MAXIM DIVES IN WITH THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ON EARTH
SHE’S JUST YOUR TYPICAL REGGAE-LOVING SOUTH AFRICAN FARM GIRL TURNED VICTORIA’S SECRET SENSATION. HERE’S HOW CANDICE SWANEPOEL GOT HER WINGS.
“IT’S FUNNY TO BASE YOUR WORK ON YOUR APPEARANCE, AND SOMETIMES I FEEL GUILTY FOR THAT, YOU KNOW?”
I MEET CANDICE SWANEPOEL on a dreary almost-winter evening in Manhattan, at the downtown studio where she’s wrapping up a shoot for a spring issue of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. I watch the last “look,” for which she perches on a prop bed in the middle of a concrete studio filled with various fluffy-looking items (furry pillows, pastel ottomans, etc.) and models an electricyellow bra-and-panty set. She rolls into dozens of bed-appropriate poses, one after the next, camera flashing. In action, she’s extraordinary—professional and focused, all business, killing each shot. A dozen people right out of fashion-shoot central casting, all wearing shades of black or gray, stand by watching every move.
When the shoot ends, Swanepoel changes into civilian clothes (a loose, long-sleeve white-cotton T-shirt, tight blue jeans with gaping holes in the knees, black Nikes) and we chat for a while on a couch nearby. Later that night she is meeting up with other Angels to watch the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show prime-time broadcast on CBS: “We all watch it together and scream,” she says, conjuring an image out of a million male fantasies. “We eat popcorn and laugh at ourselves.”
I wouldn’t say she’s more beautiful in person than she is in her pictures, but it’s a different kind of beautiful—a more natural, warmer, less cartoonish beautiful. She has faint and lovely crinkles in the corners of her eyes when she smiles, which is often. When I told my mom that I’d be interviewing Candice, she e-mailed back: “That supermodel looks warmer than most—she has a great smile.” It’s true.
When you look at thousands of Candice photos, you see lots of different people in her. She has that chameleonlike quality common to great models. From some angles, she can look like a young Cameron Diaz, from others, Uma Thurman. But after a while, the things that consistently leap out are that friendly-but-dazzling smile and her near-supernatural hip-towaist ratio. She’s the kind of girl I’d probably fantasize about suffocating at a middle school slumber party (just kidding!), although she probably wouldn’t have ever been there to begin with—or at least not for long.
After growing up on a beef and dairy farm in the small South African village of Mooi River, she was scouted at age 15 at a flea market, plucked from her all-girls boarding school, and within two years was modeling throughout Europe and living in New York. Now even if you don’t know the name, you know the face and the body. She’s been on tons of magazine covers and starred in campaigns for Oscar de la Renta and Versace. But she’s best known as one of the most prolific Victoria’s Secret brand ambassadors. She also happens to be the reigning Number One on this magazine’s annual Hot 100. I ask her if she sometimes feels older than her age. (She’s 26.) “Yes!” she says. “I definitely do. In one way I feel much older, because I’ve had to deal with a lot more responsibility and a career and money at an early age. But at the same time, there’s still a 15-year-old girl in me, one who doesn’t even have a driver’s license.” She laughs.
She became an “Angel”—inducted into the elite secret society of VS models, entry requirements unknown, limited to just eight members at a time, thank you very much—in 2010. In 2012, Forbes listed her as one of the top-10 earning models on the planet, and last year she booked more than $3 million in modeling fees. Today only three models have more Instagram followers than Candice’s 4.7 million (Kendall Jenner, Miranda Kerr, and Cara Delevingne). Such numbers represent an evident shift in the way supermodels come to fame/power/glory. Sure, Kate Upton became an overnight sensation via that Youtube video of her dancing the Dougie at a Clippers game, but Candice is building her fan base methodically, one post at a time. Forbes called her “an expert at Instagram selfies.” And Upton, whose career trajectory seems to mirror Swanepoel’s at times (Candice’s fashion-cred breakthrough came with a Steven Meisel Italian Vogue cover in February 2011; Kate’s followed in November of the next year), has a relatively paltry 1.7 million followers. Swanepoel is winning online, hands down.
Sitting with Swanepoel while everyone else from the shoot files slowly out (she makes kissy sounds and says “Merci!” to the crew members as they leave), I ask what it’s like to be beautiful for a living.
“It is funny to base your work all on your appearance,” she says, “and sometimes I feel guilty for that, you know? But I don’t see myself the way other people see me. With the right hair and makeup and people, it all becomes an art project. I look at myself in the third person, because that girl in the pictures isn’t me: It’s a girl I created to cope with the spotlight. I had to get over a lot of shyness to do this job.”
And of course, there are always haters. “It hits so close to home when people reject you,” she admits. “When people comment, it’s not ‘Oh, that magazine was shitty’; it’s like ‘Oh, your face is shitty.’ It’s why a lot of girls grow a really thick skin, which I had to. So not much gets to me easily.”
On her birthday, Swanepoel Instagrammed a video of herself wearing a Jamaican-flag T-shirt adorned with a marijuana leaf and Bob Marley caption. She’s a reggae fan. She’s also a devotee of Burning Man, which she attends with pals, but doesn’t “really like to advertise it, because then it’s not sacred anymore.”
I ask her if anything strange has happened to her on the job recently, and she laughs. “Earlier today, when the makeup woman was rubbing cream on my bum, she was like, ‘What is this job!?’ I’m like…” Swanepoel trails off, implying agreement, amusement, an overall -ness at the absurdity of the business she’s in.
As we’re packing up to leave, she tells me she’s planning to market her own line of jeans. Proceeds are set to go to mothers2mothers, a charity aimed at eliminating childhood AIDS. “Hopefully, we make a shitload of money,” Candice says, flashing that dazzling smile one last time. ■