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Claudia Schiffer, A Model Life

Supermodel Claudia Schiffer skillfully manages a career that proves that classic beauty will always be in fashion.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

As Cigar Aficionado magazine approaches 20 years in print, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable stories we have published over the years. In this step back into our vaults, we go to 1997 when we profiled the beautiful Claudia Schiffer.

Claudia Schiffer is talking tough. There's a problem in the world of fashion these days, she says—the fact that too often models have to look like junkies just to be cool. "I think fashion should be promoting beauty and health," she says. "That doesn't happen if the model looks anorexic, unhealthy, tired, if the photography makes her look as if she's on drugs or been out partying all night. That kind of thing can end up hurting young women or girls who feel they have to imitate the models they see in the magazines. That's not what fashion is about. For me, fashion is about beauty."

When Claudia Schiffer is the subject, that's what it's always about. The 26-year-old German-born supermodel has been called, by GQ magazine and countless others, the most beautiful woman in the world. Her face and body have graced the covers of more than 500 magazines, among them Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair and Time. She was the first model to make the cover of Rolling Stone. She has walked down runways for all the major designers and appeared in ad campaigns for Revlon, Chanel, Versace, Valentino and Ralph Lauren. Her image, on billboards for Kenar, has loomed above the millions of tourists in Times Square. She danced in a Fanta ad with Mickey Mouse for a reported $2 million. Last fall, she appeared on the cover of the Victoria's Secret catalogue wearing a diamond-encrusted brassiere worth $1 million. She also has a contract to do Pepsi commercials with Space Jam co-director Joe Pytka and has appeared in a TV commercial for cotton "Underware," which was censored in the United States.

John Fairchild, the publisher of Women's Wear Daily, once said that Schiffer "looks better in jeans than any model ever looked in Chanel." And on this rainy early spring day, as she exits the elevator at the Four Seasons Hotel on East 57th Street in Manhattan, it is clear that Fairchild knows whereof he speaks. She is clad all in black—simple, tight black Gucci jeans and a black wool V-neck Prada sweater—and she is radiant. Her long, glistening blonde hair glides gently and gracefully down her back. Her magnetic blue eyes twinkle; her soft, high cheekbones personify the blush of youth.

Claudia Schiffer, portrait

Her body, all 5-feet-11 and 127 pounds, sparkles with an unself-conscious sensuality that, combined with her still-present air of youthful innocence, is—there's no other word for it but the cliché—breathtaking. And yet, inside this tall, willowy body beautiful, this perfect mannequin for haute couture, there lies the mind of an experienced, tough and highly expert businesswoman, the very model of a modern major female entrepreneur at the turn of the twenty-first century. A profile by Nathaniel Nash last year in The New York Times called her "focused" and "no-nonsense," a "combination that may be the reason she is considered by many to be the best businesswoman in modeling."

Designer Karl Lagerfeld has explained her success by saying that underneath the glamour she is "all work, very serious, essentially a smooth-running German business machine." While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, it is clear that she loves to work, loves her business, and has risen to great heights in the worlds of fashion and commerce.

She won't discuss her finances, but there is no doubt she is the world's highest-paid supermodel. That title was attained in 1992, Nash wrote, when she inked an exclusive global deal with Revlon for a reported $6 million a year for 10 years and surpassed the previous titleholder, Cindy Crawford. According to the Times, fashion insiders estimate her yearly income at as much as $14 million—or more. She has put out a yearly swimsuit calendar since 1990; she designs it herself, and industry estimates put her annual earnings from it at $500,000 (this year her royalties are going to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation). Her series of four exercise videos, "Claudia Schiffer's Perfectly Fit," for CBS/Fox, has made the best-seller list. She has published two books, Memories, a pictorial for young people about a fashion shoot, and Claudia Schiffer by Karl Lagerfeld, a black-and-white coffee table book she designed with photos by Lagerfeld.

In 1995, she and two of her fellow supermodels—Naomi Campbell and Elle MacPherson—and Tommaso Buti, an Italian restaurateur, opened the Fashion Cafe in Rockefeller Center. It was so successful that there are now Fashion Cafes in New Orleans, London, Jakarta and Barcelona; another supermodel, Christy Turlington, has joined the crew, and there are plans to open in 10 more cities this year, among them Mexico City, Manila, Paris, Singapore and Madrid. Last October she switched from the Metropolitan modeling agency—where she had been since her career began—to Elite, and, she says, things have gotten even busier.

