How Heidi Klum Created Her Multimillion-Dollar Empire

The German-born supermodel believes a pleasant, professional attitude goes a long way in every career. (And being “super-super-smart,” as a colleague describes her, doesn’t hurt.)
April 14, 2015

“Watch Heidi Klum on television,” says John Rankin Waddell, the internationally acclaimed fashion photographer, better known in that world by just his middle name. He has frequently worked with Klum—German-born supermodel/personality/executive/too-much-to-mention—for more than a decade. So, Rankin?

“What you see is what you get.”

The thing is that one sees so much. There is Klum’s obvious beauty, of course; at 41, she wows in any crowd. But there is also the Klum who sat on Piers Morgan Tonight and dismissed the idea of Botox with a flip “I’d rather age.”

She is whip-smart, a veritable Dr. House when diagnosing the shortcomings of a garment that has been feverishly assembled by some aspiring designer on the reality hit Project Runway, and cognizant that the success of the show often depends on her ability to act like a point guard, setting up opportunities for her fellow panelists rather than scoring herself.

She is playful, lowering herself to the floor on the stage of America’s Got Talent in order to kiss a pig; but what’s obvious, if never exactly seen, is all the steely seriousness undergirding her success: her discipline, her determination, her preparation, her professionalism, her drive to make everything she touches a victory for herself and her partners.

So many parts, so many sides, so much motion. In 2011, Forbes said that Klum’s $20 million income made her the world’s second-highest-earning model (behind Gisele Bündchen) but observed that Klum was a work in progress, stating that she was continuing “her transformation from supermodel to business mogul.” By the following year, the evolution was complete. Klum had successfully parlayed her healthy good looks and playful appeal into a brand, a larger public image that encompasses model, TV personality, product spokeswoman, fashion designer, clothing entrepreneur, mom and humanitarian.

On television, she is the Emmy-winning host and executive producer of Project Runway, which will start its 14th season in July; the executive producer and host of Germany’s Next Top Model, now in its 10th season; and a judge on America’s Got Talent, entering her third season on the show this summer.

That would seem to be employment enough for anyone not named Ryan Seacrest, but evidently Klum has time for everything but idleness. In January she introduced Heidi Klum Intimates for the lingerie company Bendon, making it a stablemate for her own brand, Truly Scrumptious, a line of kids’ clothing and gear that she sells through Babies “R” Us. In partnering with Klum, the New Zealand-founded, Australia-based Bendon ended its 25-year licensing relationship with Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson. The decision reflected not a wish to make a generational change (Klum is nine years younger than Macpherson) as much as a desire to make a Q-rating  leap.

“She’s very active in the media today,” Bendon’s CEO Justin Davis-Rice told the newspaper The Australian. “We were looking for somebody who gave us a much larger international reach, and Heidi elevates that.” Klum’s appeal doesn’t just go beyond borders—it goes through walls. Klum can sell lacy bras and teeny corduroy overalls, flimsy thongs and durable diapers. She is a mom Jordache hired to sell jeans to teenagers, a fitness advocate Carl’s Jr. picked to cuddle with a double cheeseburger, a supermodel Macy’s selected to represent its commitment to high fashion, and Dr. Scholl’s chose to sell pads to cushion her Jimmy Choo’d-up feet.

Klum is as global as UNICEF… which just happens to be one of the charities she supports.

One might look at such a roster of clients and conclude that Klum simply says yes to everybody. But the opposite is the truth. “They say that when you are successful, you have to be pickier about what you get involved with,” Klum tells SUCCESS while relaxing at her home in Los Angeles. “I choose things I believe in. Many companies come to me, but I try to limit my involvement to the ones that fit what I stand for or that represent something that interests me.”

In Bendon’s case, Klum says, it was her familiarity with the brand and the market segment. “I come from the lingerie world,” she says. “I have always been more associated with Victoria’s Secret and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue than the high-fashion world of Paris and Milan. I have always been opinionated about the clothes I’ve modeled, never been one to stand around with my mouth shut when I’ve had something to say about the material, or the cut, or whatever. So when Bendon, who I knew had done a good job with Elle Macpherson, offered me my own line, where I could make my ideas heard and have a home, I was very  interested.”

Most remarkable about this whirling-dervish level of activity is that it’s Klum herself who makes it all happen. She has a group of colleagues who support her, but it’s not as though she leaves her team of associates to juggle everything. It’s always Klum herself with the clients, Klum on the runway, Klum on the set. Sheer physical energy would seem to be the essential element to managing it all, but she says the true cornerstone is organization.

