via MG Designs' Flickr
Agency at the time: Elite
Magazine Cover: Vogue Australia/Singapore, October 1994
KEYWORD HIT SHE WAS DISCOVERED getting off her 1971 Triumph motorcycle, helmet in hand, outside a trendy Los Angeles nightclub whose unprintable name is what Mother used to call "the F-word." And, in 18 months, she has become, if not the hottest face in fashion, then the most talked about.
But it's no wonder Jenny Shimizu has riveted the style world - I mean, how many fashion models do you know who are better at shop class than at shopping? At 22, this former garage mechanic - that's right, garage mechanic - with an angelic face and multi-tattooed and pierced body has graced the pages of Allure, Elle, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle and both the French and Italian editions of Glamour. She has walked international catwalks - actually, stomped is more like it - for such designers as Gianni Versace, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Anna Sui and Calvin Klein; been photographed by Steven Meisel, Michel Comte, Wayne Maser and, for a Banana Republic ad, Bruce Weber; done music videos for Neneh Cherry and Terrence Trent D'Arby. They say she's hanging with Madonna now, too. "It's like eating at McDonald's one day and then eating at some incredible restaurant the next day, for no reason at all," Shimizu says of her rise from grease-monkey obscurity to sought-after fashion model.
But there are plenty of reasons for her success, observers say. She's androgynous at a time when the tough-tender thing is all the rage. She's a Japanese-American in a fashion age when ethnicity is a big asset way beyond the United Colors of Benetton. In fact, Shimizu is one of the first Asian models to transcend pretty-face status and become a name-to-know. Most of all, she's everything other models aren't. An "anti-model," some have called her. That is, she's a fashion model who isn't too, well, model-y. How '90s! What this means is that photographs of Shimizu convey a certain honesty, and her down-to-earth quality complements the fashions of the day. "My attitude is here I am, this is what you get, take it or leave it," Shimizu says. Many are taking it. In the December issue of Allure, the 5-foot-7 model is featured in a long black wig in a layout on rugged beauty and Western clothes.
Elle magazine, which featured six pages of Shimizu last November, has photographed her in clothes from the Paris spring collections for next February's edition. They shot her this past weekend for a possible spread in the March issue, too. Shimizu's agents would like to believe that their client's real-life, rough-and-tumble exterior has inspired these flights of photographic fancy. Maybe it has.
"She's Asian, which is different than this whole English craze," says her agent Paul Rowland of Women Model Management, the Soho-based agency that also handles models Kate Moss and Carla Bruni. "She's a strong personality and comfortable with who she is. She's kind of the antithesis of what we think a model should be." Shimizu's posture is terribly round-shouldered, her hair is boyishly short and her tattoos are mighty big - all four of them. (She has a woman straddling a wrench from her right shoulder to her elbow, a spark plug on her left forearm, a cross on the back of her neck, and Japanese characters reading "and she goes... " on her left shoulder.)
Certainly, Shimizu looks like she could take out a fleet of Moss-like waifs with one tattooed arm tied behind her tattooed back. But that' s her look, not her style. "She's almost timid, really," says Stuart Cameron of Women Model Management. Calling herself a "free-spirit," the Los Angeles-bred Shimizu says she was "always a tomboy" and "always felt the freedom that boys have." Her "guardian angel" Rosanna (no last name), the L.A. casting agent who discovered her, describes Shimizu as having "no fear of doing anything at all. She just does whatever she wants to." She has always been forthright. In a March 15, 1992, L.A. Times story entitled "Lipstick Liberation" - one that her New York handlers would no doubt like to keep buried - Shimizu was dubbed a "lezbopunk bike-dyke," and told the interviewer "I'm all for sexual freedom: S&M, bondage, dancing half-naked. I just think it's great."
Asked if she was picked on as a kid for being different, Shimizu remembers only one instance and it had to do with her not being herself: When she was 10, her mother made her perm her hair, which then was long. Growing up, she says the neighborhood kids "always thought I was this little crazy girl who'd do anything. My exterior is tough. But I'm really a nice person." That tough-but-tender makeup comes from Shimizu's regular-girl California upbringing.
