, I’m going to start with my book, I’m going to be the example first. I’m going to give 100 percent of the proceeds that I’m making on the book worldwide to fund the beginning of the Agua Limpa Jacqui. It’s probably going to fund the first two years of it, and hopefully I can keep selling it. I need other people to participate because this is our world and we don’t have another home.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.