Gisele Knew When to Step Off the Catwalk
After 20 years on the catwalk, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen said this week she's hanging up her Louboutins. She took her final stroll on the planks during Sao Paulo Fashion Week, flashing her sunrise smile and shedding a few tears.
As she leaves runway modeling, she'll cry all the way to the bank, of course. At age 34, Bundchen may be worth close to $500 million. Last year Forbes ranked her the world's 56th most powerful celebrity and the highest-paid supermodel.
She also has parlayed her cachet into sponsorships, helping flog Ipanema flip-flops and her own boutique line Gisele Bundchen Intimates, which Brazil lingerie maker Hope is counting on to juice global sales.
But the Bundchen brand is not just about pumping up wealth. In two decades the spindly girl from Horizontina, at the bottom of Brazil, captured hometown imaginations and helped launch her country into lights.
Her rise neatly anticipated Brazil's own transformation from exotic outlier to regional powerhouse, an arc that reached its apex last decade when the commodities wave thrust then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva onto the catwalk of world affairs.
Bundchen became an icon for the new Brazil. She bewitched many young girls the way soccer hall-of-famers Ronaldo and Romario captured the hearts and boots of Brazilian boys. As a reporter I once chased her stardust to modeling workshops all over Brazil, where gaggles of Gisele wannabes waited their turn to show fashion scouts how they too had mastered the high-stepping Bundchen horsewalk.
Every homecoming was a celebration. And if Americans were in thrall to the strapping quarterback who led the New England Patriots to victory in Super Bowl XLIX, in Brazil, Tom Brady was just Gisele's husband.
A lot like Brazil, she started out with self-doubts. She worried she was too thin -- Olive Oyl, they called her at school -- and that her nose was too big. Sure, there was the cataract of wheat-colored hair and green-blue eyes as big as the Atlantic, but what stood out were her high spirits and impish humor.
Asked once what she planned to do when she quit modeling, she shot back: "Go to college. You never know when you're going to need to get a special jail cell." At the time, Brazil gave better quarters to prisoners with diplomas.
And despite the umlaut in her surname, birthright of her German ancestry, she was known to all simply as Gisele. That simplicity played well with fashion photographers, who shot her in settings from high vamp to goofy, but also reflected a culture allergic to protocol.
Gisele began her career in the mid-1990s, just as Brazil beat hyperinflation, stabilized its currency and began to behave like one of the world's ranking economies. She continued to rise through the 2000s, and her prestige mirrored the moment in Brazil, when prosperity fueled self-pride then hubris.
Now, as she leaves the scene, her country's aura has faded. Its economy has slumped. Petrobras, the country's proudest blue chip, is swamped in scandal. Its presidents have gone from trying to broker nuclear diplomacy with Iran to struggling to avert impeachment. Though still the seventh-largest economy, Brazil's passport ranked a mere number 17 on a world power survey, alongside Romania's and Monaco's.
In her final lap on the catwalk, Gisele said it was time to respect her limits and move on, and she brought the house down. Her country's politicians might take her cue, but then again humility has never been much in fashion in Brasilia.
(Corrects brand of flip-flops Bundchen endorses in third paragraph.)
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