Can Gisele Save the Planet?

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On a cheerless spring afternoon, under a dark New England sky churning with wind and rain, I trudge across a field in search of Gisele Bündchen.

I know the setting well (it is Brookline, Massachusetts, the town in which I grew up), and perhaps it’s a function of the narrowness of my nostalgia that I find it so difficult to imagine her in this place. But here Gisele is, her skin and hair gold as if touched by some distant sun, her long, emotive limbs moving swiftly through the wooden barn that she calls the sanctuary because for her it is exactly that—a refuge for meditation and for work, a short, frequently muddy walk up the hill from the vast brick house that she shares with her husband, the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and their two children.

“Why do I live here? It’s called love,” Gisele says. “I love my husband. My kids were born here, in our old apartment on Beacon Street. They’re little Bostonians, and they love the weather. But I’m not going to lie. Cold is not my flavor. I’m Brazilian. I’d rather live barefoot in a hut in the middle of the forest somewhere.”

Watch Gisele Bündchen Play Guitar, Sing Bruno Mars and Attempt a Boston Accent:

Although she is arguably the most successful model in history, Gisele has not made the modeling world her milieu. She does not float, like Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell, through fashion’s wandering party with a champagne coupe in hand. Nor—though she turns 38 this month—has she retired to the hall of legends. Gisele is in every respect a working model, one who has retained her currency in an industry with a weakness for the new. She has carefully protected her famous assets (it is no coincidence that she is married to a man known for his own rigorous self-discipline), and, unlike so many legends, she maintains a reputation for professionalism that has made her a favorite of photographers. But glamour does not interest Gisele, and she insists it never did. She has been conjuring a future larger than fashion ever since she was a freshly picked fourteen-year-old, suddenly living in Japan, with a massive suitcase full of schoolbooks and a tiny backpack to fit all her clothing. “I’m not a model,” she says. “Modeling is a job that I do, a career that I’ve had. It allowed me to see the world, and I was well paid for it. But it never defined me.”

We settle into a white sofa underneath the sanctuary’s soaring rafters. A Buddha sits in the fireplace, holding a hunk of crystal. Fafi, Gisele’s youngest sister, who also serves as her personal assistant, brews tea in a flavor called Love. Fluffers, a newly rescued Shih Tzu, sits in Gisele’s lap, while Lucky, Fafi’s Pomeranian, reclines odalisque-like on a cushion beside us. Gisele wears jeans, a gray cashmere V-neck, and thick wool sock boots. An intricate maze of henna winds up her forearms, residue from a recent trip to Qatar. She talks a lot about love (“It’s my religion”), energy (“Everything is energy, right?”), and vibrations (“Life is like tuning a radio”). In fact, Gisele is an icon of what those in the New Age community refer to as the “high-vibe life”: Raise your vibration, practitioners argue—through diet and yoga and meditation, by being grateful, nonjudgmental, positive—and live the life you’ve always dreamed of.

Those who dismiss this as woo-woo nonsense risk missing the vigor with which Gisele has undertaken a second career as protector of planet Earth. In recent years she has lent her voice, her time, her image, her money, and her vast global network to a host of environmental causes. She has planted trees in Nairobi’s Kibera, known as the largest urban slum in Africa. She has helped detoxify the river near Horizontina, her hometown, through the Projeto Água Limpa, a clean-water initiative she established with her family. She starred in National Geographic’s documentary series Years of Living Dangerouslyventuring into the Brazilian jungle to explore the link between deforestation and climate change. Gisele has been a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Environment Programme since 2009, and last September she was invited by French president Emmanuel Macron to speak to world leaders about the contamination of the global water supply and other industrial assaults. Harvard Medical School has honored her with its Global Environmental Citizen Award. More recently, she has sought to make the fashion industry aware of its significant environmental impact. Saving the planet, she hopes, will be her enduring legacy long after the media have become as tired as she has of epithets like glamazon and Brazilian bombshell.

