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Image: The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show - Runway
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Gisele Bündchen’s success in combining business with modeling is influencing ascendant models.
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updated 6/25/2012 8:34:54 AM ET 2012-06-25T12:34:54

Just how rare is a supermodel?

To hear Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of Limited Brands, describe it, discovering a true supermodel, with all of the requisite gifts, is a daunting task.

“In the entire history of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, 140 separate women have walked that runway,” Razek says. “There are 7 billion people on the planet. That makes each of them not one in a million, not one in five million, not one in 10 million. That literally makes them one in 50 million humans.”

Forbes.com slideshow: See the world's higest paid models

And that’s all the women who have participated in the show over the last 15 years. The elite list of models Forbes has compiled is even more rarefied company — and they’re paid handsomely for their talents. Over the last 12 months, the combined earnings of the top 10 highest-paid models, from Gisele Bündchen to Candice Swanepoel, totals just under $100 million.

Just like last year, the Brazilian bombshell Bündchen leads the pack with a stunning $45 million in earnings (all estimates from May 1, 2011, to May 1, 2012). Even in her early 30s, Bündchen remains an unparalleled force within the fashion world. As the world’s most powerful supermodel, she racks up modeling gigs, spokesperson deals and independent licensing ventures at every turn. The veritable endorsement queen shills for brands such as Pantene, Esprit and Versace, and makes a percentage of profits on Ipanema flip-flops and other products bearing her name. While in the United States many know her as the wife of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Bündchen’s effect as a spokeswoman, especially in her native Brazil, can make a huge difference.

Bündchen’s success combining business with modeling is influencing young, ascendant models. “The ones that are coming up, their model for excellence is Gisele. They’re looking at her and saying ‘that’s what I want to shoot for,’” Razek said.

Coming up a distant second in the rankings is British supermodel Kate Moss, with earnings of $9.2 million. Moss is known for her party-hard ways, but she remains one of fashion’s biggest icons, with big endorsement deals with Longchamp, Mango, Rimmel and Vogue Eyewear. She also has a lucrative design deal with TopShop going back to 2007.

Natalia Vodianova, a Russian model whose name may be less familiar, was third with $8.6 million. Fragrance campaigns with Guerlain and Calvin Klein Euphoria have boosted Vodianova’s earnings into the highest echelons of modeling. The 30-year-old, who now lives in the UK, also designs lingerie collections for Etam and shoes for Centro.

“There was a time where the odd beauty was in style, and that created a backlash for a time when advertisers couldn’t use those girls,” said David Bonnouvrier, chairman of DNA Models, which represents Vodianova, along with fellow top models Doutzen Kroes (No. 5) and Alessandra Ambrosio (#6). “The top girls now represent a return to a true representation of beauty, not the odd beauty or a fashion-diverted version of beauty.”

Adriana Lima, who’s primarily known as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, registered $7.3 million in an exciting year. In addition to announcing that she’s expecting her second child, Lima made a big splash in early 2012 when she appeared in two attention-grabbing Super Bowl commercials, one for Kia and another, more seductive spot for Teleflora. Crossing over from the fashion world to a more mainstream audience, she now has more Facebook followers than any other model, and grabbed the final spot on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list.

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“Adriana’s a very modern, diverse beauty,” said her agent, Chris Gay, president of Marilyn New York. “She’s an ethnic mix of a girl, where quite frankly because she has such a multi-racial, multi-cultural background, everybody is accepting of her. That has always been her huge benefit.”

If you’ve followed our annual ranking in past years, you might wonder what happened to German supermodel Heidi Klum. Last year she ranked number two overall, after Bündchen, and her $20 million in earnings this year would have placed her comfortably into the same spot this time. However, Forbes determined that, like Tyra Banks before her, Klum has graduated from model to mogul. Since ending her 13-year run as a Victoria’s Secret Angel in 2010, Klum has become more of a businesswoman and multi-media personality.

Klum still endorses products, like Coca-Cola in Germany, but a large portion of her earnings comes from hosting popular television shows like Project Runway and Germany’s Next Top Model. She’s also partnered with companies to start her own business ventures. Klum has worked with New Balance and Amazon to create her own clothing brand and launched a jewelry line on QVC in September 2011. She even has her own micro-site within AOL for advice on everything from fashion to parenting.

Looking ahead, it’s tough to see anyone who might be able to dethrone Bündchen in the near future, given her sizable earnings lead. But there are young models coming up who may eventually challenge for the top spots. Candice Swanepoel, while only ranked 10th, is the youngest supermodel on the list. The 23-year-old South African has become a staple in Victoria’s Secret advertising. Same with Erin Heatherton, another 23-year-old who just missed the list.

Or perhaps it will be someone like Kate Upton, the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover model. Until now, Upton has found more mainstream fame, especially online, than traditional modeling opportunities. But the 20-year-old has plenty of time to capitalize in that direction.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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