RIO DE JANEIRO — At first glance, the glittering career of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen is not very Brazilian. The supermodel, who retired from the catwalks at age 34 on April 15 in a blizzard of publicity, has pursued her profession with a Teutonic single-mindedness and efficiency, as befits her family’s German roots.
Friends, industry professionals and colleagues used terms such as “punctual,” “secure investment” and “well educated” to describe her — terms rarely associated with models, fashion or, indeed, tropical, impulsive Brazil, where she is often described as an über-model, rather than a supermodel.
Nonetheless, Brazilians can claim her as their own. “Gisele is what most represents Brazil abroad. It is Pelé, carnival and Gisele,” said Fernanda Tavares, a New York-based Brazilian model who has been her friend since they started their careers together 20 years ago, at age 14. Tavares was among those who suggested that Bündchen will still do select catwalk shows, as well as her advertising contracts.
The German colonies in the south of the country where Bündchen grew up are as much a part of Brazil’s colorful patchwork of immigration as Sao Paulo’s Lebanese and Japanese communities. While some Brazilian women complain that she is cold and aloof, plenty identify with Bündchen’s easy charm, even if few share her blond hair and blue eyes.
Gisele, as she is known here, emphasizes family, which plays well in Brazil’s conservative yet chaotic society, where many regard family as the only institution that can be depended on.
Wholesome yet sexy Gisele is Brazil as the country would like to be seen. And Brazilians celebrate her international successes.
“She is an icon for those who work in fashion,” said Michelli Provensi, a Brazilian model who published a 2013 book on her experiences. “It was her who put Brazilian fashion on the map. It wasn’t the stylists, it was the models.”
According to Forbes magazine, Bündchen has long been the highest-paid model in the world, having earned $386 million since 2001. In 2009, she married New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady; they have two children. Last week, Brady told Brazilian television that the couple aim to pass on to their children the small-town family values she grew up with.
Gisele was raised with five sisters in the small town of Horizontina, in Rio Grande do Sul state in the south of Brazil. Her parents still speak German, although she’s a sixth-generation Brazilian.
The town’s airport was named after her grandfather Walter, a former mayor. Her father, Valdir, is a sociologist who writes self-help books.
“The family is the stronghold where everything is taught,” Bündchen’s father said in a 2013 interview for Brazil’s Donna magazine.
Her twin sister, Patricia, is one of her managers. Another sister, Graziela, is a federal judge. It is a close family. “Well structured, very educated, with strong family values,” said Monica Monteiro, a Sao Paulo model agent who was Bündchen’s agent for 12 years after Gisele came second in a national model agency contest and moved to Sao Paulo to start her career.
“She was very skinny. She had a lot of hair. She was very funny. She had a very beautiful skin. What I noticed most was . . . this happiness of hers,” Monteiro said. “She had never seen a magazine. She lived in a very small city; she did not have access to fashion.”
Gisele learned fast — how to pose, how to behave, how to talk with clients. Within eight months, her career was taking off. “She asked, ‘What do I do to be a top model.’ I said, ‘You have to sell more,’ ” Monteiro said. “She was born with a marketing course in her head.”
Cyclical changes in fashion worked to her benefit. When she was dubbed “model of the year” on the cover of U.S. Vogue in 1999, it marked the end of the “heroin chic” era characterized by pale, skinny models.
“The world was needing colors and happiness, and Gisele represented this,” Monteiro said. “Sexy, natural, tanned.”
Like many Brazilian women, Gisele wears a natural, confident sexuality that appeals to men without alienating women, which the many brands she continues to advertise have discovered to be a potent combination. In Brazil, she has sold everything from shampoo to cable television.
“Everything that Gisele does, sells,” said Joyce Pascowitch, a Brazilian fashion industry veteran who publishes a celebrity gossip site called Glamurama and two magazines.
“She represents the contemporary Brazilian woman really well. Someone who works, has her family,” said Daniella Bianchi, managing director of the Brazilian branch of a consulting outfit called Interbrand.
And Gisele is generally fast to praise her mother country, even though she and Brady live in Boston.
“There’s nowhere in the world where I feel better than Brazil,” she told the Brazilian celebrity magazine Contigo last year. “I’ve lived in the United States for many years. I like it there, but it is very different to the way I was raised and my behavior.
“I don’t know how to explain, but when I arrive here, I can relax more. As much as I like it there and live there, Brazil is my home.”