Fashion

Titanic Effect

UPDATED 08/07/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/07/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Sure she's fashion's It Girl—but Gisele Bündchen still has a lot to learn. Such as why everyone at a recent Malibu party started buzzing when a thin, middle-aged guy walked in. "I'm Brazilian, I'm 19," she explained to another reveler. "I don't know who Rod Stewart is."

Hey, when you're busy flipping the style world head over stiletto heels, the Remedial Rock Stars course can wait. The 5'11" stunner burst onto a fashion scene obsessed with scrawny waifs to become over the last year its most in-demand face—and body. (Of her designation as "the Boobs from Brazil," Bündchen once commented, "There's not a lot I can do about it.... I can hardly hide them.") Ubiquitous on catwalks and in ad campaigns for the likes of Christian Dior and Givenchy, she nabbed the VH1/Vogue model of the year award in December and has graced six of Vogue's last 10 covers. Bündchen put an end to "the pale, wan look," says Allure editor-in-chief Linda Wells. "She's sexy, she's voluptuous." Designer Michael Kors gushes about her "amazing body" and natural-born glamor: "I put her in the most ridiculously high heels, and she walks like she's in Nikes."

And—no offense, Rod—she's not completely showbiz-clueless. Since breaking up with fellow model Scott Barnhill, 22, several months ago, Bündchen, who turned-20 on July 20, has been spotted with Leonardo DiCaprio, clubbing at New York City hot spots, frolicking on the Malibu beach and even, according to one report, shopping for an apartment. Both decline to comment on the relationship, but friends and relatives insist the two are just pals. "She tells us that she went out with him, she's getting to know him, but for the moment he's just a good friend," says her mother, Vania, 51, a retired bank clerk.

In any case, Bündchen (who earns an estimated $5 million a year) has come a long way from her middle-class roots in Horizontina, a small town near Brazil's Argentine border. One of six daughters of Vania and Valdir, 51, a real estate agent, she insists she grew up more gawky than gorgeous. "I was taller and skinnier than everyone else," she says. "My nickname at school was 'Oli' for Olive Oyl."

She first aspired to be a professional volleyball player but readily changed plans when, at 14, she started modeling in the city of São Paulo. (She says she was discovered by a talent scout at a McDonald's, but her mother says the story is more prosaic: Gisele took a modeling class to improve her posture and her teacher introduced her to agents.)

In 1997 the then-16-year-old left school and struck out for New York City. Her mother accompanied her at first, then three of her sisters (who have since returned to Brazil) took shifts living with her: Raquel, 26, a teacher; fraternal twin Patricia, a public relations student; and Gabriela, 18, a law student. Bündchen has two other sisters, Graziela, 24, a legal assistant, and Rafaela, 12, a middle schooler.

"It wasn't easy," Bündchen says of her early modeling days. Fashion was still in "the heroin-chic-waif phase"—and some potential clients called her nose too big. But she caught the eye of top photographers Mario Testino and Steven Meisel, who coaxed magazines and designers to take a chance on the teenager. "I was mesmerized by her," says Testino, who praises her as "hardworking and energetic."

Indeed, Bündchen—who totes her tiny Yorkshire terrier Vita nearly everywhere—"never got an attitude," says photographer Patrick Demarchelier. "She's together." A nonstop talker who learned English in a crash course in New York, Bündchen wants to finish high school but "just doesn't have the time," says sister Graziela. When she's not jetting around the globe for shoots, Bündchen pilots her Lexus SUV between her Manhattan loft and a cabin near Woodstock, N.Y. She also visits her family in Brazil several times a year. (Postcareer, she says, "my dream is to live with my animals on a farm in Brazil.") "We do what she likes to do: play volleyball, ride horses, watch [horror] films," says Graziela. "When she's at home, she's just Gisele."

Samantha Miller
Jennifer Frey in New York City and Andrew Downie in Rio de Janeiro

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