“There are enough signs that we can’t keep going in this direction,” says Gisele, who talks a mile a minute and oscillates between finding the comedy in our human failings and becoming so passionate about her subject that tears emerge at the edges of her blue eyes. “People forget that without a healthy environment, there are no healthy humans, because last time I checked, our life depends on the health of our planet, period. At the end of the day, the Earth will be fine. If we are gone, she’s going to regenerate herself. So we have to think about how we’re going to survive on it. How can we have the least impact?”

A sense of interconnectedness appears to have originated in Gisele’s childhood. One of six sisters, a middle child and a twin, she has been sharing since she was in the womb. “I come from a middle-class family,” she says—her father was a sociology professor, her mother a bank clerk—“and everyone had to chip in.” Chores were the norm: “One sister cleans the bathroom, one cleans the kitchen. This is why it was OK for me to leave at fourteen, because I knew how to take care of myself.” At fifteen she was reading books by Lao Tzu and the contemporary Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. By sixteen she was living in New York City, in a model apartment with bunk beds, four girls per room.

“I was watching all the chaos but never getting that close,” she remembers. “Drugs. Girls coming and going, some making it, some heading down a bad path and going home. I was never a party girl. You can’t be reading Lao Tzu and partying. The environment I was living in wasn’t matching the things I was interested in. I was wondering, How is it that we’re all floating on this blue dot in space? I’ve always been a curious person, and I’ve always asked the big questions. What else? What more? This can’t be all there is.”

As a seventeen-year-old, Gisele earned what is widely regarded as her big break when Alexander McQueen cast her in his spring-summer 1998 show, adorning her bust in nothing but white paint and dubbing her “the Body.” Within months she was a fashion star. Her first U.S.Vogue cover, in July 1999, announced the return of the sexy model. (It was the first of her three Vogue covers that year.) During the spring 2000 Fashion Weeks, she opened shows for Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana, and Christian Dior. But while designers threw campaigns at her feet, she was never comfortable with the attention. “I’m a Cancer,” she explains, “the little crab. Loves the home, her sanctuary, all the cozy things. So I was a fish out of water in fashion. I was always like, Let me go to the job and go home.”

In 2002, Gisele had an experience that transformed her relationship to the business. At that year’s Victoria’s Secret fashion show, protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals rushed the stage brandishing signs that read, “Gisele: Fur Scum,” in response to recent news of her contract with the furrier Blackglama. “Suddenly it dawned on me,” she explains. “I was in the hamster wheel: I’m just going to go out there and be a good girl and do what my agent tells me to do. What do I know? It wasn’t until that shock—it stopped me in my tracks. They sent me all these videos. I wasn’t aware of what was happening, and I was devastated. So I said, ‘Listen, I’m not doing fur campaigns.’ It put me in the driver’s seat, finally. The universe comes to you and says, ‘Hello, maybe you should notice this.’ You need to be responsible for the choices you make.”

Fashion ranks among the most polluting industries in the world, and toxic wastewater from textile plants poses a consistent threat to the global water supply. According to Theanne Schiros, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a research scientist at Columbia University, whose lab is developing sustainable, kelp-based textiles for sneakers and knitwear, each day women and girls devote 200 million work hours to collecting water for their families—the equivalent of erecting 28 Empire State Buildings every day. “This isn’t just an environmental issue,” says Schiros. “It’s a social-justice issue. Gisele is a force in the fight to preserve fresh water supplies, and in her work in the rain forests she is protecting both the visible and the invisible, including plants and animals we have yet to discover that have the potential to heal people and ecosystems.”

Nowadays Gisele is especially keen to work for fashion brands that have shown a commitment to sustainability. Defined broadly, this means any brand willing to consider its impact on the environment, from minimizing carbon footprints to using easily replenished materials and natural dyes. Since somewhere between eight and thirteen million tons of clothing, by various estimates, end up in landfills every year, anything beautifully made and built to last qualifies as sustainable. “It’s a matter of thinking about the consequences of making something,” she says. “At what price are we creating all this beauty? People think you dump something in the river and it’s just going to disappear. Nothing disappears, as we know. Whatever gets made here stays here.”

Gisele is interested in designers who are turning toward materials such as algae, hemp, and bamboo. She is a champion of Stella McCartney, who has made protecting the environment and promoting human welfare cornerstones of her business. At this year’s Costume Institute gala in May, Gisele—who appears in Versace’s spring campaign—connected Donatella Versace to her friend Livia Firth, a sustainable-fashion evangelist, who helped the house create a gown made from responsibly dyed organic silk.