Sitting in a lounge at the Four Seasons this Saturday morning, there is about Schiffer a clear and imaginative intelligence, a disarming friendliness. With Claudia Schiffer, in life and on a magazine cover, what you see is what you get.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about her this April day is that she is not exhausted. It is the end of Fashion Week in New York. She has completed two all-day shoots posing for two magazine covers—Cigar Aficionado and Cosmopolitan.

She has spent countless hours on fittings and taking part in two runway shows, for the designers Badgley Mishka and Halston International. Yet she also found the time recently to take her brother to a Knicks game, do a day-in-the-life photo shoot for Gala magazine, attend dozens of business meetings and spend a weekend with a 13-year-old girl who won a contest in Europe that allowed her to tag along with Claudia.

And there is no rest. Immediately after the interview, she will be off to another cover shoot, for Fitness magazine. Tomorrow morning, she will be on a flight to New Orleans to supervise several changes at that city's Fashion Cafe.

"I work all year long," she says. "There are no off seasons. And I travel all year long. I make sure I can go home"—as with many other European celebrities, home is Monte Carlo, for tax purposes—"for a couple of days every few months, even if it's only to switch things in my suit-cases. Whenever I leave I pack for at least two months."

Her schedule in the next two weeks is typical. After three days in New Orleans, she moves on to Los Angeles, to shoot a cover for Allure magazine. "I'll be in L.A. for one day," she says. "I arrive in the morning, and after the Allure cover I'm attending a charity event, a benefit for the Make-a-Wish Foundation," which helps seriously ill children. (She is also a spokeswoman for the National Breast Cancer Coalition Signature Drive and takes part in many events on behalf of Revlon to help cure the disease, as well as donating time with other supermodels in the fight against pediatric AIDS.) "Then I catch a plane at 1:35 in the morning and go directly to Lima, Peru. I arrive at 12:35 p.m., and the next morning I work from 7 a.m. all the way to 9:30 in the evening. The following day, it's the same hours. And then I travel to Chile and work for two days from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. And then I go to Argentina for one day. And then, finally, I'm back in Europe."

"It can be crazy," she says, "because when you don't have time to relax it can be very tiring. When I go back to the hotel room, there are always the daily faxes to look at, and the phone calls to be made if there's something urgent. And then it's time to sleep. Once in Monaco, I started work at 9 in the morning and worked all through the night until 6 a.m. I didn't know in advance I would be doing that, but if the photographer decides artistically that he doesn't have what he needs, you just keep on going until you have it. And it can take all night. So we finished at 6, and I had to take a 7 a.m. plane from Nice to Paris and catch the Concorde to New York. I didn't get any sleep. And when I arrived in New York I had to go straight to the studio."

But despite it all, she says, she loves what she does. "It's so much fun," she says. "Working with photographers, collaborating on a shoot, you can create so many different things. You can come in with one idea of what you're planning to do and then a couple of hours later you can change the idea to something completely different. I love the creative part of it so much."

Claudia Schiffer portrait.

With such a schedule, one might think she wouldn't need to exercise and watch her diet to keep fit. But she does. "I enjoy good food very much," she says, "and I'm not one of those women who can eat whatever they want. I have to watch myself very carefully and think about what I eat all the time. If I don't it's a disaster."

On a typical morning she will have fruit for breakfast, along with tea and honey. "For lunch I try to have salads or vegetables or soups," she says. "And for dinner, chicken salad or tuna salad or a bit of regular chicken or vegetables. I try very hard to eat healthy. And it's not only for my figure.

Sure, I would like to keep it the way it is. But it's also for the energy. I have much more energy when I'm thinner. Sweets make me very tired. Heavy food, lots of meat, makes me tired."

When it comes to exercise, she tries to work out in a gym four or five days a week, an hour and a half or two hours a day, on the stationary bicycle, the Stairmaster, the treadmill and a new machine she has fallen in love with, the Transport, which is a cross between a bike and a treadmill that puts much less pressure on the knees. She also uses weights for her upper body, and sometimes for her lower body. But with all her travel, she says, "I need to have something I can do in hotel rooms." So she does a one-hour workout routine with her private trainer, Kathy Kaehler, that closely resembles those seen in her videos. "The tapes were first developed for me," she says, "so I could show people what I do."

