Most interviews don’t start with frantic shouting in reaction to seeing a spider in the bedroom and Kimora Lee Simmons hopping on the phone just to say hello, but for 20-year old Aoki Lee Simmons this is merely the surrounding reality as she answered the phone midday for Models.com contributor, Greg Emmanuel. After graduating from Harvard University in May, the young scholar recently returned to her homebase in California to bask in celebration and be with family. While managing an accelerated curriculum to finish school early over the last couple of years, Aoki also officially launched her modeling career at the Pyer Moss Haute Couture show in 2021. Since then, she was cast for several runway shows at NYFW and became a modern day muse for Tommy Hilfiger. Models.com checks in with Aoki Lee Simmons to reflect on balancing an Ivy League school education, flying in and out of Boston for modeling, and what’s next for the energetic, prospective supermodel.
So you’ve just graduated from Harvard with a degree in classics and secondary in political science, why did you choose that major and how do you plan to use it after graduating?
I’ve been passionate about history my whole life. When I was like 11 or 12, I went to the Getty Villa in LA, which is one of the only exclusive museums for classical art in the world, and I figured out when it comes to museums I prefer this kind of museum and history like the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians. Someone told me that’s called the classics, you can just study that and I was like phenomenal let’s do that. When we get past the middle ages like medieval times, it gets too modern for me and I check out, so I wanted to stay in ancient history. Political science, which is like government, is the biggest major at Harvard and I honestly had a mini panic attack when I got there because I was like what am I going to do with Latin and Greek? I also really love politics, news, reading and I might go to law school one day, so I added that on to feel like I was going to get a real job out of it [laughs].
Balancing classes and exams at Harvard, while flying in and out of Boston for your modeling career must have been challenging. What is something that grounded you in those tough moments?
So much and I did not do it alone. My agent, my manager, it was a lot, we were going through it. They were keeping track of my professors and which classes I couldn’t have any more absences in and just trying to figure things out. Honestly, I didn’t need to ground too much because I was so busy. I would do homework all the time, I was always studying, I would bring my Latin everywhere and I was just always thinking about when is my next exam and my next job. Now that I’ve graduated, I had a dream about an exam and I woke up like this is so chaotic. I’m working on more grounding now and getting back to my yoga. I actually like to hang upside down in the morning to get my day started – I know it’s crazy – I’m getting my apartment in New York and trying to rig up aerial silks this very minute so I can hang upside down.
I can imagine your mother being an inspiration being who she is, but aside from that, why did you want to get into modeling? And what’s your goal with modeling?
So I actually did not, that’s the crazy part, but let me give the full picture. When I was very young, I absolutely loved it and the evidence is there because in every picture of early Baby Phat shows I’m twirling or trying to do a cartwheel or something crazy. I’m a triple Leo, so I absolutely loved it. When I got a little older and got on social media, I feel like most people aren’t on the internet in middle school reading people’s opinions, but I happened to be on a show and there were a couple extra opinions. I don’t think most people are having their self-esteem dictated by how they looked when they were 12 to a couple hundred thousand people, so I definitely got out of it [modeling] and really got into school. As a child, my mom always told me my only job is school. I got back to modeling my freshman year at Harvard. I had just turned 17, I was scouted by someone who had just graduated from Harvard and had started working at an agency. She emailed me through the Harvard email network and she was like, “Hi, I notice you work at the Harvard museum. What if you just came to New York and you can make that amount like one time and not have to work every day?” So I was like sure, you’re a fellow student and you know how the Harvard museum is so like why not.
I didn’t do much my first year, it was COVID and nothing happened. Then I did the Pyer Moss show and that was really exciting. I remember they had COVID distance casting processes and everything I would get that summer and fall, I would think, “Oh it’s going to be a fluke, they’re going to realize it’s a terrible idea and then I’m just going to be a professor, so let me not to get to excited because it will be over in a minute.” Then I started getting more jobs and started enjoying it. This sounds so crazy because I’m 20, but I had a little mid-life crisis and started thinking why am I this young in school? I could have waited and now it’s COVID. So I reflected on what I have been enjoying recently and it had been my time on set, my time at shows, my time creating and trying on new things. I realized it was fun and figured out that it’s something I look forward to.