The daughter of a retired pharmacist father - her mother worked with her father at the store - Shimizu went to trade school rather than college, and moved into her own place in East Hollywood as soon as she was old enough. "I've always been able to work with my hands and with machines. I'm very much a blue-collar thinker. I always felt the harder you worked physically, the more stimulated you were mentally." Shimizu never realised modeling would be hard work, though. But now, she says, "mentally and physically you're going 24 hours a day. It's a job." "When she walks down the runway, she's different from the other girls," says Jennifer Berry, senior bookings editor for the American edition of Elle magazine. "She has a sense of humour about the whole thing. She's excited about being in the business, but she doesn't seem to take the whole thing too seriously. That's where her appeal is."
Not everyone understands that special quality, though. "Some women are threatened by her," Rosanna says. "I've spoken to some girls who are models and they say 'I don't get it.' " Polly Mellen, Allure magazine's creative director, calls Shimizu "the total crossover of boy-girl with more boy than girl," which makes her a model who challenges not only convention, but traditional images of women. When one New York designer sent Shimizu down the runway in a baby-doll dress, for instance, Shimizu broke into a slightly embarrassed smile before the photographers assembled at the end of the runway.
"Jenny knows there's something ludicrous about it because it's so away from her image," Mellen says. When she was in Europe for the ready-to-wear shows last October, Shimizu says she missed New York hot dogs most. In her six months here, she says she has only just begun to take in the city. "I've been to Coney Island, the aquarium. I haven't been to Central Park yet." Last summer, she did manage to fit in a visit to Wigstock, the outdoor dragfest in the East Village neighbourhood that has become her home, "but only for about an hour."
In her spare time, she continues to skateboard and motorcycle, watches "Beavis and Butt-head" ("It rules," she says), wears Red Wing biker boots, and listens to that former Sugarcubes singer called Bjork a lot. She was reading "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" the day we met. The biggest change in her life since she began modeling, she says, is that she opened a savings account. She is not a shopper.
Asked which one of "Charlie's Angels" she'd be, Shimizu says " Oh, Sabrina, naturally." It's no surprise she'd pick the tough, smart brunette that Kate Jackson played. As for her goals in the fashion business, like which shows she hopes to do next season, Shimizu doesn' t know. She envisions herself racing bikes and owning a garage five years from now, not making exercise videos.
"My life has been a series of black and white, complete jumps into space. It has no set path," she says. "I don't know that much about fashion, so I can't really pick out one show. But Chanel would have been good, just for my mother." Thinking about runways and her future on them, Shimizu says "I'd like to see runways get more creative. I had dreams of this roller derby type thing, but on skateboards, and ... "
"That's Mei Melancon, aka Psylocke from X-Men and model Jenny Shimizu comparing Blackberry notes in my kitchen. Jenny Shimizu is on the cover of GR10 and she's on Make Me a Supermodel on Bravo. A superhero and a supermodel in my house at the same time. A strange day."
Who would you trade places with for one day?
Valentino Rossi. He's the #1 Moto GP racer in the world. It would be a dream to ride his bike around the track in Italy for a day...
What is the most important thing a woman has taught YOU? Who was that?
"To get modern." Advice given by Susi Kenna, my girlfriend.
Name one thing you'll do in the next six months that you've never done before.
Be a judge on Bravo's Make Me a Supermodel.
read the rest of the interview on RoxyLee.com
On the streets of New York, supermodel sightings are a common occurrence. But seeing the paper goddesses in the flesh -- hair dishevelled, duffel bag in tow, hailing a cab to the next booking -- is almost always an anticlimactic experience.
Jenny Shimizu, on the other hand, does not disappoint. The buzz cut, the tattoos, and the killer cheekbones are all accounted for. She looks a little smaller than her pictures, perhaps, but that's a common symptom of ubiquity.
Nevertheless, something is different. Her voice is surprisingly light in pitch, soft, and -- dare I say it? -- feminine. And then, watching her work for the camera, there's another surprise, not that you'd know it from the pictures that are published: Jenny smiles. A lot.
Shimizu's parents, second-generation Japanese Americans, were a little hesitant about her embarking on a modelling career. "My parents were very worried about me going to New York and getting messed up in the drug scene," she recalls, "because they read all these horrible things about models. But it's not like that." Shimizu says they're still a little baffled by her success. "My mother always called me `Funny Face' since I was a little kid," she says. "I think she's still amazed when she sees pictures of me. To her, it's like a freak accident."
