Gisele Bündchen needs no introduction, renowned not just for her blockbuster career – she was the world’s top-earning model for 15 years straight – but for her healthy, zen approach to life. But it was not always that way. On the 5th anniversary of her sensational cover for the launch issue of PORTER, the Brazilian supermodel, 38, returns to talk to CAROLYN KORMANN about the crisis that led her to rethink her entire life. Photography MARIO SORRENTI. Styling GEORGE CORTINA
Gisele Bündchen recently did a TV interview at her home about her new book, Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life, with ABC News anchor Robin Roberts. Halfway through, Bündchen started crying. Roberts had asked about a section of the book in which she describes a dark period in her early twenties that, until now, she had kept secret from almost everyone. Her career was on fire, she was working nonstop, flying around the world. But she began to have debilitating panic attacks, and became afraid of everything, especially confined spaces. She was afraid to tell anyone. “When I was going through my panic attacks, I didn’t even feel like I could share with anyone,” Bündchen tells me. “I thought maybe I don’t have the right, everybody is going through so many difficult things in the world, and I don’t have the right to feel this way. So I’d suppress it, and the more I suppressed it, the bigger it became.”
At one point, she walked out onto her apartment’s balcony and thought about jumping off. She did not, of course. Instead, she realized she needed to change her life, go home and be with her family, look inward, reconnect with nature. She had lost control of herself entirely; she was living out of a suitcase, subsisting on mocha Frappuccinos, cigarettes and wine. A doctor suggested Xanax, but she didn’t want to take a pill. Instead, she imposed strict new rules to force herself out of the cycle. No sugar, no caffeine, no alcohol. She asked her agent to cut her work commitments back. She started working with a yoga teacher and meditating for long stretches, including several-day silent retreats. She returned home and spent time with her parents and her sisters (she has five, including a twin, Pati), and took them on a trip to South Africa. She spent as much time as she could outdoors, where she feels happiest.
“I didn’t feel like I could SHARE my panic attacks with anyone. So I’d SUPPRESS it, and the more I suppressed it, the BIGGER it became”
As late as last January, Bündchen had not ever considered writing a book. “I know! It’s crazy,” she says. But she had been writing letters – inspirational letters to young women whom she had never met. Friends, and friends of friends, or other acquaintances had been asking for her help; someone’s daughter, for instance, was going through a dark time. “I’d be at, like, the dentist,” she says. “He’d say, ‘Oh, Gisele, my niece is going through this tough time, would you write something?’ It was kind of funny; it’d be the most random moments.” She started sharing the dark times she had experienced in the letters. “If I could allow myself to feel vulnerable and share, they would see that there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel.” The feedback she received was amazing, she says. “The letters seemed to really help these girls. One started an anti-bullying program in school; another stopped being bulimic.”
“I come from a family of six strong, beautiful WOMEN. We always supported each other, helped each other, LOVED each other. But that’s not what I felt with other MODELS”
“The #MeToo movement has UNITED women. It’s a beautiful thing. We are stronger when we are TOGETHER. It makes me wonder WHY we weren’t being like this before”
Reading about all the horrible experiences many young women (and many models) had had, which they were now sharing thanks to the #MeToo movement, Bündchen decided she wanted to help girls on a much larger scale. She thought that the book could be an open letter, sharing her tough times, how she had survived and everything she had learned. To her, the most salient aspect of #MeToo is that it has brought women together.
“I come from a family of six strong, beautiful women,” she says. Her second oldest sister is a federal judge; Bündchen has employed the rest. Her youngest sister, Rafaela, is her assistant. (In one of those mysteries of nature, Bündchen is a head or more taller than all of them.) “The way I grew up, we always supported each other, we helped each other, we loved each other. But when I left home, that’s not what I felt with the other models. I did not understand why anyone would not want the best for me, when I wanted the best for everybody.” She believes that has changed. “This [#MeToo] movement has united women. It’s a beautiful thing. We are stronger when we are together,” she says, staring off, lost in thought, like she sees something across the room that I cannot see. Then she turns back to look at me. “It makes me wonder why we weren’t being like this before.”
Read Gisele’s full interview and see the shoot in PORTER’s 5th Anniversary issue, available via digital edition now and on newsstands February 8
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The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.