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Friday, 26 March 2010

American Beauty

Date: May 2008
Publication: Audrey Magazine
Author: Paul Nakayama

The Ducati-riding, tattoo-bearing ’90s beauty icon may seem intimidating, but as Paul Nakayama discovers, there’s definitely something about Jenny Shimizu that's hard to resist.

It’s a brisk Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting nervously at the Casbah Café in Silver Lake, a hip part of Los Angeles, Calif., waiting for Jenny Shimizu to arrive. 

I’m nervous because I was told that Jenny can be intimidating, and the last thing I need is to ask the wrong thing and get my ass trounced by a supermodel. 

Before I could hightail it out of there, I see Jenny just as she steps through the doorway and removes her motorcycle helmet, revealing medium-length hair. I was sort of expecting her signature buzz cut, but she is wearing her motorcycle leathers. I sheepishly raise my hand, and I’m surprised to find her beaming with a smile and waving back.

While she’s getting tea and settling in, I take the opportunity to study her. There’s something about her that strikes me, and it’s not just her elfin features. I decide to reserve describing her for now.

While I remember the famous Calvin Klein ads in the ’90s where Jenny with close-cropped hair is dressed in a white tank top, jeans and tattoos everywhere else, I didn’t know much else about her. She humors my amateur attempts at research, and we talk about her childhood.

She was born in San Jose, Calif., but was raised in the sleepy farming town of Santa Maria, which was later made famous for hosting the Michael Jackson trial. Her father and mother, both second-generation Japanese Americans, operated a pharmacy. Her sister played with Barbies, which Jenny couldn’t stand, so she instead rode dirt bikes with the boys. 

While her family was a member of the Japanese American Citizen League, it wasn’t something that reinforced a sense of Japanese cultural heritage — it was more like an annual BBQ where suddenly Japanese Americans would magically appear. Her ethnicity just wasn’t something that mattered where she grew up. 

Jenny recalls, “I didn’t think of myself as Japanese or a girl or gay in my early life, and people always wonder about my obstacles with being different, but I always just thought that I was completely normal.”

In a blue-collar community like Santa Maria, where her own parents often worked seven days a week, she implies that everyone was working too hard or too long to think about ethnicity or sexual preference. After only a few minutes, I already get the sense that Jenny is indeed grounded, humble and polite, and it’s so different from my preconceived notion of her that I feel the need to show my appreciation. “I get the feeling that you have a strong work ethic,” I offer.

“Well, yeah, not if you ask my mom,” she jokes. Her parents, like most Asian parents, once had expectations of Jenny becoming a doctor or a lawyer or even taking over the pharmacy.

Despite her self-deprecating humor, Jenny is refreshingly honest about what she’s good at and what she takes pride in. In fact, this confidence and self-awareness, even as a teenager, becomes a defining factor in her success as a model later in life. Her first obsession was with basketball, which began with a Christmas present as a young girl. Her natural talent with the sport was enough to gain admittance into California State University, Northridge, where she studied for a year before leaving to pursue her second and lifelong obsession — cars and bikes.

As we begin to talk about her life as a mechanic, Jenny grows noticeably animated and, dare I say, cute. She suggests that her love of repairing cars and motorcycles began as a child. She had always possessed a knack for repairing things. “My dad would throw out a lamp, and I’d go to the trash, pull it out, fix it, and bring it back into the house. It was what I loved to do: fixing things like motors or anything that runs.”
I tease that she’s the “MacGyver of supermodels.” She laughs, but I laugh harder, so I decide to move on. 

It was during her time as a mechanic working out of her garage in Koreatown, restoring old Bentleys and fixing bikes, when a talent scout famously “discovered” her at a gay club. While it seems like an opportunity born out of being at the right place at the right time, it was also a matter of fate. A girlfriend during her trade school days had predicted that Jenny would one day travel around the world and be on the cover of no less than Vogue. While Jenny didn’t consider herself to be model material, she couldn’t deny the wild coincidence of her girlfriend’s prediction and an eventual, chance offer to be in a music video, which quickly transitioned to a meeting with Calvin Klein. It was enough of a sign to move forward with it.

Before Jenny could laugh at the absurdity of her own turn of events, billboards of her were everywhere, even before she landed in New York. She was suddenly the hottest thing to hit the fashion world despite being the utter antithesis of a model in the ’90s: Asian, openly lesbian, butch hair, tattoos like a sailor and completely without makeup. She remembers walking with her friend in Times Square and seeing herself on an enormous Banana Republic billboard. Underneath her photo were the words: American Beauty.

I pause for a moment when she tells me this, taking another stab at defining what her appeal might be. Absent of the stereotypical blond hair and C-cups (not that I stared to check), Jenny has a presence not derived entirely of the physical, though she is unmistakably handsome. Hoping not to sound cheesy, I can only say that there’s a complex balance of a wild child married to a Zen-like self-assurance. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s this combination of confidence and self-awareness that exudes a magnetic “you don’t want to f—k with me, but you’d like it if you tried” attitude. She proves it with a momentary but intense look and a slight pixie-like smirk.

I’m careful not to ask her about her past relationships, including connections to Madonna and Angelina Jolie. I wouldn’t want someone defining me by ex-girlfriends from over a decade ago either. Still, a moment passes that I simply cannot help: I picture her with them, a supermodel with two of the hottest celebrities on the planet, and it’s so naughty that my brain practically short-circuits. Damn, and it was right before the part where they frolic on the beach.

