We've all heard the story a million times: As a teenager, [insert gorgeous supermodel's name here] was actually an ugly duckling — gangly, awkward, shy, constantly teased by her classmates. Cue the tiny violins. Now, she's making millions every year and is married to a handsome sports star/actor/businessman. We really feel for her.
But when 29-year-old Karolina Kurkova talks about her experiences growing up in a small town in the Czech Republic, she makes it hard not to sympathize. Or empathize, even. After all, don't most women feel self-conscious and unattractive at some point during adolescence? "I was taller than the boys," the 5'11" blonde says. "I wore pants because I didn't want to look at my legs. I drew a lot of attention, but not in a good way, and I had these big teeth, so I never smiled. I was uncomfortable with my body." After a bit of local modeling work, a 17-year-old Kurkova was soon opening the Prada show and being shot by Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia. "He said to me, 'Smile! You have a beautiful one.'" she remembers. "That was life-changing."
Top, $1,300, pants, $4,600, Balmain; cuff, $995, Georg Jensen.
Only a handful of models can name the career-making fashion photographer as their fairy godfather. And now, four aspiring catwalkers are able to call Kurkova herself their coach. She, along with Naomi Campbell and Coca Rocha, is a star on Oxygen's new modeling reality show The Face, hosted by photographer Nigel Barker. Each supermodel has her own team of girls competing to be the new face of beauty retailer ULTA. "It's definitely exciting and exhilarating," says Kurkova, who's had small television and film roles in the past but never put so much of herself out there before. "I'm not being a character. I'm being myself. I want people to know who Karolina is."
And who is she? "Sometimes people have an idea of how models should act and be, but I take the subway and I love meeting people and talking to them. I like a normal life," says Kurkova. Well, as normal as life can be when paparazzi snap pictures of her in Lululemon leggings and Nikes strolling Tobin, her 3-year-old son with movie producer Archie Drury, around their New York City neighborhood. The role of mentor comes naturally. "What I really want is to empower the girls on the show and do right by them," she says. "They're leaving their families, and some, their children, to pursue their dream." While she continues to pose for print (see a bronzed KK in Roberto Cavalli's recent resort campaign), Kurkova considers television one way to keep the momentum when it comes to work. "Being a model today is so different from when I began. Everything moves so fast, and it can be hard to sustain your career." Which is one reason she admires costar Campbell. "Her longevity is incredible." Is that a hint as to the winning coach on The Face's debut season? "They're both very competitive," Kurkova slyly says of Campbell and Rocha. "I don't want to give anything away." —Florence Kane
Jacket, price upon request, Michael Kors; pants, price upon request, Lacoste; watch, price upon request, Bulgari.