What is the most valuable modeling tip you’ve learned from your mom?
Her modeling tips are so funny because they come from like a perfect goddess. She’s like “just be yourself” and I’m like thanks mom I would be myself if I was yourself too. [laughs]. One of the good ones was to keep a thought in your brain when you’re walking because my first adult show I was trying to be fierce, but my mind was empty so my eyes were empty and you could tell. There was a great show she did with Carla Bruni and they were standing at a table and having a fake lunch and she was like even if the show is like no stopping, no turns, super straight, you still carry out the energy of “I’m a woman, I’m having a great time” and that’s how you do runway and sell clothes. Be happy, have a good time and look like you’re having a good time because if you look too serious, you will look very somber.
What’s been one of your most cherished modeling moments so far?
My whole Tommy Hilfiger journey so far. I’ve known Tommy for a long time, but I was never modeling for him. When I ran into him at the Dior show, I think he was shocked to see that I turned out tall. He was like, “Oh and this is one of the children, oh you’re so tall.” And I was like yes, I grew up and I model now, sidenote [laughs]. When I got the show, I was worried I would ruin it because it was raining, but then as I’m going out and I’m so nervous, two people said kind things to me: Ashley Graham was backstage and she was very nice to me and my dresser said as her and her friends were watching rehearsal, I was one of their favorite top 3 walks and it gave me so much confidence to go out there and have a nice time. Then I did a spring campaign and when I got that, I thought I was actually dreaming. I was literally in the school bathroom texting my agent like are we sure? So I was very excited. And then finally we celebrated the Tommy x Shawn Mendes collection in London. There was a dinner for it and I sat next to Tommy and I was a little late because my shoe had broken and there was all this chaos, but when I got there and sat down, he turned to me and said, “Where were you? I wanted to talk to you.” He gave me the best pep talk I have ever heard in my life. Basically saying that he thinks I’m going to do great things, he’s proud of me and that I’m going to be a big star in modeling. And I went home to write it all down in my diary.
It’s been an amazing journey with that team and Tommy himself. It means the most to me when he tells me that someone from the team tells him that I was so professional and did so well at the shoot, that means a lot to me. I’ve just been excited to build a professional rapport with so many great people and artists and I’ve been enjoying all those return moments when it’s like we’ve worked together before and we both did our part and we all got along and it was so great.
Last time we chatted, we got to do a fun interview with your mom and we touched on how you and Ming [Lee Simmons] are very involved in the new age of Baby Phat. What’s been some of the latest things you’ve been working on for the brand and what has your involvement with Baby Phat teaching you about business?
I will say Ming, who has been living in New York, is probably the better one to ask. We’ve been looking at a lot of old styles and I’ve just been combing through old runway and I’m like can we do this? And my mom is not the type to be like “Ok! Sure! make some units.” You have to explain why you think it’s a good idea, you have to bring some market analysis, you have to show some trend forecasts, she just doesn’t give out free business handouts. This is her life’s work and she’s generous with it by showing us how she did it, but she’s also protective of it. If we want to try a bunch of crazy ideas, it’s like ok, you start your own brand if you want to dictate everything. She’s very tough-love educational, so we are learning a lot about what it takes to get clothes out there, manufacturing, factories, partnerships like it doesn’t just come out of thin air. I feel a lot more ready every day if I wanted to start a brand or make something, I would know a little more about what goes into the everyday. So, definitely the process of the business side of fashion and what goes into a great design and a great product.
Do you have a dream campaign or runway show?
We did touch on Tommy, but like the Aaliyah x Tommy homage campaign was so emotional, I think my mom cried. A dream campaign, oh my gosh honestly there are so many, but I would say anything my mom has done. I would love to get back to her Paris roots like what she started out doing. I don’t have a specific dream campaign, as there are so many. I just love fashion, I love couture, I enjoyed Pyer Moss and the couture process. I would love to work in Paris and Milan more, but I also want to find my own brand, so whatever comes. I’m just excited to see where we go from here.
