Project Heidi

She's got curves, kids, and a massive career. How Heidi Klum beat the supermodel cliché.

Hate to sound so seen-it-all, but let's face it — supermodels can disappoint in the flesh. Mostly because there's so little of it on them. The scorchingly thin figure that makes clothes look elegant can seriously underwhelm without the curvature the camera adds. So as I wait for Heidi Klum in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, I'm braced for a letdown.

It never comes. Even across the dining room, Klum is mesmerizingly lovely: tight jeans tucked into boots; a black leather jacket over a striped cashmere top that makes her look like the world's sexiest gondolier; blonde hair that spills out of a knit beret. All that's missing is that leonine spark familiar from photos and TV appearances. This Heidi looks almost ... cuddly.

Klum orders some hot tea and hovers over it, her face looking as crisp as a Macoun apple. Unbelievably, this is how she looks in morning-after mode. She was out until 3 a.m. last night at a party following the taping of a Victoria's Secret special that she also hosted. Already this morning, she has fed her kids, inhaled some leftover goulash that her mother had made, driven her eldest child, 4-year-old Leni, to preschool, and conferenced with Leni's teacher. Meet the Sane Supermodel, for whom the greatest blessings aren't found in the cordoned-off VIP area but around the family dinner table.

"I always wanted to be a mom," Klum says in her lightly accented English. "At Thanksgiving, I have my parents there, I have screaming kids, I have a big fat turkey — 18 pounds — sitting in the middle; legs are being ripped off that thing, you know what I mean? There's life in the house. I don't want to be wondering about how skinny I am, wondering what I'm going to eat because I don't want to gain and I want to look hot and young, always and forever."

PHOTO GALLERY: Go behind the scenes with Heidi Klum

Of course, at 34, Klum looks absurdly hot and young. How, I wonder aloud, is that possible after three kids in four years?

"I always think, Look at how people were before they were pregnant," Klum says. "If you were a toned, healthy, energetic person, most likely you will be like that again." Cold comfort to the untoned and unhealthy, but the straight dope is sort of refreshing. "A lot of people come to me, and they're like, 'Will I look like you after I have the baby?' And I say, 'Well, how were you before?' You can't kid yourself."

In 1992, Klum won a modeling contest in her native Germany — even though her look wasn't particularly in vogue at the time. "When I started, Kate Moss was the hottest thing," she says. "It was not about being proud and upright with the smile glowing — a powerful woman. It was more about being a crushed, crumbled person in the corner, the beaten-down girl looking a little sad and tired."

Klum was never going to be anyone's idea of a crushed, crumbled person. To find success in the waif era, she knew she had to be resourceful. "There were still other things out there for people who were normal-looking," which meant modeling for catalogs — JCPenney, Spiegel, and Newport News. Then, in 1996, Klum got the call to do catalog work for Victoria's Secret. It didn't hurt that Klum's European upbringing left her completely at ease with stripping down for the camera. "I come from a place where we're not that shy about our bodies," she notes. Then, in 1998, Klum's distinctive décolletage made a memorable star turn on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

heidi klum photos

(Image credit: Ruven Afanador)

Since then, she's proved herself much more than a pinup, hosting Project Runway for four seasons now, critiquing contestants with Cowellian directness — dismissing their designs as too "Holly Hobby" or "home-sewn" when warranted. Says Klum, it can be just as cringey during the judging as it looks. "We're in this dark, tiny room, and I have 15 people in front of me who are terrified. It's not like, 'Hey, what's up?' You can hear a mouse fart in that room."

In August 2003, five weeks pregnant with daughter Leni, conceived with Italian businessman and soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Flavio Briatore, Klum was walking through the lobby of the Mercer hotel in New York when she ran into the singer Seal. "I was not looking for anybody," says Klum, who has a five-year marriage to hairstylist Ric Pipino behind her. "He was just there. He walked in the door, and there he was. He looked good. I was like, Wow."

Surely she has never wanted for attention from attractive men, I say. What was it about Seal?

Klum looks at me like I'm a little dim. "Well, I mean, have you ever met him? He's a very big man, very dark, very intriguing — and it's like a mystery, do you know what I mean? He has these dark eyes, and they're very intense ... but he is a gentle giant. He is so warm, and he is so well-mannered, so like a gentleman."

The chemistry was immediate. In December of the following year, Seal proposed to Klum during a snowboarding trip, atop a glacier in the Canadian Rockies. "He took me by helicopter," she says. "He had an igloo built there, and they'd brought up everything: a bed with sheets inside the igloo, rose petals everywhere, candles. Very, very romantic!" Her eyes blaze at the memory. "There was food and champagne, and then the helicopter left. It was a little scary, too, because you're so cut off from the world. No trees, nothing — it was hard-core. But I was ecstatic. I loved it. It was wonderful." With that, Klum turns toward the mirrored wall behind our booth and checks out her face, quickly dabbing at some imperfection.

Klum and Seal were married in 2005, in a small ceremony on the beach in Mexico. They've since had two sons — Henry, almost 3, and Johan, 18 months. Seal brings his patient, fatherly energy to the raising of Leni as well, providing a relaxed contrast to Klum's gotta-get-it-done mind-set. "I'm a little different in my head than he is," she says. "He takes his sweet old time. When he explains things to them, he explains them."

Klum brims with the joy and the challenges of child-rearing. When Seal checked out local preschools, he and Klum agreed the more permissive ones weren't right for their kids. "I'm all for expressing yourself, but you also have to clean up after yourself," she explains. "When Johan was attempting his first steps, I kept telling him, 'Johan, you're the last one. The others walked when they were 1. Get cracking!'"

Leni, Klum tells me, just had her first haircut — she chose a Dora the Explorer 'do. It's not hard to imagine that being the daughter of Heidi Klum might someday present challenges, but for now it's all good. Before a fashion show Klum was working last fall, Leni said, "Mommy, I want to go on the runway with you, but you have to hold my hand." "So we just walked back and forth a little bit while my mom and dad took pictures of her," Klum says. Then, as if needing proof it all really happened, Leni scooped up some glitter from the runway and put it in her little-girl purse.

Suddenly, Klum's eyes start following a tall, coiffed man making his way to a table at the back of the Polo Lounge. "Look! There is David Hasselhoff!" Sure enough. I start to giggle.

"Well," she whispers, "he was huge in Germany."