Twenty-four hours after boarding a flight back home to New York from Cannes, and two weeks before walking the runway at the taping of the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (airing on CBS December 4), model Lindsay Ellingson was relishing a rare day off. Demand for the 28-year-old bombshell—one of VS’s official “Angels” since 2011—has only intensified since she was plucked from hundreds of attendees at a talent scouting event she heard about on the radio when she was a 19-year-old living in Moreno Valley, California. Although Ellingson at the time was packing her bags for sophomore year of biology studies at the University of San Diego, she felt an inexplicable desire to attend the open casting—an urge that was validated when she received more callbacks than any of the other attendees.

Her surfer girl-meets-Palm Beach princess mane, saucer-size crystal-blue eyes, and long legs that go on for miles (“I’m blessed and thank my mom every day for them!”) turned her into an instant sensation, with a career that unfolded like the quintessential supermodel fairy tale: Within two months, an agency signed her and sent her to Paris fashion week, where she was introduced to John Galliano the very afternoon she got off the plane. “I was really nervous,” Ellingson recalls. “It was summer, so I walked in [to the casting] wearing jean shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt. I had no idea what I was doing, didn’t even have a book with me, and didn’t think about how I was dressed. I was just being myself…. But now I know you really should wear heels to a casting!”

As luck would have it, Galliano found all this refreshing, and booked her to open Christian Dior’s Spring/Summer 2005 show. “He knew I was from California, and—after meeting me—I think he was inspired by the whole natural, not-trying-so-hard thing. His theme for the coming season was very minimal, young, and no-makeup.” After more than a decade of domination, it seemed the high-cheekboned Czechs and bronzed Brazilians had begun to lose a bit of catwalk ground to a new crop of all-American faces, of which Ellingson is perhaps the supreme archetype. And her looks don’t belie her sunny, made-in-the-USA disposition: She grew up competing on dance teams, graduated fourth in her high school class, and—while living in Paris—was so homesick for her parents, two sisters, and two West Highland terriers that she flew home to California every month. The self-professed “very girly girl” also gushes about Justin Bieber’s upcoming performance at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and is currently in a relationship with a former football player from Ohio (“a little bit of a nerd, and a little bit cool—but definitely the kind of guy in high school that was so unattainable to me”). In true American fashion, she’s even managed to couple her entrepreneurial spirit with a level of social consciousness: Two years ago, she created Goldie Knots, a handmade line of silk and 14k gold bracelets; a portion of the proceeds is donated to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “Dogs are like family members. I’ve always been close to mine,” says Ellingson, who found a responsible breeder when she bought a cockapoo named Carly.

This isn’t to say she eschews the glamorous life—just that she keeps things in perspective, and is quick to cite both the perks of the business and the absurdities of the more than 200 high-fashion shows she’s walked. The traveling is good: She loved coming to Miami to walk the 2008 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, partying at LIV, shopping at The Webster, and eating at her favorite restaurant, Prime Italian. And she recently left the Victoria’s Secret pop-up shop in Cannes with boxes and boxes of makeup and perfume: “I absolutely love everything they make, and they said I could take home whatever I wanted!”

But then there was the time a designer strapped her with a back brace connected to scaffolding, lights, music, and speakers, and sent her down the runway in high wooden clogs. (“It was literally the craziest show I’ve ever done, just really dangerous! I almost fell and was worried the lights would catch on fire and hurt someone,” she recalls.) Or how about the occasion on which she stood in one place from 3 to 6 in the morning while a team of seamstresses sewed pants to her calves so they would fit properly for a show? “It’s important to not get too taken away with the excitement and the materialism of the industry. You need to stay grounded,” says Ellingson, who sees “a more relaxed, low-key life” involving a big house in the country and 10 rescue dogs in her future. “From day one, I’ve said one of my goals was never to change. I’ve always wanted to go home, and for my parents and sisters to know who I am. I’m still Lindsay! I’m changing very much in positive ways: Victoria’s Secret has challenged me to come out of my shell and my comfort zone. Knowing that I’m becoming a better person and accomplishing something, really, that’s ultimately the goal in life.”

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