“I first met Gisele when she was presenting at a Rainforest Alliance gala,” Firth recalls. “She was like a bomb of passion, so much charisma. Sustainability can be a gloomy subject, but Gisele refuses to be anything but positive. She’s always asking, ‘But what can we actually do?’ And she does the less glamorous part of the work—she gets her hands dirty where a lot of people don’t. We pushed an iconic house—Versace—to do something out of their comfort zone. That’s the fun part, to give people solutions. It seems like a huge thing, but all you have to do is show people how.”

At home, meanwhile, Gisele is focused on teaching her children—Ben, age eight, and Vivian, age five—to garden, to show them the pleasure of a thing in its proper season, to instill a patience that digital culture undermines at every turn. They compost. They keep bees. She has her husband, Tom, well trained too. He now uses a lemon tincture to flavor his water, lest the trash fill up with plastic bottles, and the kids police their dad when he falls short. “They’re the little defenders,” Gisele says. “When you have privilege, you have to work extra hard. You want to give to your children because you love them, but is that really what’s best for them? Growing the garden with my kids, they understand they have to nourish it from tiny seeds. Ooh, here comes a frost. We lose our plant. And now what? Start again, figure out a new way. Nature is the biggest teacher: She’s always teaching you how to adapt.”

Gisele is a reluctant user of social media; her younger sister created an Instagram account for her and likes to remind her that she owes her fans a selfie now and then. “If it was me, it would only be pictures of sunsets,” she says. “It’s not my generation—I have to be honest about that. I’m older, wiser. If I had to promote myself in the way girls modeling now have to do, forget it. I wouldn’t do it.” In fact, Gisele has a few pearls of wisdom she’d like to string together for her young admirers. Her first book, Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Lifecomes out in October. Though it isn’t a memoir, it recounts what she calls “that process of digging inward” in order to understand herself better and home in on a purpose for her life. The photographer Steven Meisel, whom she credits with teaching her how to model, wrote the foreword.

The Bündchen-Bradys divide their time among homes in Brookline, New York City (where ten-year-old Jack, Tom’s son from a previous relationship, whom Gisele calls “my bonus child,” lives with his mother), Montana, and Costa Rica. It’s in this last place that she is able to lead the life we might most like to imagine: barefoot, bikini-clad. Though she loves Brazil, Gisele is simply too recognizable to hit the beach there, and so she has made Costa Rica into a family retreat: Every July, her parents and sisters come to celebrate her birthday and slide into a routine of surfing, horseback rides, and yoga. In Massachusetts, where Tom Brady is surely the state’s most famous citizen, the couple leads a fiercely private life. Gisele does not mix with the other football wives. “My husband is 40, and most of the guys playing with him are 20. Their girlfriends are probably nineteen, with different interests,” she says, laughing. “I go to the games with the kids every Sunday so that Tom feels we’re here for him, and that’s the extent of what I know about football.” She is close to several mothers at her children’s school, where she has also been involved in implementing a meditation program. (Gisele has meditated nearly every day since she was in her 20s.) You’ll rarely see her in anything but her uniform of T-shirts and jeans. “I’m just not a glitter-fancy person,” she says.

Of course, she holds on to some of her favorite pieces, accumulated through the years: a treasured pair of early Vince jeans, full of holes; a Balenciaga leather jacket she’s owned since she was seventeen, which now feels like a blanket when she slips into the molten sleeves. Designers send her new things all the time, but they go straight to her sisters.

“People think they need more stuff, but no,” she says. “Start with the simple principle of waking up in the morning and asking, ‘What makes my life possible?’ It’s such a simple question. The air I breathe, the soil I step on, the food I eat, the water I drink, the sun that makes me happy. If we understand that our survival depends on the Earth and really appreciate all those gifts, maybe we can show a bit more care. Fashion is a trillion-dollar industry. We have the means. We just have to want to do it.”

Watch: Tom Brady & Gisele Bündchen on Being Co-Chairs at the 2017 Met Gala:

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