Project Heidi
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Project Heidi

Reality TV star, successful model, entrepreneur, married mother of three -- is there a role Heidi Klum hasn't conquered?

Just Who Is Heidi Klum?

You've seen it in movies or on television -- the scene where a gorgeous model twists and turns effortlessly while the famous photographer shouts encouragingly: "Yes! Beautiful!" Today, in a West Hollywood studio, supermodel Heidi Klum is the one in front of the lens. As the photographer clicks away, 35-year-old Klum tosses her shoulder-length blond hair and flashes her high-beam smile. Then she walks over to a nearby computer screen, examines the just-taken digital shots and proclaims "ja!" to the ones she likes, "nein" to the ones she doesn't and "sehr schon!"(very pretty) to the ones she really, really likes.

It is just this display of decisive Teutonic crispness that has made Klum the successful star she is today. Perhaps her greatest credit is as executive producer of Project Runway, a hit reality series about unknown fashion designers competing for a chance to win $100,000. At press time the show's fate was in limbo. Season six is tied up in litigation as a result of Runway's move from one cable channel to another. But such hurdles are nothing new for Klum, whose TV show didn't exactly get off to an auspicious start almost five years ago. When it debuted Klum's catchphrase, "One day you're in, the next day you're out," and her brisk two-cheek goodbye kisses seemed cold and threatening to American audiences. "During the taping of season one -- I'll use the word -- she was just a little stiff," says Tim Gunn, on-air mentor to the designers. But once Klum was able to relax and show off her natural playfulness, she became Project Runway's heart and soul. "I mean, she owns the show, speaking literally and metaphorically, she really does," says Gunn.

In addition to Runway, Klum has her hands in many other ventures -- among them, a jeans line for Jordache, a makeup collection for Victoria's Secret, and her new skincare line, In an Instant. All this begs the question: Just who is Heidi Klum? Is she a madly multitasking mother, a savvy entrepreneur, a wannabe designer, or number 78 on Forbes' list of the 100 most powerful and highest-paid celebrities? Perhaps she's a little bit of everything. "Heidi runs her life as the CEO of Heidi Klum, Inc.," says her Runway costar, designer Michael Kors. "Everything is done with precision and elegance. And then when you think she has a husband and three children -- she is a supersonic, sexy android to be able to accomplish all she does in a normal day."

But Klum shrugs it off. "I don't have the hard everyday life that so many working mothers face," she says. In fact, she shot most of Runway's new season in Los Angeles, which meant she could go swimming or jump on the trampoline with Leni, 4, Henry, 3, and Johan, 2, before leaving in the morning. Klum also worked every other day, which gave her ample opportunity to sit down to dinner with her noisy, bilingual clan, clasp hands and say "guten appetit!" Klum also makes plenty of time for her husband of nearly four years, 46-year-old British singer songwriter Seal, whom she met in the lobby of a New York hotel. As she tells it, the 6-foot-3-inch singer had just returned from the gym in bicycle shorts when he caught her eye. Their love blossomed while Klum was pregnant with Leni (whose father is Italian businessman Flavio Briatore) and is still very much alive. Klum says they love to dance so much that Seal wanted them to try out for Dancing with the Stars. "I told him, 'But Schatzi [sweetheart], they won't let us dance together,'" she says. And while they keep their business lives separate most of the time, they know that the couple that dines, dances, and changes diapers together stays together. "I have the best husband in the world," she says. "He's very involved." The two drive their children to and from school together. "We talk about the kids on the way there. Then we talk with the kids on the way back," she says. Last fall Klum became an American citizen in time to vote for Barack Obama in the presidential election. "Having mixed-race children, I feel that when I tell them they can be anything, it now means they really can," she says.

Growing Up and Learning

Klum, too, is a fascinating study in reinvention. She was 18 when she entered a beauty contest in Germany and beat out an estimated 30,000 other girls to win $300,000 and a three-year modeling contract. "They wanted me to sign the contract immediately," says Klum, but her father, Gunther, a perfume-company executive, and his attorney purged the agreement of tangled loopholes. "That hardened me up in this business," says Klum. "They want to keep the buck in their own pants. And you're the one running around, doing all the work." Clearly Klum has learned to wear the pants, and she owes much of her work ethic to her mom, Erna, who flies in frequently from Germany. "I breathe differently when she's here," Klum says. "She helps out and cooks and teaches the children grandma things." Klum grew up in a tight-knit family in the middle-income Cologne suburb of Bergisch Gladbach. "We didn't have the money to go to the big shops, so we had to be inventive to look trendy," she says. "It was always fun, never boring." Klum describes how her hairdresser mother used her little girl as a style-and-dye guinea pig, occasionally sending her off with, say, eggplant hair or maybe a mullet with frizzy bangs.

But these experiences only helped shape Klum into the enterprising woman she is today. And though, according to Forbes, she now brings in $14 million a year, she holds on to everything -- just like her parents, who still have a collection of her baby teeth. "I have every one of my airplane boarding passes," she says. "Growing up, we would never throw away anything, like a shoe box or a toilet paper roll. We would always make something out of it." Then she whips out some leftover fabric from her purse and folds it into different shapes. "My mom would make me clothes, then a matching outfit for my Barbies, then a scrunchy for my hair, too," she says.

The ever-resourceful Klum never leaves home without an arsenal of colored pens to jot down the torrent of ideas she has. She pulls a hot-pink journal out of her giant Gucci handbag and flips through sheets of paper that are dense with her big, looping, schoolgirl handwriting: crossed-off to-do lists, hasty notations and, on one page, a name, Eva Longoria Parker, who will show up as a guest judge in the new season of Runway. "I met Heidi at a birthday party for one of the boys of David and Victoria Beckham," explains Longoria Parker, conjuring up a world where a supermodel, a Desperate Housewife, and a former Spice Girl sing in unison as a tot blows out candles on a frosted cake. "She was so lovely and kind and the sweetest mother."

Klum is also a hopeless romantic. On May 10 she and her husband will not just renew their vows, they will participate in a formal tying-the-knot ceremony, as they do every year in the resort town of Costa Careyes, Mexico. "It's too sad to have only one wedding day to remember for the rest of our lives," says Klum about the ritual, which she marked late last year by getting a tattoo of her husband's name. "It's a good excuse to get all of our friends together and have a party."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2009.