Banks, Klum and Lakshmi take beauty and brains to the bank

Don’t hate them because they’re beautiful — there are far more compelling reasons to envy supermodels Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks and Padma Lakshmi. Sure, they hit the genetic jackpot with camera-ready looks that mere mortals would kill for and have dauntingly full lives straight out of a Danielle Steel novel. But their most enterprising endeavors have developed off the catwalk.

“Modeling is no accomplishment of my own,” says Lakshmi, the host of Bravo’s recently launched “Top Chef.” “Pretty girls are a dime a dozen. I just happen to be lucky to be born with the genes I was given. What I do with what those opportunities afforded me is the real accomplishment.”

Klum and Banks, who found breakthrough success strutting their stuff for Victoria’s Secret, have managed to turn the cliched image of the elitist — and one dimensional — fashionista on its well-coiffed head and have built burgeoning one-woman brands by convincing their growing fan base they’re the unlikely “everywomen” of the reality television era.

By leveraging their fashion cred as hosts of reality TV’s most-talked about shows, which appeal to the style-obsessed masses, they have become two of pop culture’s most accessible icons. Series creator Banks has presided over “America’s Next Top Model” for seven cycles as den mother to wannabe It girls (she also launched her daily syndicated talkshow last year). Klum, who also hosts the German edition of “Model,” has refereed the catfights between designing divas for three seasons on Bravo’s “Project Runway.” Both women are their shows’ executive producers.

“(“Runway”) has really caught on with people,” says Klum. “That’s helped me as a personality, so I’m very happy about that.”

The series have generated attractive numbers. Last season’s Bravo “Runway” finale averaged a 4.6 rating with 5.4 million viewers tuning in — the net’s highest rated telecast ever. Although Klum says she would “of course” return for a fourth season, plans are, at present, “unannounced,” according to Bravo prexy Lauren Zalaznick. “Model” is currently the CW’s No. 1 show with 5.3 million viewers, up 6% from last season.

Banks also has managed to navigate daytime’s tricky terrain fairly well. In its freshman year, “The Tyra Banks Show” scored the highest ratings (1.5) in firstrun syndication in the all-important 18-34 female demo, which translates into nearly 500,000 viewers in that group. This season, while the show ranks ninth among syndicated talkshows, it is the youngest-skewing chatfest since 1993 (when Ricki Lake ruled), with females 18-34 comprising 36% of the audience.

“Both Tyra and Heidi have a lot of charisma and that counts for a lot,” says Ken Mok, “Model’s” executive producer. “Their shows also give people access into a special club through the eyes of very glamorous — and hard-working — women.”

Klum’s ever-expanding empire includes lines of footwear, perfume and fine jewelry. She recently launched a line of moderately priced sterling silver bling on QVC. The tireless pitchwoman was booked for an hour — the line sold out in 29 minutes. “I was having so much fun I didn’t want to leave!” enthuses Klum. Next up: a new mass market line to be announced next year. The one thing Klum won’t be doing is retire from modeling. “I think I would miss it,” she says. “I don’t think I could (say to myself), ‘I’ve done it. Move on.’ It’s a big part of my life.”

Says longtime pal and fellow castmate Michael Kors of Klum’s mass with class appeal: “Nothing about Heidi is ‘too cool for school.’ Her reach is phenomenal — women love her, straight men think of her as a pin-up and gay men appreciate her style and sense of humor.”

While Klum’s persona can border on icy camp, Banks has carved out a niche for herself as the go-to girlfriend on both her shows by frequently championing the underdog (she’s donned a fat suit to see how the other half lives) and giving young women doses of well-meaning tough love. Like Klum, she is also hard at work on expanding her brand. Having retired from modeling last year, she’s now developing television and film projects for her company, Bankable Prods., and has talked about launching a lingerie line.

“Tyra has exploded the myth of the model as an empty vessel,” says Mok. “She has a big business sense of the world.”

Klum says she’s “always looked up to” Banks. “She was already huge when I started modeling,” adds Klum. “She’d be on the phone with her lawyers and her people and telling me you need a good accountant and publicist. She has a lot of people around her, but she calls the shots. She’s driven. You have to be.”

The Indian-born Lakshmi, perhaps best known in New York high society circles as Mrs. Salman Rushdie, replaced Katie Lee Joel as host of Bravo’s “Top Chef” for its second season (the show’s premiere scored a 1.7 rating, up 46% from its freshman outing). She says she also picked up pointers from Banks when they worked together in Europe (“She taught me how to shade in my nose”) but says modeling has no role in her current career — by design. “My 10¢ analysis of the model entrepreneur is that as a model you have so little control of your life,” opines Lakshmi. “So (models) seek control when they get out of modeling. Martha Stewart started out as a model.”

The self-described “egghead” (she’s noted for being fluent in five languages) has two production companies, Delicious Entertainment and Lakshmi Films, writes a syndicated New York Times column on food and has penned one cookbook, “Easy Exotic” (Miramax Books), which was named best first book at the 1999 World Cookbook Awards at Versailles. She will publish a second one next year.

If she’s not quite as ingratiating on camera as Klum and Banks, it might have to do with relative inexperience as a TV personality. But there’s also a lack of frivolity about Lakshmi that is less populist and more serious-minded. When asked why she doesn’t write about fashion or develop her own line, she cites an “an academic interest in the subject but there’s only so long you can go on about ‘buy this shoe or that purse,’ ” says Lakshmi. “I’d like my contribution to the world to be more profound.”

Says Zalaznick of Bravo’s newly minted star: “Padma is a deep thinker. She brings a more opinioned world view to ‘Top Chef’ and to everything she does. People are drawn to her. The fact that she’s incredibly striking looking doesn’t hurt either.”

So how is it these three world-class beauties, who seem to have it all, have emerged as some of television’s most relatable stars?

“Perception is reality,” says Bill Carroll, programming consultant to Katz Television Group. “If audiences feel that sharing experiences with these women on these reality shows makes them accessible, they are. The model as celebrity is having a moment, and these women are smart enough to make the best of it.”

SNAPSHOTS

TYRA BANKS
Model moment: First African-American model to make the covers of GQ, Sports Illustrated and the Victoria’s Secret catalog
Single file: “I don’t get asked out much.”
Role model: Martha Stewart (without the felony conviction)
Motto: “We women need to stick together.”
Ultimate goal: Oprah who?

HEIDI KLUM
Model moment: Landing the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1998. “Before that, no one connected my name with my face. From that day on, people could.”
Families ties: Married to Seal, third child due “very soon.”
Motto: “I have to have fun. You only live once, so it’s not just about money. You have to do what makes you happy.”
Ultimate goal: World domination (of fashion, at least)

PADMA LAKSHMI
Model moment: Discovered by an agent sitting in a cafe in Spain; became the first Indian supermodel
Significant other: Married to novelist Salman Rushdie
Role models: Iman, Warren Buffet, Paul Newman (“A big hero of mine”) and Robert Redford (“Because of what he’s done with Sundance”)
Motto: “It isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it.” r>Next big thing: “In talks” to start own food company. Optioned Norma Klein’s “Domestic Arrangements,” and developing film projects in U.S. and India. “I’m interested in bringing products to the marketplace primarily to help greenlight projects I want to do for myself.”

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