The rigors of her work schedule and training are a bit like the rigor she brings to her business planning. The fashion writer Michael Gross has called her "the model who doesn't make mistakes." Schiffer doesn't quite agree, but does admit that she has "not made the same mistake twice." She continues: "I can't say I don't make mistakes. I do make them, but I try to think of mistakes—even though my first reaction is, 'Oh, my God'—as an experience I can learn from. I have lists of things where I remind myself I cannot do it this way again."

For her determination and her success, she unhesitatingly credits her upbringing. "The main structure of the way I think, the logic and the organization, comes from my parents," she says. "They are both very strong people. My father is a very successful lawyer. My mother helps my father a lot in his business. And she helps me a lot in my financial business—almost more than my father does. They are both really excellent. I admire their work ethic. They are very straightforward, logical and direct. I think that's what I've learned from them." To her parents she also credits what she calls "a very happy childhood," though it was not without some of the problems of youth.

Claudia Schiffer was born on Aug. 25, 1970, in Rheinberg, Germany, a small town about a half hour outside of Düsseldorf, to Heinz and Gudrun Schiffer, in a very upper-middle-class family that was soon to include two brothers, Stefan and Andreas, and a sister, Ann Carolin. "We had, and have, a real family life," says Schiffer. "Even though my parents are very involved in their work, both of them were always there for us. Especially my mother. She became our hero, because she knew and answered everything. She would help us with our schoolwork, especially if we were having difficulty with a subject. She would sit down with us every afternoon and show us things, explain them to us."

Her parents would help her and her siblings in other ways as well. "They didn't want us to be getting the wrong influences in school or during the afternoons after school, so they made sure we were very much involved in other activities," she says. "I learned to play the piano. I took tennis lessons, aerobics, jazz, tap dancing, swimming classes. I think they helped a lot. Because of them, I don't drink. I don't smoke [cigarettes]. I'm not one of those people who likes to go out every night and dance until 6 in the morning. That's part of what they were trying to do. They wanted to have children they could trust, children who would come home and tell them the truth."

In school, she says, she was "kind of" popular, but not to the degree you would think. "I wasn't a star," she says. "There were other girls who were the stars, who were the ones everybody thought were beautiful, the ones everybody wanted to go out with. I had my friends, but I was never 100 percent part of them, because I was so different."

First of all, she says, she was too tall. And too thin. And too rich.

"Because I was so tall, I was very shy," she says. "When a teacher would ask me a question, I would be very embarrassed because I didn't want anyone to notice me. There was also a lot of jealousy in school because I come from a family that is very well known in the area where I grew up. There are five Schiffer brothers, and each has a successful business in town. We have a big house; my parents didn't have to worry about anything financially, and neither did the other Schiffer families. I wanted to be like everybody else, but my father and mother were both driving Mercedes, and if I came to school in a great outfit people would be very jealous. So because of that I never wanted to be the center of attention. After a while I wouldn't wear new clothes. My mother would always say, 'You're so beautiful, why don't you dress that way?' And I just wanted to be in jeans and tennis shoes.

Claudia Schiffer portrait.

"That's why a lot of people were so surprised when I told them I was going to Paris to be a model. The girls who were the stars would all talk about going to school to become models. And I was the one who became a model. That was when all the disadvantages I thought I had, being so tall and so skinny, turned out to be advantages."

She was near the top of her class in school, excelling in languages—she speaks fluent French and English as well as German—and for a while she thought of becoming a lawyer like her father. "I admire him very much," she says. "I even took Latin in school, because in those days if you wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer you had to learn Latin. I went to his law office and thought about working with him. I went to court with him many times, sat in the last row, and watched him and thought, 'Wow, this is what I'm going to do, too.'"

But one day in October 1987, she and some friends went to a Düsseldorf discotheque to dance. Aline Souliers of the Metropolitan modeling agency saw her, gave her a card and told her she had what it took to become a model. Claudia told her parents. "She met my parents the next day and invited them to come to Paris," Claudia says. They were hesitant, concerned that she complete high school.

"When we made the final decision to do it, I still had to stay to finish high school," she says. "I didn't tell anybody in school about it for six months. Even when they were doing the test photos in Paris and writing up the contract I didn't tell anyone, not even my best girlfriend. I thought, 'What if they find out. Then I'll really be different.' It was all done very discreetly. It was only the day before I left that I told my friends."

Once in Paris, the rise was swift. Editors at the influential Elle magazine saw her, liked what they saw and put her on their cover. It was Schiffer's first. Soon she was chosen for the coveted Guess? jeans campaign, which carried her face and figure around the world. Within a year, she modeled at her first fashion show—for Chanel. It led to work with Versace, Valentino, Dior and all the other giants of the fashion industry. Her relationships with Chanel and Metropolitan's Souliers would last until 1996.

