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How Supermodel Niki Taylor Became an American Fashion Icon

And what advice she's not giving her Cool Kids entering the industry.
Niki Taylor for Nexcare Give and the American Red Cross. Photo: courtesy

Niki Taylor for Nexcare Give and the American Red Cross. Photo: courtesy

There's no occasion quite like the Fourth of July to celebrate all things American (and our long-running series, "How I'm Making It"). Here at Fashionista, we'll be spending the week examining the fashion industry in our own backyard, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here

"I got a lot of 'no's. I'm 'too young.' 'They're looking for more of a European look.' I'm 'too commercial,'" says iconic American supermodel Niki Taylor, from her home base in Nashville, when reflecting on starting out in the industry almost a few decades ago. "You always have to go through your 'no's to find that one 'yes.'"

At this point, the story of how the now-42-year-old model and American Red Cross and the Nexcare Give campaign spokesperson began her career at 13 is almost the stuff of legend. Her photographer mom, who also dabbled in modeling as a teen, took her daughter's first photos. They sent out her comp cards to agencies in South Florida — hence, the initial nos — but Taylor quickly signed with Miami Beach agency Irene Marie, which touts its biggest client ever at the top of its homepage today. 

"They first turned me away, but the second time, there was a scout there that said, 'oh, you need to sign her,' and that's how I first started," Taylor says. From there, she went to New York with Marie and won a Fresh Faces modeling competition and a $500,000 contract. "I started working for Seventeen, Mademoiselle — and the rest is history." 

She shot her first cover for Seventeen at age 14 and her first Vogue (above) at age 15, the second youngest model (after Brooke Shields) to do so. That year, Taylor not only became president of her own company, Niki, Inc., but she also walked her first runway for the ultra-avant garde and theatrical Thierry Mugler — alongside the biggest supermodels of all time: Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Eva Herzigova (plus, a just-divorced Ivana Trump).

"I was 15 and they were all there and we just all became these beautiful characters.[Hairstylist] Danilo did this incredible '50s hairdo on me," she says. "That was probably the most memorable: doing the shows with all the top girls. Thierry Mugler, too, [was the most memorable] out of all the shows [I've walked]."

And Taylor's participation in that show sits in our consciousness in the 2010s. The 2008 "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy"-themed Costume Institute exhibition featured the mirrored motorcycle bustier worn by Taylor from that show — which inspired Met Gala guest and American national treasure, Beyoncé, to hire the designer to create costumes for her "I Am... World Tour." 

A millionaire by age 16, Taylor went on to become first spokesmodel under 18 to sign a contract with CoverGirl (lots of "firsts" for the model) and more prestige covers ensued: Allure, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Harper's Bazaar, Sports Illustrated and additional Seventeens and Vogues. Of course, the '90s was the heyday of glossy magazines with actual models on their covers, rather than the legions of actors and celebrities we see now. In a 2011 interview with FutureClaw magazine, Taylor was quoted as saying, "Put models back on covers of magazines and in campaigns and let the movie stars do movies," which went viral. But she'd like to clarify what she really meant.

"That was totally taken out of context. I said, 'I missed seeing models on the cover' and I meant that for just the models. I miss seeing Christy [Turlington]. I miss seeing my girls, you know?," Taylor explains. "That's how it was meant to come out. Not 'I don't want to see anybody else on covers.' It was totally taken that way. And that's not what I mean. Because I love seeing Lady Gaga on the cover. I love seeing different girls on a cover. I meant that I miss seeing my girls on the covers. That was it."

As part of the high profile supermodel clique of that era, Taylor has also faced grief and adversity in the very public eye. Her younger sister, Krissy, who was also a model, tragically passed away in 1995, and in 2001, Taylor was critically injured in a near-fatal car crash. She was in a coma for six weeks and underwent 56 operations to repair her spine.

After her experience, Taylor holds the American Red Cross near and dear for saving her life and has dedicated her time to support the organization — and urges others to do the same. "One [blood] donation can save up to three people, and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for all those people who rolled up their sleeves and gave me a second chance at life," she says.