“I’m a planner—quite German that way,” Klum says. “I can tell you everywhere I’m going to be for the next nine months.”

She ticks off a series of bookings and commitments… 17 episodes of Germany’s Next Top Model, five days devoted to each, shot over the course of five months, followed by 2½ months spent shooting America’s Got Talent. “On Mondays, NBC books a private jet to fly Howie Mandel, Mel B. and me to New York. We shoot live on Tuesdays, then fly back Wednesday.” Summers are for Project Runway: six intense weeks in New York. Five or six design meetings climb onto the calendar every month, along with postproduction recording sessions for Germany’s Next Top Model, done from her home studio. “I do all my own voice-overs,” she says. “Just ‘all right’ is never good enough.”

And the rest of the time? “When I’m not working,” Klum says brightly, “I drive the kids to school, catch up on email, and go to my home office and start designing.” (Klum has two boys and two girls to help keep her busy.)

A detailed schedule, of course, is fairly useless without a commitment to sticking to it. Jennifer Love, vice president of the Heidi Klum Co., remembers a day a few years ago when Klum was supposed to leave at the end of a cosmetics shoot in Prague and grab a train for Munich, where she would be taken to a job in Salzburg, Austria. A sudden snowstorm bollixed up traffic, stopping Klum’s car short of the train station as departure time  neared.

“The next thing I knew, Heidi had jumped out of the car,” Love says. “She was running down the street to the terminal—running in high heels, mind you, until that got too dangerous, and then the rest of the way in her bare feet.” Such dedication deserves reward, but not in this case; the train had left, and no more were scheduled. At that point, many stars would have checked into a nice hotel and left their colleagues in Austria to sort out the damage. Not Klum. “She sat in the station working her phones, trying to rent a car, all the while trying to get the railroad to schedule a train,” Love says. “You might think that she would have been tense, or angry, but she was as calm and pleasant as can be. After a while, she got hungry, but there was nothing open, so she ate a cold hot dog from a vending machine.” Klum’s patience paid off: The snow stopped, the trains started rolling, and she got to Munich in time to make her connection, after all.

***

Determination was characteristic of Klum from the very start of her career. Raised in a small town outside Cologne, she had no aspirations to model—“My passion was dancing; I wanted desperately to be a dancer”—until a friend persuaded her to enter Model ’92, a nationally televised competition. Out of 25,000 contestants, Klum was voted the winner.

Only a few minutes of highlights from the series have been preserved on YouTube, and constitute some of the rare bits of footage in which Klum seems even slightly overwhelmed by her surroundings. And not everyone was impressed. Too short, the barons of high fashion sneered at the 5-foot-9-inch Klum. Too heavy. Too…bosomy.

“She always grins so stupidly,” German designer Wolfgang Joop sniffed.

Klum went from Paris to Milan to London without making much of an impression. Eventually she gave up high-fashion modeling to focus on lingerie and swimwear, where success had been attained by models like Cheryl Tiegs and Kathy Ireland, who were curvier and more personable than the runway walkers of haute couture.

Finally she came to New York. “There was no guarantee that she was going to make it,” recalls Desiree Gruber. Now the producer of Project Runway, Gruber was then a young fashion publicist. “She had to move to a new country, had to learn English—it wasn’t easy for her. But you could see that she wanted to succeed, that she had a natural desire to do well. What was remarkable was that in a field where there is a lot of ambition, no one resented her. She was just so eager to learn. She would identify the people who had been where she wanted to be, and she would study them and ask them how they got there.”

“What is this ‘publicist’ job?” Klum recalls once asking Gruber. “And can you do any publicizing around me?”

In January 1998, she appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, crouching on a pristine white beach in the Maldives. She never looked back. From there it was on to a long and beneficial association with Victoria’s Secret, covers of Vogue and Elle and Marie Claire, and all the opportunities that superstardom allowed—provided that she put in the work required.

“It’s amazing to me how often people are unprepared to perform in a professional environment,” Klum says. “You go on shoots—there are models: They’re late; they’re hungover; they’re asleep in the makeup chair; their armpits aren’t shaved. We have these girls on Germany’s Next Top Model. They’re 16 or 18 years old. I tell them modeling is a great job. You can make a lot of money. But treat it like a job. If you come in and you’re late, or you’re whiny or moody, you’re not going to be asked back. Be pleasant. Be nice to be with. Don’t be looking at the clock all day. Pay attention and do your part. This is not a kaffee-klatsch. They’re paying you a lot of money!”