"At first I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing," Schiffer says of her beginnings in the business. "I thought they were making a mistake about me. Why choose me and not these other girls at school, who I thought were much more beautiful? I thought I would be there a year, improve my French and go home. But I was lucky. I had a good start because my family was behind me. Some girls just starting out make the wrong choices because they have to do those things to make money. I was able to say, let's have fun, do things I like to do. And they turned out to be the right things."

In her nine years in the fashion world, Schiffer has learned that not all in the business do the right thing. There is, for one, the large drug subculture.

"There are a lot of drugs around," she says. "Especially lately, because drugs have become fashionable again. When I began in the late '80s, the drug world of those days was essentially over. People were more health conscious. But it's back again. Some people have nothing to do with it because of their education and beliefs, and some think it's cool. In the beginning I didn't even notice. I came from such a clean home. I was so naive. People would tell me afterward that everybody in the studio was stoned except me, and I had no idea. Now I notice. But it's not something I would ever do. I don't like to lose control over myself. I don't like the feeling of not controlling what I'm saying or thinking."

Now, of course, Claudia Schiffer is recognized everywhere she goes—by the media, the paparrazzi and her many fans, all of whom constantly seek her out, taking photographs, asking for interviews and autographs. At times, she admits, it can be a little much.

"When I'm working, I consider it part of my work," she says. "If I'm attending a public event, or even if I'm on the street going to work, it's not a problem for me. But on vacation it has bothered me a lot. I understand logically that people have a need to see a celebrity, to know what's going on in their lives. But after a while it became so bad it was affecting the rest of my family, too."

Her family vacations on Majorca, where they owned a house. "There was no big wall," she says. "There was the house and the pool and the view and a little wall. And we had 20 photographers out on the wall every day. So I would stay inside all day. I didn't want to go out until the evening, when they would be gone. Then my sister and my mother started to do the same thing. We felt awkward going out in bikinis with everybody watching, or sunbathing topless on a boat, which in Europe everybody does. We couldn't do it. It was very uncomfortable being watched all the time. So we sold the house, and we're building a new one with a wall around it so we can have our private family life. I feel I have the right to take a vacation. There are many advantages of being well known, but that's the major disadvantage."

Claudia Schiffer portrait.

Schiffer refuses to pose nude, and many paparrazzi have gone to great lengths to catch her topless. A group of photographers, she says, once rented a boat and masqueraded as a vacationing family, then suddenly turned with their cameras and caught her relaxing far out at sea. Another photographer cut a hole in a tent at a fashion show in New York to benefit AIDS research and took shots of her changing costumes. Even the store on Majorca where she has photos developed, she says, made copies of shots a friend took of her topless in the Bahamas eight years ago, kept them and recently sold them. She says she has been talking with her lawyers about keeping the photos from being circulated more widely.

Another area in which she insists on some semblance of privacy is her personal life. She and the magician David Copperfield have been engaged for more than three years. He reportedly gave her a five-carat engagement ring, but so far there have been no wedding bells. She will talk about their relationship, but only a little. "I don't want to talk about my private life too much," she says. There are as yet, she says, "no official plans for marriage," but they are still very close. "We're just really great friends," she says. "We share a lot of things—hobbies, passions, interests. We have a lot of fun together." And yes, he does share with her the secrets of his astounding prestidigitations. "I'm there when he invents something, when he rehearses it, so naturally I know," she says.

Schiffer has many hobbies she enjoys pursuing in the little spare time she has, with or without Copperfield. She enjoys contemporary art and collects paintings and drawings she has found in her travels, particularly the (former Soviet) Georgian painter Kako, who creates figurative art. She enjoys skiing and playing tennis, and likes to curl up with a good book at night. One of her favorite relaxations is painting—watercolors or acrylics of animals and people.

But what this woman of beauty considers one of the most beautiful things in life, she says, is singing; not her own, but that of others. "I have a real passion for singing," she says, "especially Broadway musicals. The dancing, the acting, it all makes the performers beautiful. I saw the revival of Chicago last week and thought the dancers and singers were marvelous."

And she really appreciates good cigars. "I love the smell of a good cigar, the elegance, the feel. I enjoy the camaraderie of being with people smoking cigars, the friendship, the good feeling, the laughter." She most often experiences cigars with her fashion friends, among them Steven Florio, the president of Conde-Nast Publications. "I like being part of the mood, the excitement of the occasion," she says.