"I took a lot of time off because it took a good three years to heal and to get my body back to — not normal — but I'm just glad I'm here," says the now-mother of four. "I got to fall in love again and have two more babies. Then I got really, really healthy and I got to go back to work and I have an incredible manager and an incredible agent."

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After her recovery, Taylor jumped back into furthering her career — diversifying her portfolio with a fragrance, Begin, and opening (and closing) a boutique, Abbie and Jessie's, in Cool Springs, Tennessee. "We were losing more money than we were making and then the crash happened," she says about the retail experience. "But you gotta try everything."

Following in the footsteps of fellow supe and former "House of Style" host Crawford, Taylor also ventured into television gigs. She hosted MTV's "Fashionably Loud" (the above interview with Justin Timberlake and 'N Sync is an especially delightful throwback), served as a judge alongside Tyson Beckford on Bravo's 2008 "America's Next Top Model" competitor, "Make Me a Supermodel" and, in 2011, competed on a show that somehow now sits in the annals of American history, "Celebrity Apprentice."

"I think I didn't bring enough drama," Taylor says, about being the third competitor "fired" by the eventual 45th POTUS

"Reality shows aren't really reality shows," she adds. "Some are off the cuff and some are written, but I don't do well at judging people. I liked hosting a show. That was fun, but I prefer modeling. I'm really good at that. I'm really good at selling a product."

Social media, of course, helps with that endeavor — and at building and maintaining Taylor's own brand. While she says she was "late to the game" joining social media platforms, Taylor does boast a respectable 89K-plus Twitter followers and almost 57K followers on Instagram, which she understands is essential for her job. "A lot of times now, that's what clients are looking at. They're looking at your social media and seeing what you post. So, for me, it's more work-related," she says. "I try to post a lot of stuff about work and what I'm up to and, then, 20 percent of it is family."

Taylor's Instagram feed is filled with throwbacks to her most iconic magazine images, touching moments with her late sister Krissy and current projects, including her work with Nexcare Give and posing for the Swimsuits for All campaign with Ashley Graham and Teyana Taylor (above). But, ironically, as a person who has made a pretty good living off of images of herself and her face, she hates selfies.

"I prefer posting more pictures with people in it with me," she says. "It was National Selfie Day yesterday, so every now and again I have to do those, but I am not comfortable with those. It just seems weird to me." (Note: it's flawless.) But it is comforting to know that a supermodel has the same Insta-anxiety that a lot of us civilians do. "Where's the lighting? What filters do I use? What do I say? I'll never be comfortable with it."

Taylor also credits her team and supportive parents — who accompanied her on gigs even into her early 20s — for helping her grow and maintain her career longevity. "It's kind of unheard of, a 42-year-old model still in the business,"she says. "But I'm still working, so I'm just very blessed and very thankful for it." And, like fellow supermodel Crawford's Cool Teens™ progeny, Kaia and Presley Gerber, Taylor's kids are making waves in the fashion world, too. (Granted, her twin sons Hunter and Jake Martinez made their industry debut as babies on the Patrick Demarchelier-shot February 1996 cover of Harper's Bazaar — held, one in each arm, by proud mom.) 

Hunter has walked the men's runways, including Hermès and Cedric Charlier and posed in fashion editorials, including a mother-son feature for an upcoming Marie Claire Italia issue (above). Taylor's seven-year-old daughter Ciel is already gunning to follow in her mother's footsteps; the two have already posed together for a Allure Russia feature. Despite being in the industry for the majority of her life, Taylor isn't fanatical about sharing her opinions about modeling to her children, though.

"My twin boys [Hunter and Jake] have always been independent, so if they ask me for advice I'd give it. But for the most part, as long as they're happy, I'm happy for them, and I never want to overstep," she says. "They are 22. My daughter Ciel — it's so funny, even now when we just take pictures — I'll see a hand in the pocket. There will be a tilt in the head. It's already in her, you know?"

Although, Taylor would follow in her own parents' footsteps to guide her daughter's career, if that day comes. "If she models, she's with me."

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Homepage photo: Courtesy of Nexcare Give