By now, Shimizu's "freak accident" is legend. Born in San Jose and raised in the small, central California town of Santa Maria, Shimizu really was a car mechanic. After attending trade school in Los Angeles, she worked as an apprentice at a Harley-Davidson customising shop. One night a stylist spotted her at a club, and she wound up sitting for a picture in Italian Vogue. Soon after that she got a phone call: Calvin Klein was at the Hollywood Bowl, and he wanted to see her. "I ended up riding my Triumph down there," Shimizu recalls, "and Kelly Klein just went crazy over me." The following week, Shimizu was in New York, and the rest is fashion history.
For single-handedly revolutionising the look of Asian womanhood, Shimizu has become a role model for a whole generation of young Asian women. But she never set out, and certainly never engineered her look, to do so. When the fashion world stumbled upon her, the crew cut, the tattoos, and the tool kit were already part of the package. "My walking down the street shatters all types of stereotypes," Shimizu says. "I never thought of submissive Asian women. I never let that stand in my way, because it wasn't a reality. It was a cartoon."
If there were a better way to describe how Shimizu has shattered stereotypes, it would be a line from Hamlet: To thine own self, be true. She has applied the same principle to her sexuality -- Shimizu was out as a lesbian before it became a cool thing for models to do. "I've always been very open about it," she says. "Just by being open about it, people accepted it." (Without naming names, she does have this to say to jackie-come-latelies in the modelling world: "I don't think that going with one girl in your lifetime really means that you're a lesbian.")
Although Shimizu admits that playing the exotic, aloof androgyne has gotten her far as a fashion icon, she's eager to show other facets of her personality. "I don't want to always be cast as the rebel or the bad guy," she says, "I'm trying to make sure people know that there's another side." Shimizu believes she's found a vehicle for that in acting. This year she landed her first film role, as Goldie in the screen adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates's Foxfire, which is slated for 1996 release.
Shimizu says she had little trouble identifying with Goldie, a troubled young Amerasian woman who lives with her abusive father, a Vietnam veteran, and whose unhappiness eventually drives her to drugs. "She feels very alienated," Shimizu says of her character. "She tries to find herself with the help of a few of her friends, and tries to come to terms with the reasons why she has this death wish." After a month of daily coaching, Shimizu felt confident enough to create Goldie' s character on her own. "Because the part was similar to when I was a teenager," she says. "Similar to the developing side of me, the crazy side." So far she's pleased with how the film depicts Goldie' s situation. "They didn't candy-coat anything," Shimizu says. "A lot of teenagers are going to relate to the movie. Not everybody picks the right choice and becomes the homecoming queen."
Shimizu has already lined up her next acting gig, a role in Gregg Araki's next movie, "Nowhere". But for now, she has no intention of leaving the modelling life. "Acting to me is more fulfilling, but modelling is a fun job," she says. "Why stop? I'm having a good time and making money."
Does she have any last words for the interview? "Yeah," she says, her brow suddenly furling. "Will my nipples show on the cover?"
Joining the cast of this mainstream show will bring Jenny into everyone's homes, not just those of her gay lady fans, which is great for the suburban housewives who crush out on Jackie Warner. Shimizu's always been out and proud as a model and has been active in the fight for gay marriage, as she once faux-tied the knot with Rebecca Loos on Power Lesbian UK.
Will Shimizu's judging expertise make you tune into the show when it airs again?
" Ironically, Jenny Shimizu is one of the most natural beauties I've ever met in-person and supercool to boot! It was such a pleasure getting to know her throughout the day of shooting. We laughed, we cried... Jenny, you're the shit! "
AT DESIGNER ANNA SUI'S SHOW IN NEW YORK CITY last November, former garage mechanic Jenny Shimizu held the audience rapt: With enough tattoos for a sailor or two, the androgynous newcomer stomped down the catwalk, smirking like a spoiled schoolgirl in the frilliest of Sui's baby-doll smocks. "She was the perfect little girl from hell," remembers Sui admiringly. "She's beautiful, with a bad-girl attitude."
