August 23, 1999 12:00 PM

As one of fashion’s most sought-after models, Esther Cañadas is often cast in scenes where the bijoux are Bulgari, the champagne is Cristal and Paris is just a Concorde away. So it was only fitting that the 22-year-old Spanish bombshell with the permanent pout (unenhanced by collagen, she insists) was chosen to play Anna, the mystery woman involved with Pierce Brosnan’s playboy art thief in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, which is set in the fast lane. “There’s not a lot of onscreen time,” says the film’s coproducer Beau St. Clair, “but Anna has to have a presence. Esther leaves an impression.”

Despite the film’s stylish milieu, though, shooting conditions were anything but. Cañadas’s first foray onto the silver screen, it was filmed in the dead of winter on a muddy car-dealership-turned-studio-lot outside New York City. “It was kind of funny to be dancing with Pierce,” says Cañadas, “in the middle of Yonkers.”

Even in Yonkers, Cañadas’s face is familiar. Since she broke out of the pack in 1996, her smoldering blue eyes and sky-high cheekbones have become recognizable to anyone who has seen a billboard for Donna Karan’s DKNY line (costarring Cañadas’s husband, Dutch-born model Mark Vanderloo, 31) or an Emporio Armani perfume commercial. “She’s not your typical girl next door,” says Joel Wilkenfeld, co-owner of NEXT modeling agency (Cañadas is signed with Wilhelmina). Says Brosnan: “She has an exotic sensuality. You could believe that this girl was someone who had seen the world.”

Worldliness seemed a long way off to a girl growing up in Alicante, a beach town in southern Spain. The younger child (brother Emilio, 24, is a nurse) of bookshop owner Emilio, 50, and Blanca Nieves, 52, who divorced five years ago, Cañadas was just 14 and already almost 5’10” when an agency rep spotted her and offered her a stint modeling. But she was reluctant. “I wasn’t into it. I wanted to be a private detective,” she recalls. Nor did she think much of her looks. “I was really skinny,” she says. Her fair coloring also set her apart. “I was sad that I didn’t look Spanish.”

But to the fashion world, Cañadas’s looks were just right. After winning a modeling competition in South Africa at 16, she moved to Milan and was soon a fixture on the European runways. At 19, she headed to New York City, where she landed a job modeling at a DKNY show. “She came out on the runway, and Donna grabbed my arm and said, ‘We’ve got to shoot this girl,’ ” says Trey Laird, the firm’s executive creative director. “I thought she was modern, sexy, sensual, hot, unique,” says Karan.

So did Vanderloo, whom Cañadas met at a DKNY photo shoot six months later. At first sight “he just looked like a model,” she says, shrugging. But by the second day of the shoot, something was brewing—and not just a spring storm. The couple soon set up house together. Their wedding, on June 10, was held at a 12th-century monastery in Tuscany in front of 150 relatives and friends. Children are definitely in the picture—”I want to have three, and she wants seven,” Vanderloo reports, “so we’ll end up with five”—though for now their brood consists of three Tonkinese cats that share their three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. (They also have a flat in Paris.)

Her assault on fame hasn’t changed Cañadas. “Esther is the furthest away from a diva than anybody I know,” says her husband. She even downplays landing her role in Crown without an audition. “Did you see the movie?” she asks of her beguiling but brief two-word turn. “You don’t have to try out much to do that.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Jennifer Frey in New York City

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