The marriage of Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady may look like an even celebrity match: two beautiful, talented millionaires who will be photographed in good times and bad, till death (or the ill effects of mega-fame) do them part. But in terms of cultural relevance, she is by far the bigger star.
It's not that Tom Brady is a couch potato. The elite quarterback was named football's MVP in 2007 and holds the league record for most touchdown passes in a season. He's gone to the Super Bowl four times, and won three times. Not only that, he was an early phenom: Brady is the only quarterback to start and win three Super Bowls before his 28th birthday.
But for all his various records and laurels, Tom Brady is one of hundreds of professional football players on 32 teams. If he were out of the game (as he was at the end of the 2008 season with a knee injury) New England would weep while Peyton Manning enjoyed the undisputed spotlight. Gisele, on the other hand, is a symbol of an entire nation--and it's not just because of her outrageously perfect body. More than a pin-up, she is a cultural icon, a positive figure from a country with more resources than respect, more potential than potency. Her success blossomed at the same time as Brazilian fashion, and that combination has influenced the aspirations of the next generation.
"It's become part of the culture," says Maria Prata, fashion editor of Vogue Brazil. "Before Gisele, little girls wanted to be singers."
In January I found myself at fashion weeks in Rio and S o Paulo, a guest of the Brazilian Textile and Apparel Industry Association (ABIT). Gisele walked in one S o Paulo show--for the Brazilian denim brand Colcci, which is roughly equivalent to Diesel--and within seconds of her first step on the runway the crowd of a thousand burst into applause, then quickly hushed as everyone positioned their digital cameras.
Colcci likely spent more than a million dollars on their celebrity model; Victoria's Secret paid her $5 million a year for its runway shows and campaign. Walking the runway is rare for top models because the real money is made on advertising campaigns or endorsement deals. Gisele has plenty: This spring she is in campaigns for Dior and Versace, as well as Rampage and Stefanel. According to the Forbes annual celebrity rankings, Gisele earned $35 million in 2007, topping Heidi Klum ($14 million) and Kate Moss ($7.5 million). In her editorial work she has enjoyed seemingly endless popularity; She's been on the cover of Vogue 10 times, in almost as many years.
Central to Gisele Bündchen's importance is that she is the first Brazilian model to make it to this stratosphere of fame: "No one ever managed to gather the portfolio, the timing, and the grip of Gisele," says editor André do Val of the publishing collective House of Palomino. Timing mattered. Born in 1980, she was discovered by the Elite Modeling agency at 14 and moved to New York in 1997, a time when popular culture was ready for some way out of its gloomy Kate Moss/Nirvana phase. The Brazilian beauty broke the spell: Vogue heralded "the return of the sexy model" with Gisele on its July 1999 cover.
"She got the world's attention at the end of the heroin chic trend," says do Val. "She was a symbol of good health and fitness. And that brought a lot of attention to Brazil, following this image of natural, uncompromised beauty."
Gisele Bündchen's star was also rising around the same time that the Brazilian fashion industry was getting its act together. Ten years ago its denim brands were scratching the surface of distribution. Today, Brazil is the second largest exporter of denim (after China). A decade ago Havaianas flip-flops were sold mainly in local grocery stores; today, the brand has achieved total domination. If you don't have Havaianas you are not cool, and you should not leave your house until you buy a pair.
So while the multitudes began to clamor for Brazilian stuff, they also embraced (or wished to embrace) the most beautiful girl from Brazil. "She has a fresh and natural look," says Chico Lowndes, who recently curated a S o Paulo exhibit of photography by Rankin. "She's Brazilian, and that's something that looms in the world's imagination--'The Girl from Ipanema.'"
For the most part, she has a hard-working, fly-right image and stays out of the limelight unless she's paid to be there. The tabloids loved her romance with Leonardo DiCaprio, but if not for enterprising paparazzi her personal life would be reasonably private. Ah, but we'll always have Paris. In February 2007, while Gisele and Tom were enjoying a weekend in the City of Light, his former squeeze Bridget Moynahan announced, via Liz Smith's gossip column, that she was three months pregnant.
The New England Patriots quarterback likely has a few good years left on the job, and he has just married an international superstar who outshines and outclasses him. If ever a man married up, it's Tom Brady.
Pia Catton is a writer in New York.