For five hours on the day of her Cigar Aficionado photo shoot, clad first in a light blue Armani dress, then a navy Ralph Lauren halter dress, and surrounded by a garland of hydrangeas, she puffed away contentedly at a passel of the finest Cubans—Cohiba Robustos and Siglo IVs, Montecristos No. 1 and 2. The elegance of the cigars seemed a perfect accompaniment to the grace of her slender hands; the smile on her face enhanced her pervasive sensuality, and the aromatic smoke drifting gently overhead added just a touch of mystery to her magical beauty. One look made it clear that handmade Havanas and haute couture go well together.

One hobby Schiffer most emphatically does not have is collecting, or wearing, jewelry. "I'm not a jewelry person," she says—an unexpected declaration from one who travels in a world where gold and diamonds are de rigueur. A glance reveals that she practices what she preaches—she is wearing a wristwatch with a plain black band, and a small jeweled crucifix on a thin gold chain around her neck. "I think it's because my mother has never been a jewelry person," she says. "I don't have holes in my ears, so I couldn't even wear earrings. It bothers me when I have a lot of things on. It's not me. I'm more simple and practical. Jewelry doesn't reflect my personality."

What her personality does reflect is the desire to continue to branch out from modeling. "In the beginning, modeling was very exciting. It fulfilled me. It was very satisfying, because everything was new, and you have all these dreams and goals, and you're hoping to achieve them. I wanted to be on certain covers, work with certain photographers and designers. And that's what happened. I fulfilled them. But now that I'm a little older, I think to myself that I've done this. Now I want to be more involved, more creative, make more decisions myself, come up with my own ideas and have them carried out."

She has appeared on television in Europe, hosting the French Fashion Awards and the World Music Awards in Monaco. She has completed her first major movie, a drama called The Blackout, directed by Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral). Scheduled for release this year, the movie costars Matthew Modine and Dennis Hopper. "I loved it," she says. "I didn't want to leave. We all became friends, we became a team, and I enjoyed acting so much. Ferrara is so great with actors. He takes the time to help you, to explain, to allow you to come up with your own ideas. He is so open to them."

She would like to return to the screen, but only with the right script and the right role. "I don't want the main role," she says. "I want to start first with small things, to get my feet wet, to see what I can do. I'm just a beginner."

Last year, the House of Chanel ended its relationship with Schiffer and replaced her with the very skinny British model Stella Tennant—after Tennant removed rings in her nose and navel. Some in the fashion press, which is, by definition, trendy and fickle, began saying that perhaps the era of Claudia was over, that the public was getting tired of her, that she was not as much in demand on the runways of Paris and New York, that she was really more a look than a model.

Such talk, Schiffer says, does not surprise or trouble her. "It would concern me if it was true," she says. "But it's not. I work as much as I've always worked. I make the same amount of money. I see my schedule in front of me and I know how busy it is. I still have my contracts, and if I lose one I get another. What I think is happening is simply that the more well known you get, the more you are criticized, the more people try to bring you down. I see it all the time with other celebrities, so why shouldn't it happen to me, too?"

Eventually, though, she says, the era of Claudia will be over. Last year she said that because she was financially secure, she no longer had to think about what she would be doing when she was 30 or 35. But she has thought about what she would like to be involved in a decade from now—and it is unlikely to include modeling.

"In 10 years, I think I will probably not model anymore," she declares. "Lauren Hutton and Christie Brinkley are great examples of those who fight the image of successful models only being there for a certain period of time, but I think that what they do is not for me. I would still need to be active. I can't sit still for long periods. I need always to be doing something. So I'd love to develop book or television projects, or make a movie. And I'd like to be involved in a charity to which I can give a lot of time. Because I'll have a lot of time."

She has always been a fan of Audrey Hepburn, she says. "I really admire her very much. And I love that when she didn't do that many movies anymore, because she was older and didn't get enough good roles, she gave all that time to Unicef. I'd love when I'm older to have her grace and charisma. Which is not something you can have when you're young, because it's the experience of life that gives it to you. But that's what I'd like for my future."

Another goal is being more comfortable with herself. "I've never liked myself too much," she says. "I've always thought I was too shy, too reserved, that I should be more open, more this, more that. But I've learned to say to myself that I am the way I am, and the more I am myself the better I'll be. Of course you want to work to be a good person, but first you have to learn to accept yourself."

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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