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Hip Hop Fridays: Kimora Lee Simmons Works Hard For Her Diamonds by Debra Bass

Kimora Lee Simmons refuses to be humble. She readily admits to growing up spoiled, revels in language unfit to print in a family newspaper and loves to flaunt her wealth and her figure. She's a rich diva and she's unapologetic.

The dirty little secret is that legions of young girls want to grow up to be just like her.

"I was fabulous before the fame and fortune," Simmons says, laughing during an interview before her Baby Phat show last week.

Her attitude may give some parents pause and scare the pants off of others. But beneath the fun, the flash and the glitz, Simmons has something to say that will catch detractors off guard.

Although the 31-year-old fashion icon is not your typical role model, she readily accepts the societal post. And if the sales and interest in her extensive line of products - including clothing, fragrance, jewelry, makeup, shoes and now a high-end clothing line and home goods - are any indication, she has the ear and the wallet of much of the nation's youth. The line labeled as "urban" could be dismissed as a specialized niche brand, if it weren't for the fact that Simmons seems bent on world domination.

Detractors, who include many fashion critics, complain that she's candid to a fault, and her flamboyant aesthetic is too trashy to be taken seriously. But her customers aren't listening to the critics. They like the outspoken Simmons and trust her and, subsequently, they want to buy anything she puts her name on.

We'll soon see if that includes a new book released last month. "Fabulosity: What It Is and How to Get It," (HarperCollins, $25.95) discusses the diva's laws for success or what she calls "fabulosity." Simmons' favorite mantra might be "Fabulosity" Law No. 14: "Love yourself enough to rise above criticism."

She's an unconventional sage, but Nana Brew-Hammond, a young New York writer, says that she found the book so inspirational she wanted to cry. She says it's easy to write Simmons off as shallow until you take a look behind the bling at a female entrepreneur who took a line created by her husband, Russell Simmons, and catapulted it into a billion-dollar orbit. The Phat Fashion family, including Baby Phat, was sold in 2004 to Kellwood Co. for a reported $140 million, but Kimora Lee Simmons retains the post of creative director. She takes that title - and the control that comes with it - very seriously.

Speaking from her very pink penthouse office in Manhattan last Thursday, Simmons said that she wants to help young women realize their potential and worth. She quickly asserts that you don't have to be 6-feet tall, an entrepreneur, mother of two who can fit into single-digit jeans, live on a 49,000-acre estate or collect more diamonds than Elizabeth Taylor to be fabulous "but it doesn't hurt."

"I was fabulous when I was in St. Louis, so fabulous people wanted to beat me up every day because they couldn't take it," Simmons says. She first left St. Louis to model in Europe at the age of 13.

She explains that she wasn't literally beaten up, but she was frequently and consistently taunted. During one difficult period in high school, after she started a lucrative modeling career in Paris, her car was trashed and spray-painted.

"A damn (expletive), a jealous girl - they were jealous because I parked it on the principal's parking lot (she giggles mischievously), but whatever, I love St. Louis. Are we going to talk about how I love St. Louis?" says Simmons, who grew up in Florissant and attended Lutheran North High School. She then abruptly rises from her desk, floats over to a wardrobe closet and pulls out a faux chinchilla cropped jacket with a buckle detail at the bottom. "Isn't this hot?" she asks modeling it over slim white jeans and leopard-print camisole.

The answer is, yes.

When the conversation later drifts back to St. Louis, she talks briefly about her struggle growing up biracial, tall and geeky, but says it didn't make her bitter. It made her stronger.

She then mentions that she saw one of the girls who used to torment her working at a St. Louis area McDonald's when she went in to get a Big Mac. Asked if she said "Hi," Simmons responds coyly, like a schoolgirl being questioned by an adult. She twiddles a piece of paper on her desk and uses a lower tone of voice. "Yes, of course, I always say `Hi' to everyone; and I'm very polite to people who handle my food," she adds. Then she smirks for less than a second and changes the subject.

"I love the idea that so many great people have made it who are from St. Louis - Josephine Baker, Tina Turner, Nelly and Chingy. You have Jackie Joyner-Kersee and a lot of great people, but I think I keep them ever mindful of fabulosity and style and fashion, and that's what I want them to remember about me," Simmons says.

She seems to be getting her wish.

Speaking from a chaotic backstage scene before her daughter's latest Fashion Week show, Simmon's mother, Joanne Perkins, who lives in tony East Hampton, N.Y., said her daughter grew up an outcast because both mother and daughter were different.

"People can be mean. I could hear them talking because I dressed different. I was not the Midwest typical corporate dresser," says Perkins, who was born and raised in Korea. Her heritage is Korean and Japanese.

Perkins said that changing to fit in wasn't an option because she would always be different and so would her daughter, who has an African-American father, Vernon Whitlock Jr. of St. Louis. So, she taught her only child to love herself and to never apologize for who she is or what she has.

This probably planted the seeds of Simmons' unflinching self-esteem. She soon expected the stares and looks of disapproval, but instead of turning the other cheek, she seemed to say: If you're going to stare, I'm going to give you something to look at - something fabulous, of course. Now, mom seems to be learning something from her daughter. She was backstage shopping at the promotional display for the latest "Hello, Kitty" watches produced by Simmons' jewelry line.

"I'm making a wish list from Kimora to mom," Perkins says as she took note of a $10,000 watch with a white band and a diamond-studded kitty face. She later grabbed her son-in-law Russell Simmons by the arm and led him over to the table to show him her selection.

Russell Simmons, a former hip-hop mogul, founded Phat Farm and became a hip-hop clothing-line pioneer. He created Baby Phat in 1999 and gave his wife the reins the following year. Simmons credits the success of Baby Phat to his wife, who is the face and personality of the brand, which is set to go global in three years. Phat Farm, the men's line, and Baby Phat boutiques are slated to open in the Middle East, Europe, China, Japan, South Korea, South America and Africa, according to the fashion industry bible, Women's Wear Daily.

"People are inspired by (Kimora's) lifestyle and her desires and her work," says Russell Simmons, who adds that people pay too much attention to how many diamonds his wife owns and not enough to her business acumen. The two are separated but continue to work closely.

"I don't think it's possible that we discuss how many cars Tommy Hilfiger has, never mind what Roberto Cavalli owns or what Versace owns or what his wife or his daughter now own, but (reporters) want to show up and ask how many diamonds she owns. She don't own any more diamonds than Elizabeth Taylor," Simmons says then adds quickly, "but she might, though."

He said she continues to be ridiculed because she is different and she's not shy about being different. Polite society says that you aren't supposed to flaunt and boast, especially if you are a wealthy minority, he notes. But Simmons said his wife works hard for what she has and encourages her customers to aspire to have all that their hearts desire because the view from the top is very nice.

His latest line of Phat Farm clothing boasts to the same philosophy: It's OK to want to be rich and live the rich life. Forget the white picket fence and two-car garage, people aspire to own mansions and yachts. He calls it "The New American Dream" and inscribes it in blingy gold, silver and rhinestones on jeans, jackets and other clothing items.

Andre Leon Talley, editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, ordered a military-style jean trench coat flaunting the billboard-sized slogan on its back right off the runway. The statuesque editor, known for his love of bold fashion statements, wore the coat days later to view the fall shows of Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta.

"(Kimora) deserves all the success she has and more," Talley said. "She knows her core customer, and you really have to admire her. You can't have enough flash."

This article appears in The St. Louis Post Dispatch

Debra Bass

Friday, February 9, 2007

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