“Oh no, I know what you’re going to ask,” she winces. I shake my head, chug down the rest of my coffee, choke, cough and signal her to keep talking.
She returns to talking about the craziness of being thrust into the modeling world, “like being on an LSD trip for years.” Rather than embracing it, she was overwhelmed at first and disassociated herself, but the harder to get you play, the more they want you. Her agency placed a one-page disclaimer before her photos, stating clearly that they could not be held responsible for Jenny Shimizu’s actions should she be hired. Designers began to expect the volatility associated with rock stars: trashed dressing rooms and outlandish stunts. She would refuse to wear outfits she didn’t like, grow her hair or wear makeup, unless she fancied a compromise. They half-expected her to rocket down the runway on a skateboard. But her commitment to stay true played in her favor, and she was ushered into supermodel stardom.

It’s clear that she grew to love the experience, often calling it “incredible” and “beautiful,” and that it became a helluva party. With beautiful supermodel friends like Amber Valletta and Kate Moss in the ’90s, how could a lesbian not have fun? Despite living life in the fast lane, Jenny remained grounded and never got into any trouble, or at least nothing she didn’t seek. She feels there was a different philosophy and approach in managing the luxuries of a celebrity life when she was in her partying prime. “It was a different world back then,” she recalls. “It was normal for us, for example, to all go to rehab in August, not do any drugs or whatever, get healthy and then [go] back to work a month later.” On the troubles that celebrities today seem to face, she quips, “They lack troublemaker savvy.”

Jenny was quoted in interviews during the ’90s as saying that she didn’t see herself modeling when she reached 40 and would instead open her own garage. True to her word, she successfully transitioned from modeling into acting, landing films like Foxfire with Angelina Jolie and a regular role on here! TV’s Dante’s Cove, a popular LGBT show with a paranormal angle. She turned 40 this year and is close to keeping her promise early next year. Her “girl garage” will specifically cater to women and the lesbian/gay community, as she feels these are the groups most often mistreated or taken advantage of when it comes to auto repairs. I’m neither a woman nor gay, but being completely clueless about cars, you can bet I’ll be going there.

As we talk about her garage plans and I stare blankly off to space whenever she mentions car parts, I glimpse a tattoo of a spark plug on her arm. I ask about her trademark tattoos. She has 13, and most have a story behind them. Her first tattoo at 17, Japanese characters depicting the phrase “and she goes,” is also her most definitive, describing her free-spirited and forward-moving approach to life. She remembers lying about her age and overcompensating by reading up on tattoo etiquette and how you’re supposed to tip the artist with a pack of cigarettes. She chuckles a little as she recalls the artist being dumbfounded as apparently it was an antiquated gesture, about as modern as a man laying down his jacket over a puddle for a woman. Her other inks, like the girl straddling a wrench and the flaming spark plug, all have back stories but usually resulted from trading repairs for tattoos. However, one of her most recent, a peanut and a scroll with the name “Craig,” is much more personal. Her nephew had passed, and the tattoo was a remembrance of her favorite picture of him, a young boy with his hands outstretched and offering a peanut.

“It was a life lesson,” she says with a noticeable trace of sadness, but recovers quickly. “You know, my sister and I became closer after her kids were born. We didn’t have a lot in common growing up, but things came together once my niece and nephew were born. I went from a ‘me me me’ way of thinking to really focusing on my friends and family — the important people, you know?”

I was the same way when my own nephews were born, so I asked what I felt back then. “Do you want kids of your own someday?”

“I never thought I would, but I do want the whole thing: dog, two kids and a beautiful girl,” she muses. Funny, me too, I think to myself, and as cliché of a joke as it is, I always knew I had a lot in common with lesbians. Of course, she’s leaps and bounds ahead of me in that department, with a serious musician girlfriend who gets her. Out of every week, they spend four days together, doing what couples do: watching Project Runway, reading in bed and cooking for each other. The other three days, Jenny spends her valuable personal time with her other loves: her Ducati and the garage. “Of course, my girlfriend knows how to appeal to my ego and she listens to me talk about my motorcycle when we meet again. That’s the rule.”

The prospect of marriage isn’t out of the picture either. Jenny believes strongly enough in the idea of gay marriage that she married Rebecca Loos on the TV show Power Lesbians just to make a point. She only wants to get married if full civil benefits are afforded and not just the “crappy parts.” Until then, she’s happy just being in a committed relationship (probably happier, if this cynical and single writer can humbly insert his opinion).
There’s so much more I want to ask her, but time is running out so I satisfy my own selfish curiosity. After all, she’s romanced some pretty hot women, and me, well, I’m no Jenny Shimizu. I know she’s willful and charismatic, but I’m hoping there’s some special lesbian mind trick or cosmetic mojo I can learn to master. So I just come out and ask, in my own way.

“Umm … seeing as I’m a writer for … uh … a women’s magazine, and I … er … I mean, the readers probably want to know your beauty secrets. Care to share?” Yes, I’m completely transparent, and I have the same look as when I’m thinking about her with Angelina/Madonna.

She takes the question seriously and smiles before revealing the key to her successful look: “Amino acids and moisturizing. If you take care of your insides and your skin, you have nothing to worry about.”

It’s sound advice, but it’s not fair that she makes it looks so easy. I mean, she hops onto her Ducati and roars off, and I’m in love. Damn her for being hard to get. 

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