Date: 8 December 1993
Publication: Newsday pp63
Author: Frank DeCaro
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 ... "