She’s one of the highest-paid supermodels in the world, married to one of the highest-paid athletes. She can breastfeed one-handed while getting ready for a lingerie photoshoot, she meditates every day at 5 a.m., and her family is so health-conscious that her children don’t even want Halloween candy.
But Gisele Bündchen is ready to blow up the perception that her life is as perfect as it looks.
In a new memoir, Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life, the famously private Bündchen, 38, reveals that she once battled panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
“Things can be looking perfect on the outside, but you have no idea what’s really going on,” she says in a revealing interview in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday. “I felt like maybe it was time to share some of my vulnerabilities, and it made me realize, everything I’ve lived through, I would never change, because I think I am who I am because of those experiences.”
One of six girls raised in Horizontina, Brazil by Valdir, a teacher, and Vania, a bank teller, Bündchen, a twin and middle child, says she spent her childhood feeling “not very special” — until she was discovered by a modeling agent at a mall in São Paulo at 14.
After a rough start in the industry (“They told me, ‘Your nose is too big and your eyes are too small and you’re never going to be on the cover of a magazine,’ ” she recalls), Bündchen got her big break in 1997, when she walked topless in Alexander McQueen’s runway show and appeared on the cover of Vogue the next year as the exemplar of “the return of the curve.” Credited with ushering in a sexy, athletic look that replaced ’90s heroin chic, Bündchen became known in the fashion industry as “the boobs from Brazil.” In 2000, she landed a record $25 million contract with Victoria’s Secret and began dating Leonardo DiCaprio, making her a tabloid fixture.
But Bündchen — who is now married to quarterback Tom Brady — says her life in the fast lane came with a crushing sense of anxiety.
After having her first panic attack during a bumpy flight on a small plane in 2003, she developed a fear of tunnels, elevators and other enclosed spaces. “I had a wonderful position in my career, I was very close to my family, and I always considered myself a positive person, so I was really beating myself up. Like, ‘Why should I be feeling this?’ I felt like I wasn’t allowed to feel bad,” she says. “But I felt powerless. Your world becomes smaller and smaller, and you can’t breathe, which is the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”
When the panic attacks started ambushing her even in her own home, Bündchen says she contemplated suicide.
“I actually had the feeling of, ‘If I just jump off my balcony, this is going to end, and I never have to worry about this feeling of my world closing in.’ ”
After seeing a specialist, who prescribed Xanax, she decided she didn’t want to rely on medication. “The thought of being dependent on something felt, in my mind, even worse, because I was like, ‘What if I lose that [pill]? Then what? Am I going to die?’ The only thing I knew was, I needed help.”
With the advice of doctors, Bündchen began a total lifestyle overhaul.
For more on Bündchen’s book, pick up the current issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.
“I had been smoking cigarettes, drinking a bottle of wine and three mocha Frappucinos every day, and I gave up everything in one day,” says Bündchen, who also cut out sugar and turned to yoga and meditation to combat her stress. “I thought, if this stuff is in any way the cause of this pain in my life, it’s gotta go.”
After that, she decided it was time to rethink her relationships as well. Realizing she was “alone” in her soul-searching, she split with DiCaprio in 2005. Looking back, she has no hard feelings.
“Everyone who crosses our path is a teacher, they come into our lives to show us something about ourselves,” she says. “And I think that’s what he was. What is good versus bad? I honor him for what he was.”