Currently the only Asian-American in supermodel contention, the 5 ft. 7 in. beauty was discovered by a television casting agent only 10 months ago as she roared up to L.A.'s hip Club Fuck astride her 1971 Triumph motorcycle. That chance meeting led to a quick gig in an En Vogue video, followed by fashion spreads in Vogue, Glamour and Elle, among others, and ads for Banana Republic and Anne Klein. "I was really into being a mechanic, being happy just collecting bikes," says Shimizu, 26, who remains refreshingly unimpressed by all the fuss. "And now I'm traveling places I've never been and drinking Evian."
She's also meeting new people. Take Madonna (Shimizu denies rumours the two are romantically involved), whom Shimizu met while filming a small part in her 'Rain' video. "We go to movies or dinner or to clubs," says Jenny. "She's a superstar, with lots of money, but she doesn't flaunt it. When we're hanging out somewhere, you know, she doesn't pick up the bill all the time." As for Calvin Klein, who tapped Shimizu for his Hollywood Bowl fashion spectacular last June: "I was so nervous, when he came over I couldn't speak. I'm like kind of a hick. So, when he said, 'Oh, Jenny, nice to meet you,' all I could do is repeat what he said, 'Oh, Calvin, nice to meet you.' "
Though she may be the haute hick of the moment, Shimizu, in fact, spurns the couture lifestyle. Her diet consists of Big Macs and TV dinners, and her duds are strictly Army-Navy surplus. Her favourite prank is to leave "You suck" messages on friends' answering machines courtesy of her talking Beavis & Butt-head toy. As for those tattoos, she is thinking about adding to her family of four, which includes a blue flaming spark plug on her left forearm (done by a tattoo artist in exchange for car repairs) and a curvy blonde straddling an eight-inch wrench on her right triceps. "I live my life the way I want to," says Shimizu. "My tattoos aren't for anyone but me. People don't have to look at them, right?"
Shimizu's bad-girl bravado came naturally from growing up as a tomboy in Santa Maria, Calif. The youngest of two daughters born to Keido Shimizu, a pharmacist, and his wife, June, Shimizu raced motocross with the local boys while her sister Connie, now 28 and a secretary, played house. "My sister had this baking set and stuffed animals, and all the neighbourhood girls would come over and play Barbie, and I would just be like, 'Uhhhh, get me out of here,' " Shimizu remembers.
Dropping out of Cal State Northridge in her sophomore year, Shimizu moved to L.A. before deciding to enroll in auto-mechanic trade school in 1992. "I always loved bikes, loved motorcycles and loved getting dirty," says Shimizu, who repaired cars in an L.A. garage for 2 1/2 months before being discovered. "I was, for a Japanese-American girl, very much a troublemaker in my family's eyes. My mom wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer."
These days the elder Shimizus are nothing but proud of their offbeat offspring, whose new home is a spacious loft in New York City's East Village and furnished with not much more than a good stereo and a bed. "It's the nicest place I've ever lived in," says Shimizu. "My friends come over, and we sit around and draw huge pictures and tack them on the wall."
In L.A., Shimizu and her old pals prefer to cruise for used-car parts in her '54 Ford pickup. Though she is currently hot as a piston, Shimizu is savvy enough to know that the beauty business regularly trades in its own used models. For the future, she is socking away the bulk of her pay (recent take for a one-day Versace shoot: $5,000) to open her own auto-body shop. "Someplace where me and my friends could work on our bikes and hang out," says Jenny. But right now, she concedes, "modeling is a nice life. And as a job, it's easier than putting gaskets on cars."
Jenny Shimizu entered the modeling world in 1993 after being discovered riding her Triumph motorcycle by Kelly and Calvin Klein. Once settled in New York, she quickly scored work on the runway, walking in shows for Donna Karan, Yohji Yamamoto, Versace, Prada, and Jean Paul Gaultier. Shimizu went on to model in numerous ad campaigns and countless editorials. She has worked with some of the industry's top photographers, including Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Gilles Bensimon, and Mario Testino.
Shimizu has appeared in a number of television shows, including America's Next Top Model, E!'s Sexiest Top Models, and is currently a series regular on Dante's Cove.
Shimizu is an incredible mechanic and can be found restoring Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Cadillacs from the 1940's, 50's 60's. She is also an avid motorcycle rider with an affinity and love for Ducati's.