Gustavo Caballero—Tommy Hilfiger/Getty Images
September 27, 2016 9:46 AM EDT

Gigi Hadid went from supermodel to superhero on Thursday when she fought back against a male attacker who grabbed her and picked her up while she was exiting the Max Mara show at Milan Fashion Week.

Captured on video and in paparazzi shots, the moment quickly spread across the internet as a symbol of female empowerment — with Hadid elbowing the man in the face and breaking free of his grip.

But for the 21-year-old star, the self-defense move happened with very little thought.

“I played volleyball, and my coaches talked about muscle memory,” she told Lena Dunham in Tuesday’s Lenny newsletter. “I started boxing two years ago and I always remembered that. Since then, I hadn’t been in a situation that forced me to fight back, but it just came out when he grabbed me — it wasn’t a choice. I do have that fighter in me.”

For Hadid, the moment was no laughing matter.

“I remember taking the time, as it all felt slo-mo, to look at him, a stranger, and my first reaction was: ‘Get me out of this situation.’ ” she explained. “Honestly, I felt I was in danger, and I had every right to react the way I did.”

But that’s not how the Internet originally reported it. Early headlines painted Hadid as an angry model who lashed out at a fan.

It was a move that infuriated Hadid. “The first article that was posted about the incident was headlined: ‘Not model behavior. Gigi aggressively lashes out and elbows fan in the face after he tries to pick her up. The supermodel angrily hit an unknown man before running to her car.’ ” she confessed. “That’s when I really got pissed.”

“First of all, it was a woman who wrote the story with that headline,” she continued. “What would you tell your daughter to do? If my behavior isn’t model behavior, then what is? What would you have told your daughter to do in that situation?”

Hadid is hoping her battle back becomes something girls around the country are inspired by.

“If anything, I want girls to see the video and know that they have the right to fight back, too, if put in a similar situation,” she said. “Practicing self-defense is important so that when you’re in the moment, reacting from muscle memory comes more naturally to you than freezing up.”

“Confidence in your own ability to defend yourself comes with educating yourself about it, and is a massive advantage when in an unsafe situation,” Hadid added.

She also talked about the support she received from her mom, Yolanda Foster.

“When my mom first saw what had happened, she texted me the picture of me elbowing the guy and (among other messages of support) said, ‘Good girl,’ ” Hadid said. “My mom has taught me the power of my instincts since I was a kid. She’d always be like, ‘OK. Pay attention to the people who make you feel uncomfortable. I want you to tap into that and be aware of it.’ ”

“I continue to use that intuition with the fashion industry and the people who I have to be around,” Hadid continued. “It usually guides me pretty well. I think it guided me in this situation, too.”

As for those who have called Hadid a hero, she’s far more humble.

“It sounds cliché to say it, but in the moment, it wasn’t heroic to me,” she said. “It was just what I had to do. It’s very touching to me that people see it that way. I know people are put in much worse situations every day and don’t have the cameras around that provoke social-media support. I just want to use what happened to me to show that it’s everyone’s right, and it can be empowering, to be able to defend yourself.”

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