Gisele Bundchen: Supermodel who makes a difference
In a rare, emotionally charged interview, Gisele Bundchen talks to Kate Whiting about her views on life, motherhood and wanting to make the world a better place
With barely a scrap of make-up on her perfect cheekbones, hair twisted loosely into a plait and dressed simply in skinny jeans and T-shirt, Gisele Bundchen is beauty personified.
Which is why she stands out so sharply against the all-pervading mud, mounds of rubbish and rusting corrugated iron of one of East Africa's biggest slums.
The Brazilian supermodel is not in Kenya's poverty-stricken Kibera for the latest quirky fashion shoot. Instead she's here to poke her head into a toilet block that's revolutionising life for the slum's estimated one million dwellers.
Bundchen, the world's highest earning model, who is one half of the US equivalent of Posh and Becks with her American football-playing husband, Tom Brady, has come to Nairobi with UK charity Practical Action to see how it is tackling energy poverty by building biogas centres, which turn human waste into gas for cooking, saving the residents money and replacing unhygienic ‘flying toilets' (plastic bags thrown into the street).
Like any new mum — her son, Ben, was born in 2009 — she's drawn to the children who play and pose with her for pictures among the grime and plastic bags.
“I just want to take them all and love them,” she says, in her gentle Portuguese accent.
Bundchen's not here because it will boost her image, and she's not just here because she's also a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Environment Programme, or that come June, all eyes will be fixed on her home country for the Rio +20 summit on sustainable development.
She's here because she cares deeply about the world. So deeply, in fact, that when we sit down to talk in the tranquil gardens of her Nairobi hotel, tears brim in her blue eyes.
“It's unlike anything I've ever seen before, my whole perspective of the world is changing,” she says.
“I always try to put myself in their situation and think how would it be if that was my life, what if I were born under those circumstances and had no access to the basic needs of survival?
“Even though I'm from Brazil and we do have poverty, to actually go into people's houses and experience that, is heartbreaking. But it's also heart-opening, and I feel there is so much I have to do.”
The 31-year-old already does more than her fair share of good. She has her own charitable foundation, Luz, which means light in Portuguese, and every year she chooses a charity to receive the proceeds from her iPANEMA flip-flop range.
She sweetly refers to this as “my own little ant work”, but the truth is, she's been working on environmental and female empowerment projects for almost eight years.
Growing up in the Brazilian countryside taught her to love and respect nature, and she says: “It's a place where I can find my centre very fast.”
A week spent with native Amazon Indians whose children were getting sick from pesticides, opened her eyes to the fine balance between man and the environment, and sent her back to the grassroots, cleaning up the water system of her small hometown, Horizontina.
“When you get to experience something that is outside of your reality, it changes you. There is always that sense that, ‘I'm so small, what can I do?' but then you have to start somewhere, so I opened the Luz Foundation in 2007, to bring more light into the world and I created a place where I can donate a percentage of my money to help with different projects that came along.”
The new face of Versace, Bundchen sees each modelling job as a way to use her looks to help others.
“My life is devoted to this,” she says.
“I know from the outside, people think this girl just poses for pictures, but in my head, all I'm thinking the whole time is, ‘Ok, if I take this job then I can have more money to put in to this action', so that's what I'm doing because that's the form that God gave me to do what I can do, right?”
Grounded is the word for Bundchen, though quite how she's stayed this way, when her face, and tall, slender figure, have become famous around the globe, making her a millionaire, is something of a mystery.
“I'm so blessed, my parents have been married for 40 years, so having that grounding was very healthy, that's how I was raised,” she says.
“And I have five sisters [including twin Patricia who joins her in Kenya], which I think helps me a lot too because they're all so different and they're all my best friends and they always tell me the truth, no matter what.
“Another thing that was huge in my life was leaving home at 13 and having my parents trust me and I never wanted to disappoint them, I wanted to make them feel proud.”
By 14, Bundchen was living in Tokyo for
three months, then she lived in New York from 16 and has stayed in the States ever since.
“Everything that was happening in my life, every action had a consequence, and I had to deal with that consequence, so getting out and seeing the world helped to shape me.
“Because I had my family, I felt like I could be a bird and fly and experience and do. Because I had roots somewhere, I knew that they would love me no matter what and I could always go back home and they were going to love me.
“They gave me the strength to go and see the world and experience so much and also to be very ballsy and make my big mistakes that I've made in my life. I've made a few,” she laughs.
“When you go through challenges and you overcome them, you realise that you're so much stronger than you thought you were and when you're so young and you don't have your parents right there to protect you, that makes you grow up and it makes you search for something bigger to support you when you're not with your family and for me that was finding different tools.”
Bundchen's ‘tools' are her philosophy of life. Raised a Catholic by her parents, she read about Buddhism in Japan, which gave her a sense that we're all connected.
“This is our world and we need the same things to survive. If I'm making my life better and the circumstances of your life worse, that's terrible because in the end it will affect me too. Imagine if everybody had enough?” she muses.
She also admires Mahatma Gandhi's doctrine of ‘being the change you want to see in the world'.
Motherhood has reinforced her desire to help others.
“My son is so fortunate, you know. He's always going to have food. Yes, my children are going to be privileged, but that's why it's so important for them to see different realities and to travel, and they do already.”
Bundchen's husband Brady also has a four-year-old son, John, and the family split their time between Boston, where he plays for the New England Patriots, the house they're building in LA and a home in Costa Rica.
“My kids play with the kids there who live in houses the same size as we saw in Kibera, maybe not in the middle of sewage,” she says.
Costa Rica also holds the key, in part, to how Bundchen manages to stay so beautiful on the outside (as well as on the inside).
“I have a lot of fruit trees and my own little vegetable garden and chickens. And everytime I eat, I bless my food, I say I'm grateful for for it and let it nourish every part of my body.”
She says it helps to be mindful of her diet, but admits to having a sweet tooth. “I'm human, I like ice cream, it tastes really good, but what can we do, right?”
And as for exercise, it's a mixture of kung fu and yoga, mostly for their meditative effects.
“I don't do asanas [yoga poses] all the time, sometimes I just do mantras, because yoga for me is a philosophy, it's another tool to help you go inward, because my whole mission in life is just to keep going inward.
“The world always takes you out here and my focus, whatever it is I'm doing, is to have tools to bring me back inward.”
While us mere mortals can only dream of a lifestyle — and complexion — like Bundchen's, we can at least try to emulate her charity work.
“Everyone has an hour in their day to go and do something for somebody else, I don't care how busy they are,” she insists.
“I know they do, because I do and I'm pretty busy. Every ... single ... moment ... every one of us can make a difference, and you don't need to be wealthy for that.”
For more information about the work of Practical Action in Kenya and around the world, visit practicalaction.org