Project Heidi

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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.


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