At 18, Klum wins a national modeling contest after she and a friend send Polariods of themselves to a German magazine ad. Sporting a bikini and teased hair in her picture, Klum wins the top prize: a three-year modeling contract, $300,000 and the title of Ms. Model 1992. She signs with International Metropolitan Agency and kicks off her modeling career in Hamburg, Paris and Milan. The following year, Klum moves to the U.S to pursue modeling, living and working in Manhattan.
After dating celebrity hairstylist Ric Pipino and accepting his proposal atop the Empire State Building, Klum weds him in front of 100 guests on a 50-acre estate in Stone Ridge, N.Y. At the nuptials, the couple engages in German traditions: Pipino climbs a ladder to retrieve a doll from a wooden stork placed in the window of their bridal suite (to guarantee children) and, together, Klum and her groom saw a log in half using a two-handled blade (to symbolize working together).
Klum snags the coveted cover spot on Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, becoming the first German to do so. The voluptuous, 5' 9 1/2" Klum is known for her killer body, but tells PEOPLE, "My smile is my favorite thing."
Making her acting debut, Klum guest-stars as Michael J. Fox's love interest on ABC's Spin City. She appears in the season-ending cliffhanger and briefly resumes her role the following season. Entertainment Weekly names Klum one of TV's worst guests of the year. Despite the criticism, Klum hits the big screen in her first movie role in the 2001 comedy Blow Dry and in 2004's Ella Enchanted.
The Caribbean island Grenada releases a series of stamps with Klum's photo on them, much to Klum's delight, as her father is a stamp collector.
Klum and Pipino announce a "mutual and amicable" split, divorcing later that year. Four days after the announcement, Klum is spotted sightseeing in Sydney with Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis. They're also seen kissing and hugging on an Australian beach.
Italian racecar team manager Flavio Briatore – worth nearly $50 million – begins courting Klum, who is 23 years his junior. Known for his Playboy ways and affinity for supermodels, he wins Klum over with his charm. "His charisma and manner are what's important," she tells PEOPLE. After nine months together, Klum and Briatore announce they are expecting a baby.
With Klum's due date just a few months away, she splits from Briatore and is soon linked with British singer Seal. On May 4, she gives birth to 7-lb. 4-oz. daughter Leni in New York. A champagne toast with her parents and Seal – by now a frequent companion – marks the occasion. Of Seal, a Klum pal tells PEOPLE, "He was an amazing confidant for her during this period and supported her 100 percent."
The first season of Project Runway airs on Bravo, with Klum acting as producer and host, and is soon winning rave reviews. In February, The New York Times deems it "the Prada of reality shows." The hit show is nominated for an Emmy in 2005 and 2006.
Seal wows Klum with an elaborate proposal, chartering a helicopter to fly them to a natural snow cave 14,000 feet off the ground in a Whistler, B.C., glacier, where a specially built igloo waits at the end of a trail of rose petals. Inside, a dazzled Klum finds a bearskin rug, champagne and Seal's guitar. "He'd spent two days building this fairy-tale wonderland that was the most amazing, crazy thing I've ever seen," Klum tells In Style. "He sang, got on one knee and proposed. And then there was the igloo – which had to be christened of course!"
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): DAN HERRICK/DMI/REX USA; Robert Erdmann/Sports Illustrated; WILLIAM FOLEY; Dimitrios Kambouris/WIREIMAGE; Dimitrios Kambouris/WIREIMAGE; COUSART-RILLORAZA/JFX IMAGES; NICK RUECHEL/BRAVO; AMANDA EDWARDS/GETTY