"Don't you think we're at the end of this [reality craze]?" Heidi Klum asked Harvey Weinstein in 2003, when he first floated the idea of a televised fashion design competition. "Little did I know, we were at the beginning of a whole new wave."
The wave has grown into a seismic tsunami, as January 24 marks the premiere of season 11 of Project Runway, a hit for Lifetime that turned the motto "One day you're in, and the next day you're out" into a pop-cultural catchphrase. Klum herself, dressed today in "rock-and-roll business" — Paige jeans; a skulls-and-roses print shirt; an Elizabeth and James tuxedo jacket; and studded Chloé booties — for lunch at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant in the Bel Air Hotel, is still very much in. What started as a quirky show about aspiring designers armed with shears and cutthroat ambition has evolved into a showcase for fledgling talent trying to impress guest designer judges from Diane von Furstenberg to Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa to Tory Burch, battling frayed hemlines and nerves along the way. It's become easier each season to tap A-listers as celebrity judges — Zoe Saldana, Jessica Alba, Christinas Ricci and Aguilera, among them — as many stars are fans. Not every famous actress is comfortable critiquing, however. Natalie Portman, Klum recalls, was "very sweet, but she only spoke her mind when the camera was off. So Michael [Kors] had to push her. He said, 'You are not bashing someone or saying, You suck. You are giving your honest opinion.'" Susan Sarandon, by contrast, "was very opinionated — good points, too. A lot of people are fashionable but don't know much about what goes into a garment."
Kors, a fellow judge along with MC Fashion Director Nina Garcia, provides comic relief, especially off camera, with antic tales that often bring the others to tears. "We talk about anything from boobs to shoes to kale juice," the designer says. "After going through three pregnancies with Heidi and two with Nina, I know more about maternity life than any man gay or straight has a right to. I am so ticklish that Heidi once chased me around the runway chairs, jumped on me, and startled me, at which point I fainted — what man wouldn't?"
In addition to Sarandon, Bette Midler and Jordana Brewster make appearances this season, but perhaps the biggest changes are that red-carpet favorite Zac Posen joins the jury (Kors wasn't available due to a scheduling conflict), and contestants will now work in teams, testing both their collaboration and couture skills. Klum's fantasy guest judges are Michelle Obama ("I don't think we've ever had a first lady who is as cool and fashion-oriented as she is") and Donatella Versace.
The Project Runway franchise, which is syndicated in more than 35 countries, is just one pursuit in Klum's bag of tricks. A disciplined childhood — she remembers her father, Günther, slapping her if she didn't do something correctly — instilled in Klum the value of effort and achievement. Today, the 39-year-old designs a children's clothing line for Babies "R" Us and an activewear collection for New Balance, and she's created a fragrance — her fourth — called Surprise with Coty. She didn't just stick her name on a flacon looking to extend her brand, though. Günther was the head of production at 4711, a famous German perfume house where a 14-year-old Klum in a hairnet filled bottles on a conveyor belt.
She speaks with reverence of her parents, who were in the delivery room for the births of each of Klum's four children — her father even manned the video camera. She bought them a house outside of Cologne, Germany (as well as homes for her older brother, Michael, who's a bus driver, and her aunts), and they are frequent guests at her ivy-covered Tuscan-villa-style house on eight acres in Los Angeles with access to a private canyon, where she hikes with her two German shepherds, Max and Freddy. It is her hairdresser mother, Erna, to whom Klum, up at 6 a.m. and in bed by 9 p.m., credits her work ethic. "She told me, 'Don't ever depend on a man,'" Klum says. "So I started making a living for myself when I was 18." Early in her modeling career, when she was living in Italy, Klum had the kind of ignominious experiences that young, naive models complain about. She would get a casting call from a booker to meet a client, only to end up at a dinner where she was expected to be "table candy." unlike peers who were willing to debase themselves for free meals and products, Klum knew her own worth. She would call the booker the next day, saying angrily, "It was different from what you explained. Don't send me to those things anymore." Later, sound business advice came from fellow television mogul Tyra Banks. "I used to do my own taxes," Klum says. "You know how you buy that gigantic sheet at Staples, add up the restaurants, clothes, and taxis and glue your receipts into the book month by month? The more money I made, the more complicated things got. It was Tyra who said, 'You need to have an entertainment lawyer and a proper accountant. You can't be sitting at home wasting your time with this.'"
Though Klum grows animated when talking about her projects, questions about her burgeoning relationship with her bodyguard of four years, Martin Kirsten, are off-limits. Even so, eight months after filing for divorce from the singer Seal, she has publicly admitted that she is in love. "People say, 'Oh, God, how devastating to go through a divorce,'" says Klum. "Did I wish for this to happen to my family? No. But everyone is healthy; we're moving on with our lives. If someone got [very sick], God forbid, that would be a real problem. It's not what I wanted — it's not what anyone wanted — but it's not a real problem."
What others classify as problematic, Klum simply doesn't. When she was 30 and pregnant by Italian race car magnate Flavio Briatore, her handlers were "freaking out," saying, "I don't know how the fashion industry will take you back after this." For Klum, abortion wasn't an option, and she walked the Victoria's Secret runway show at four months along, with no one the wiser. "I thought, This is what is happening, and I'm going to embrace it," she says. "I will figure it out, whatever comes my way."
For the full article, pick up the February issue of Marie Claire when it hits newsstands on January 15.