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Isabeli Fontana knew she wanted to be a model when she was all of 12 years old and rummaging through her mother’s closet in Curitiba, Brazil, searching for slinky dresses, makeup and, most importantly, high heels.
“I was pretty much a tomboy,” the 35-year-old supermodel tells Alexa. “I was in the middle of two brothers, but I had these crazy, girly moments when I was just dying to wear heels.”
Still, her mother refused to buy her a pair of stilettos. “She thought I was too young to have them,” recalls Fontana. But Fontana refused to take “no” for an answer, quickly realizing that her father, a salesman for several different shoe brands, would quietly indulge her aspirations.
Trying on all manner of heels was good preparation for Fontana’s rapid rise to catwalk fame. At age 13, she made it to the finals of Elite Model Look, an international modeling contest, and a year later traveled to Paris and Milan (accompanied by her mother) to work as a model. By 16, she had become the youngest model ever to appear in a Victoria’s Secret catalog; she would go on to become the face of Valentino, Versace and Ralph Lauren and star in campaigns and catwalks for the likes of Chanel, Bulgari and Dolce & Gabbana.
“I worked every show, every brand and [my mother] was always with me while my brothers were back in Brazil,” says Fontana, who was then living in New York. “When I turned 18, I told my mother that she could go back home, because I was pretty independent and had a boyfriend.”
The blue-eyed, 5-foot-10-inch stunner was also very savvy, and from an early age invested in NYC real estate, famously buying an Upper West Side apartment from Donald Trump Jr. in 2010. (She has since flipped several other NYC trophy condos for impressive profits.)
“I love buying and selling real estate,” she says with a sparkle. “At times I made more on real estate than I did in modeling.”
While her mother eventually returned to Brazil, she sent Fontana’s grandmother to New York in her place. “To make sure that I ate properly and took care of myself,” the strutter recalls. “It’s a very Brazilian thing, to always be surrounded by family.”
Years later, Fontana finds herself in a similar position, living part-time in a beachfront Miami home with her 16-year-old son (with model Alvaro Jacomossi), Zion, who is attending an elite school in the city.
“I spend most of my time at mid Miami Beach,” she says. “I love just hanging by the ocean or roller-skating and riding bicycles with my son along the beach.”
She’s also a fan of the city’s many vegan and raw restaurants. “And being from Brazil, I love getting an açai from Juice & Java.” The devoted yogi (who also recently earned her teaching certificate in t’ai-chi) practices daily at home or at Tropical Vinyasa on Miami Beach. But her main priority remains Zion.
“I’m teaching my son how to be independent,” explains Fontana, who now divides her time between homes in São Paulo and the Magic City. “He is learning how to make his own food, to take care of himself.” Her other son, Lucas (with actor Henri Castelli), is 12 and lives in São Paulo, where he is also surrounded by family.
“I learned very early on how to manage my life, but it was a totally different experience when I had my children. At that point in my life, I was not only responsible for myself, but for my two angels,” she says. “I am trying to teach them how to balance school and life and be the best version of themselves they can be.”
Fontana is also helping strangers become the best version of themselves, via “Face to Face with Isabeli Fontana” — a series of cooking, beauty and soon-to-come travel videos on her YouTube channel. The budding influencer gives laid-back lessons on making gluten-free Brazilian pao de queijo (cheese bread) and almond milk, or jet-setting with ease. (Fontana recommends always traveling with incense.)
The bilingual English and Portuguese-language videos, which average over 150,000 viewers each, radiate a sort of Goop-down-to-earth vibe, complete with hair and beauty techniques and glimpses from Fontana’s own keep-it-real life — she often does her own makeup in the backseat of a car on her way to gala events.
In a video posted last spring, she appeared with her husband, Diego “Di” Ferrero, a Brazilian rock ’n’ roll star who gained fame for his duet with Nelly Furtado (“All Good Things”). Lounging on their bed, the couple happily answered personal questions about their relationship from some of Fontana’s 1.2 million Instagram followers.
“I suffered bullying, because your fans hated me,” she joked with Ferrero. “We have such a beautiful relationship. I was always a very insecure person. I always thought I was too thin, not well proportioned. And Di has really helped me overcome my shyness and to be more confident in myself.”
Fontana (who was also briefly engaged to Bob Marley’s son Rohan Marley) met Ferrero (her third husband) at a Brazilian TV studio in 2013, where they were both waiting to appear on a children’s program.
“I hit on him first,” she told a Brazilian reporter at the time. “I thought it was beautiful how he treated a child on the set. He looked half sad, half lost. We are together, because he is the more rational side of the relationship, and I am the more sentimental.”
Fontana and Ferrero married in an intimate ceremony on a Maldives sandbar in 2016. The barefoot couple was surrounded by a Maldivian band, a local preacher and a handful of their friends, all dressed in casual white.
The bride arrived on a boat for the ceremony, wearing a white bikini under a sheer wedding dress that featured hand-embroidered and intricately beaded white palm fronds. It was designed by Renato Thomaz, from the Brazilian bathing-suit brand Agua de Coco.
“I was doing their campaign, and asked them to make my wedding dress,” Fontana explains. “They had never done a wedding dress before but were really excited about it. And the dress was so incredibly beautiful.”
Fontana has cameoed in two of Ferrero’s music videos, including one for “Meu Bem,” in which she appears in shadow, dancing in a bikini. But rock ’n’ roll and modeling gigs aside, she’s most comfortable spending time with her family.
On their live YouTube chat, when Ferrero read a question from a fan asking him what it was like to live with such a beautiful goddess, Fontana cut him off, and told her audience in Brazilian slang: “I’m just a normal person, people!
On Location: It’s all about Brazil — on Miami Beach. Our Brazilian cover star was photographed in a model apartment for 57 Ocean, a new 18-story luxury condo from Brazilian developer José Isaac Peres, architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Arquitectonica and Brazilian interior designer Patricia Anastassiadis. Perched beachside on Collins Avenue, the health-focused boutique building (set to open in 2021) will offer a wealth of green spaces, including a seaside wellness garden, vertical gardens, outdoor massage and meditation rooms, a yoga deck and a spa. “Every aspect of the design blends the indoors and outdoors,” says Marcelo Kingston, one of the project’s developers. “The building creates a seamless connection to nature.” Olá! More information at 57 Ocean
Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Hair: Gianluca Mandelli for Art Department using Kérastase; Makeup: Daniela Gozlan for Dior Beauty