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How supermodel Heidi Klum built a multimillion-euro empire

Sabrina Cooper
June 1, 2023

As Heidi Klum turns 50, we look at how her impressive career has allowed the German-born supermodel to become a global star and powerful businesswoman.

Klum at event at Aeroport Cannes Mandelieu on May 21, 2017, in Cannes, France
Image: Getty Images/A.Jones

Working both in her native Germany and in the United States, Heidi Klum is one of the world's most successful celebrities. Her impressive career as a model has allowed her to venture into lucrative business and entertainment projects, and she shows no signs of slowing down as she turns 50 on Thursday.

"There aren't many world stars coming from Germany with that level of fame. It's Angela Merkel and Heidi," Thomas Hayo, a fashion photographer and one of Klum's judges on "Germany's Next Topmodel" (GNTM), told Forbes magazine.

Since 2006, millions of mainly young female viewers have been watching Klum host GNTM on the commercial broadcaster ProSieben. The reality TV show is based on the original "America's Next Top Model," which her friend and fellow model Tyra Banks started in New York City in 2004. The German version of the show is currently the longest-airing "Top Model" adaptation.

Heidi Klum holds hands with two men
Earning $39.5 million in 2020, Klum is the only German-born star among the world's top highest-paid TV hosts, according to Forbes magazine Image: ProSieben/Martin Ehleben

As the central figure of the show, Klum makes it clear when she disapproves of a candidate's efforts, but will show her beaming, signature smile when a model performs well.

Praise and criticism

"I think most of the German people honor and admire Heidi's professionalism and huge success. They are proud of our only worldwide TV star," the fashion designer Michael Michalsky, who was on the judging panel of the show from 2016 to 2019, told DW in 2018.

"Heidi Klum has the image in Germany of the smart businesswoman. She's both self-confident and witty: the perfect host for 'Germany's Next Topmodel.' She represents success and discipline," said Franziska Frosch, deputy editor-in-chief of ELLE Germany. Klum embodies the stereotype of the self-made woman, Frosch said. "If you believe Heidi Klum, it's not so much a gift from heaven that makes you attractive, but rather the result of hard work, self-control and personal evolution," Frosch added.

Klum's TV show is also widely criticized.

In a 2022 video, popular German YouTuber Rezo examined several cases of abuse, bullying, manipulation and misrepresentation on the show to back his claims that GNTM is "toxic and harmful."

Following the release of the video, Klum indirectly responded to it at the end of the 2022 finale: "Unfortunately I will have to disappoint you, but we're going to continue exactly as before." 

The 31-minute YouTube clip has been watched 4.2 million times. 

A gossip magazine favorite

It's not just Klum's professional projects that the German media scrutinize. "Despite all her perfection, her turbulent love life surely makes her entertaining and approachable. Again and again, her presence in the tabloids certainly generates sales," Frosch said.

To this day, Klum's love life is a theme of constant fascination. In 2018, she made public her relationship with Tokio Hotel guitarist Tom Kaulitz, who is now aged 33. They married at the beginning of 2019.

Heidi Klum and Tom Kaulitz
Klum and Kaulitz made their first public appearance at a gala during the Cannes film festival in 2018Image: picture-alliance/abaca/L. Hahn

Before Kaulitz, Klum was dating Vito Schnabel, an art curator 13 years her junior. 

In the past, she was married to the singer Seal, with whom she shares three biological children; the musician also adopted Klum's first child.

The American Heidi

Klum had her start in 1992 through a German modelling competition, landing on the covers of the international editions of fashion magazines. She caught the American public's eye when she appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1998, and became the first German model in the prestigious lineup of the Victoria's Secret Angels.

Klum blows kiss arriving at Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, in February 2016
Heidi Klum is popular in Germany and the United StatesImage: Reuters/L. Jackson

Klum leads a true trans-Atlantic life. When she isn't working on GNTM or on her fashion lines, she acts as a judge on  US TV shows.

From 2004 to 2017, she served on the panel of "Project Runway," a cult hit reality TV series, where budding fashion designers compete against each other in a series of weekly challenges. She also has a producer credit on the show.

Klum was one of the original judges since the inception of the show, with "Auf Wiedersehen" serving as her famous catchphrase to bid farewell to the losing contestants. Similar to her GNTM persona, she is direct with her criticism and earnest, yet exudes warmth and encouragement.

Up until 2017, Harvey Weinstein was an executive producer for the show, and Klum opened up about how he lost that credit since the sexual harassment and assault accusations surfaced. "I truly admire these brave women who are coming forward to share their stories because change cannot come unless there is a dialogue and people are held accountable," Klum told People magazine.

Klum has also regularly participated in determining the fate of contestants on various "America's Got Talent" shows. including "America's Got Talent: All-Stars" in 2023. As one of the judges on the panel, Klum's down-to-earth and girl-next-door personality comes through when delivering her feedback.

'Do we have an expiration date?'

With her feet firmly planted on both sides of the Atlantic and jet-setting around the world, Klum remains a force in fashion and media, while also balancing motherhood with her busy life. For her birthday, the 50-year-old supermodel still flaunts her forever-young figure on the red carpets of the world.

As she once told Ellen Degeneres: "I always think there are a lot of women my age, 50, 60, 70. What? Do we have an expiration date? Can we not also still feel sexy? I feel sexy."

According to her legion of international fans, she definitely still is.

This article was updated from a previous profile for Heidi Klum's 50th birthday on June 1, 2023.