Gisele Bündchen Was Told She'd Never Be on a Magazine Cover as a Young Model: 'They Said My Nose Was Too Big and My Eyes Were Too Small'

"I remember some people telling me my nose was too big or my eyes were too small, that I could never be on a magazine cover," she tells PEOPLE in a new interview

Photo: Luiz Rampelotto/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

She’s the highest-paid model in the world, but when Gisele Bündchen first began modeling in Brazil in 1995, success didn’t come easy.

“I remember some people telling me my nose was too big or my eyes were too small, that I could never be on a magazine cover,” she tells PEOPLE in a new interview, on stands Friday.

“It wasn’t easy to be 14 and hear that kind of criticism. It made me feel insecure.”

So Bündchen, now 35, turned to her family for advice. “I told my dad, and he said, ‘Next time, tell them, I have a big nose and that comes with a big personality,'” she recalls. “At that point I felt, if I kept working hard and giving my best, it would all work out.”

Those instincts proved to be correct, and 21 years later, Bündchen is celebrating her career highs in a new photo book, Gisele, being published by Taschen in May. (The company’s shockingly expensive $700 version nevertheless sold out last fall; the mass-market edition is $69.99.)

“It’s still hard to believe that it’s been that long. Time does fly,” she jokes of surviving two decades in the fashion industry.

For more from Bündchen, including how she juggles modeling, motherhood and her marriage to Tom Brady, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newstands Friday

Bündchen’s road to mega-stardom wasn’t always obvious.

One of six girls raised by father Valdir, a construction manager, and mother V nia, a bank clerk, in rural Horizontina, Brazil, Bündchen ventured out on her own as a teen, after she was discovered at a mall, taking a 26-hour bus ride to São Paulo, where she bunked with eight other girls while trying to get work as a model.

“I already felt weird because I was taller and looked more mature then most girls my age,” says Bündchen. “I just knew that I wanted to do my best and see if I could make it.”

When she moved to New York at 16, “I was going to castings daily, but work was still very slow,” she says. But after 42 rejections, Bündchen booked a major runway show for Alexander McQueen in 1998, which led to a 1999 Vogue cover and an iconic Irving Penn shoot celebrating her as the “return of the curve.”

“I felt like I was in the right place at the right time,” she says of her sudden success. “I didn’t really know anything about fashion. I saw jobs as opportunities to travel the world and make some money so I could also help my family back home.”

But after landing a highly publicized $25 million contract with Victoria’s Secret in 2000 and entering a high-profile romance with Leonardo DiCaprio that same year, Bündchen struggled with life in the public eye.

“It brought a lot more attention to me, which is something I didn’t feel very comfortable with,” says Bündchen, who is now married to Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady and is the mother of Benjamin, 6, and Vivian, 3, and stepmother to Brady’s older son Jack, 8, with ex Bridget Moynahan. “To this day I still haven’t gotten very used to it.”

Though Bündchen walked her final runway show last year, and has taken a deliberate step back from the modeling industry to she can find balance as a wife and mother, she insists she is not going anywhere.

“I am not retiring, I love learning and I love creating and I feel that will always be a part of my life,” she says. “I am just emptying my glass, so I can fill it with things that are more aligned with who I am today.”

As for the biggest lessons she learned about taking a good photo?

“I have learned that when you are feeling good in that moment it’s the most important thing. The lenses don’t lie and usually if you feel good, you will look good,” she says. “Also, good lighting always helps.”

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