The Carlyle is the sort of New York hotel where society ladies in pearls contemplate a tea menu that’s as thick as a phone book. And yet there she is, fashionably late, chattering away in Portuguese on her cell phone, hair falling in her eyes just so.
Isabeli Fontana has arrived: a Brazilian bombshell in a shrunken Hendrix baseball shirt, impossibly tight black jeans, and biker boots.
The hotel’s tearoom is hushed and elegant, and even a sharp clink of spoon against saucer might raise eyebrows, but Fontana is not the sort to apologize for taking a phone call (turns out it was her grandmother on the line). “I’m Latin, and my family is originally from Italy, so we’re a loud group,” she explains. “There’s always a lot of food, a lot of talking, a lot of fighting. You can imagine.”
Discovered at age 13 in her hometown of Curitiba, Brazil, Fontana has bared nearly all for Victoria’s Secret, stalked the runway for just about every major designer, and fronted campaigns for Balenciaga, Balmain, Hermès, and this fall, Calvin Klein Underwear. She is used to startling people with her sex appeal. “Brazilians love to seduce, to have fun, to dance, to charm. We like a little bit of attention,” she explains.
Isabeli is not one to bullshit, either, which can make the fairy-tale fashion industry seem all the more off-putting. “It’s a tough world,” she says. “One moment you’re the hottest thing, there aren’t enough hours in the day, you can barely catch your breath. The next moment, it’s all about how many Instagram followers you have. It used to just be how you looked, how professional you were; now there’s this whole other dimension.” Though Fontana is embracing social media and happy to share her personal life, she sometimes finds the whole thing a little bizarre.
In her early days as a model, she remembers feeling “like a human doll. You stick your hands out and someone dresses you. There were times I hated it—it was work, but I felt like nothing.”
At 32, though, she has shed her reservations and tapped into a certain fearlessness, embracing her job as a professional exhibitionist with renewed gusto. “I’m good at this, you know?” she says. “I like a shoot when I feel strong and sexy, a little hard, with a darker edge. That’s what I do best. I like giving a photographer what they want, working with the art director. And modeling is all I’ve ever known.”
As a young girl, the daughter of a psychologist and a salesman, Isabeli often drew comments for her lanky figure and striking Mediterranean looks. “I had no idea what being a model was,” she recalls. “I was the girl skateboarding with the boys. I came from a fairly traditional family where fashion wasn’t something anyone considered, but my parents were open to it, if that was how I wanted to make a living.”
She hit it big in 1996, becoming a finalist in the Elite Model Look international competition. Life soon changed drastically. She bought a beach house in Brazil at 16, and became a fan of glitzy restaurants like Nobu and a regular at such star-studded affairs as the amfAR gala in Cannes. (If she’s skateboarding these days, it’s with her two sons, Zion, 12, and Lucas, 8.)
At the age of 19, she and childhood sweetheart Álvaro Jacomossi, a fellow model, found out she was pregnant with Zion. Lucas is her son with ex-husband Henri Castelli. A brief engagement to Bob Marley’s son Rohan followed. Even though she was a mother while still in her teens, her career never flagged and she had her share of fun. “I’ve had amazing times. Donatella Versace’s parties? We danced, we drank. I wasn’t the first one to go home, let’s put it that way.”
A little turbulence in her love life has taught her what she needs in a relationship. “Don’t sit there on your cell phone, distracted—I want to matter to a guy,” she says. “Walk into the room and notice me.” She concedes being a supermodel’s other half can be a challenge. “It’s not easy to be the boyfriend,” she says. “You have to be a strong guy.”
Getting attention from men was never particularly difficult. The question is what kind of attention. “Of course, you sense when men want you as a trophy,” she says. “I don’t need to be anyone’s trophy. A guy will say, ‘That ring? I can buy you a bigger ring.’ I can buy whatever I need; what I want is real love.” Fontana has found that with her fiancé, Brazilian rocker Diego Ferrero. On the inside of her ring finger, the phrase real love, in Ferrero’s handwriting, is tattooed in black ink. In Brazil, the two are a power couple. They recently posed together for Brazilian Glamour—and at the launch party for the issue earlier this year, Fontana surprised Ferrero with a vintage Motorino scooter in honor of his 30th birthday.
For now, Fontana lives in São Paulo, which she thought would be the best place to raise her children. “I wanted some kind of balance and quality of life for them,” she says. But the gypsy life of a model means she’s now thinking of a move to Miami, to be closer to the fashion hubs of New York and Paris.
Which can mean only one thing: We’re about to see even more of Isabeli.