This is the attitude that Klum brings to all her endeavors. “Preparation is everything,” Klum says. “Making a soufflé is challenging, but the 20th one you make is easier than the first. Every year the finale of Germany’s Next Top Model is a three-hour live program, a huge affair, broadcast from a stadium in Cologne. And as the host, so much of it is on me. I introduce the contestants, I conduct the interviews, I bring on Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Justin Bieber. There were things in my career that came to me easily—looking cool, looking sexy. But not talking. Not working with a teleprompter. I had to work at it, and even now I don’t take it lightly. When the director says, ‘OK, the rehearsal tomorrow is at 11,’ I say, ‘Great, the teleprompter guy and I will be here at 7.’ ”

When the finale wraps, Klum says, “It’s like the biggest rock has been lifted from my shoulders. People say, ‘Oh, you make it look easy,’ but they have no idea how I feel.”

Rankin, the photographer, has frequently seen evidence of Klum’s work ethic. “She just doesn’t quit until the job is done,” he says. “But what’s special about Heidi is how much fun it is to work with her.” Among his collaborations with Klum, which include advertising and magazine work, is the 2009 book Rankin's Heidilicious, in which the model is caught snarling, pretending to be a cat, and getting drenched in chocolate, among other poses. “Heidi is super-super-smart,” Rankin says. “All of the great models understand how they look at every angle, but Heidi was one of the first models who looked at the pictures that had been taken on a monitor, the way photographers and art directors do. She understands that she is a figure that people are drawn to—it has to do with her eyes, I think—and she knows why, and how to use that to get people to respond to her.”

This, Rankin says, makes her especially valuable to a client. “If you come in with a very specific idea about what you want, Heidi will go an extra mile and half to make sure that you are happy. But then she’ll bring something else—another idea, another look, something you didn’t expect. She’ll put on a record, she’ll start moving; she’ll change things up and give you something else. Maybe it’s something new and different. Maybe it’s the original idea with something extra. But it really comes from the fact that she understands fashion, advertising, marketing, the full range of the business, and most of all,  herself.”

In Melbourne in January to promote the introduction of Heidi Klum Intimates, Klum took the podium wearing a low-plunging, thigh-high black dress, and little more besides fire-engine red lipstick. Posing with a soccer star turned model named Kris Smith, Klum leaned over and planted a bouquet of kisses on her hunky associate, leaving a map of perfectly formed lipstick lips on his somewhat stupefied mug. The pics flooded gossip pages, and swamped Pinterest and Instagram. The media may be new, but in the hands of a master, the tricks are eternal.

***

As the pivotal figure in her enterprises, there is no doubt that Klum’s voice carries tremendous authority, but she says she never considers herself the boss. “I just don’t,” she says. “The publicist, the girls in the office, we’re a team. If anything, I think of myself as a soldier. I’m out there in front working, and my team is behind me. And I report back on how things went and what we can do better. I owe a lot to my team, and I appreciate what each one does.” Part of Klum’s shtick at the end of each episode of Project Runway is to float twin air-kisses to the departing disappointed designer, but as it turns out, “I’ve never fired anyone [in real life],” she says. “I’m very loyal. Everyone who’s with me has been with me for eight or 10 years, and it’s important to me that they are comfortable and happy.”

One reason that Klum can maintain a steady atmosphere is that she doesn’t allow problems to fester. “I never yell,” she says, “but I never let things go. If something goes wrong, we sit down, we talk about it, we brainstorm, we figure out how we can improve. Not everything works, but you can’t be unhappy about it if you’ve worked hard and tried your best. [Still,] we should always try to do better.”

Klum carries this attitude with her everywhere. “On a Heidi project,” producer Gruber says, “everybody has a part in the win—the client, the crew, the sponsor, everybody. She’s very good about bringing her various interests together for their mutual benefit, particularly her charities, like the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.” Klum’s penchant to network for good was never more apparent than in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New York-New Jersey area. Working with another favorite charitable group—God’s Love We Deliver, which takes hot meals to homebound people—Klum filled a truck with Truly Scrumptious clothes, diapers and other necessities and took them to the suddenly homeless in the region. “I’m a mom,” Klum says. “I know what families need, and right then, they needed a lot.”

Her scheduling may be tight, but seldom does she allow business to break into family time. Her days often start early, but they end around 5, when she goes home to her four children. “I have dinner with them, bathe them, read to them—be a mom,” she says. “And during that time, the phone is off. Sometimes, things can wait.”

She’s worth it, after all.

Heidi Klum has successfully strutted from model to mogul. Check out 4 pieces of wisdom she learned on her way to the top.

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