Great answer! Give her all of the campaigns! What are some items that you keep on you at all times when on set and going to castings?
A lot of things. Everyone knows you’ve got to bring the shoes. Essential oils, I’m a real anxious individual, so a little lavender can do a lot for you, a little tea tree or eucalyptus gives you a nice reset. Headphones, like music and podcasts help my ADHD brain be calm. I need to have some other information processing going on to free up my brain to focus on something else other than sitting still in a chair like that’s hard for me, so I have to occupy my brain. Music is a huge part of me getting ready for a show or a shoot, getting me in the right mindset. A breakthrough moment I really enjoyed was before the Kim Shui show, I was playing Beethoven and that really calmed me down, so that’s like my new thing: extreme, classical, very slow because I move so fast in life, so being encouraged to slow down. Also, a lot of snacks because a hangry model is not cute and my large metal water bottle.
You’ve been able to grace a few major runways and star in campaigns. How do you approach runway vs photoshoots, is the mindset different?
I feel like I haven’t had enough experience to call it an approach yet because it changes every time. I guess have a good time, gratitude and approach with joy that you’re here and just be excited to take it all in. I love to talk as you can probably tell, so talking to people and learning people’s stories and just having an extroverted vibe and hoping that it will snowball into good things. So, just being excited and grateful that you’re there and it will all fall into place after that if you have good intentions and good energy.
Ok, hypothetical situation: You’re on option for a major worldwide campaign and then you get released. How do you mentally handle this part of the business?
So it’s not hypothetical because it’s happened multiple times. Once, I was on a treadmill when I got dropped for a show the day of and it just turned into a really aggressive run. I guess there’s what I would try to do, like I aspire to lean on meditation, yoga, gratitude, look at the world around you and realize that you’re still so blessed and all of those calm, good things. I probably would cry because I’m a crier, but then I would go back to the meditation and calm stuff. I would say my one tip that my mom gave me a whole life is a physical gratitude list. If you’re feeling low and sad, bust out a notebook and start listing what comes to mind. It does great things for your mental state. I think it’s also clinically proven like there is some science to it.
What’s the first thing you want to do after graduating? Are you ready to go straight to work modeling full time or do you have vacation on your mind?
I’m ready to go to work, I’m going back to New York in a week. Yesterday, I was following Ming around the house and she was like what are you doing? I just don’t really know what to do with myself, I’m a bit young, thank God I’m healthy, so work is on my mind for sure. I’m ready to just start my life in New York and come home here and there. And that was also the whole point of graduating early, it was to get out there and get started and when I feel the need for rest, I will take it, but I don’t feel it at the moment so I’m excited to get started and hang my aerial silks from the apartment ceiling.
I’m so glad you found an apartment where you can do that in New York, the hunt is not easy. Final question, some models are known for their walk, some for their cheekbones or their smize, what would you like to be known for to set you apart?
Obviously, I would like to have all those things down., I definitely probably want it to be my hair. I’m really proud of my hair and the journey with my hair. Growing up, my mom was so encouraging of telling me my curls were beautiful and then I went through that phase of asking, “Can I straighten it? All of my friends in school have a silk press and I want one,” but she would tell me my hair is gorgeous, don’t damage it. Middle school and high school, I was all about the bun, the ponytail, and how to make the curls smaller, like more towards the beauty standard of whatever straight hair is. Now I’m like, bigger and better like a giant chia pet, so I love my hair. I’m on this whole journey of only natural products, soft pillow cases, I don’t use hair ties anymore and I’m finally getting a professional trim, because I’ve heard if you want to grow it, you have to get serious about professional trims. At Sergio Hudson’s last show, everyone had hair pieces or a blowout and they curled it, but he was like, “We really love your natural hair, do you want to wear it on the runway?” I was like yes, oh my gosh I get to have my hair on the runway, and I really appreciated that. I think he could tell I had an emotional connection to my hair and that means the world to me.