Tao Okamoto & Jenny Shimizu Uncut: The Full Interviews

Kerry Pieri

Tao Okamoto and Jenny Shimizu were two models from our Model Citizens editorial who I had the pleasure of speaking with. Between Jenny’s unique discovery story, hanging out with Kate Moss and icon status as a 90s mainstay and Tao’s signature cropped cut and experience in Japan during the earthquake, their unique interviews were too interesting not to share in their entirety. Get to know these two major models a little better.

Jenny Shimizu:

I know that you are here for a few different charities. Will you tell me a little bit about them?
One of the most important ones right now is the HRC, the Human Rights Campaign about marriage equality. And it’s just basically about civil rights, having the option to marry here in the United States and it’s not so much that I eventually want to get married; I just want to have a choice. I’m working with APAHM…hat they do is this month they put on different events in all different major cities and try to get the young, Asian-American kids to come out and hear stories of people that they call visionary that are kind of iconic to do a relatability thing because we are a very quiet group of people. And I think it’s interesting just because I realize that I have so much in common with all these kids and all these people that do these events.

Where are you originally from?
I was born and raised in California.

Why do you think it’s important if you are somebody that has a position where people listen to you to be involved in charity work?
Well, I think in hindsight, now that I’m older, it’s just that I realize that it’s a lot of power to be a model or to be having this much access to reach people in different countries and all over the world. And now, why not use some of this kind of power for good and to say things that are happening in the world and kind of voice your opinion and become more than just two-dimensional, rather than be just a beautiful girl in a magazine, why not have a story behind you, you know? We all have a certain potential to…and even if you’re not a model in a magazine reaching millions of people, I think it’s really important that everyone tries to do something. It’s really about the “we” more than it is about the “me.” Especially nowadays, things are happening that are catastrophic and there’s very horrible things happening in the world and it always has been that way. But I think now it’s a really good time to unify.

So obviously there are so many different things that you could get involved in, how do you sort of hone in on what you really want to put your energy towards?
I think, for me, it’s just the fact that I’ve walked in the shoes for being a gay rights activist, I think that’s obviously one of the things that I know well…always struggling to kind of have it normalized and be accepted in society is just something I’ve grown up with, so what better to hone in on and focus in on than the things that we’ve lived through? Also, with all the Asian-American visibility, the same thing too-I really didn’t realize how we were very two-dimensional. When you see people, you see people on movies rarely, but you see people on TV and magazines and you don’t really know who they are and so that was another cause, I just wanted to make young Asian kids see that there is a story behind it and they too can strive to be different maybe and not kind of go into the same kind of career path because there are generalizations of what kids do, Asian kids especially doctors, lawyers, and engineers and I think there’s more to that. And also a lot of pressure of making your parents proud.

So when you do decide to get started, and this could be for anybody, you find a cause that you could be passionate about, what do you think are the first steps to getting involved with that organization?
My first thing was in the 80s when I was in college, I just joined Act Up and it was kind of a big AIDS organization and what it did was…so many things were going on, especially with AIDS that had come out and people were dying and I was a teenager and friends of mine were dying from this disease and no one knew anything about it, there was no medical care, and it was just out of passion and out of anger that there was nothing being done. It was being kept a secret and these people were expendable that were dying which made me…well, not expendable but that’s the way the government seemed to be thinking, that’s what made me get involved right away. And I didn’t even know about peaceful protest or group protest and I think once you experience that, it is something that you’ll never forget. It is beautiful and it’s powerful and it’s to be connected to so many people without really knowing them, just for one related cause is tremendous, it’s like almost…you give, but you get so much back in return.

I just want to ask you a little bit about your modeling career and how you got started initially.
The funny thing is that I was taking pictures for a photographer who had seen me and I didn’t know what they were for and then eventually we found out they were for Italian Vogue and Italian Glamour and I didn’t know. I mean, he’d just come to my house and we’d take pictures in my garage with my motorcycles and my trucks and I was a mechanic at the time and during this whole time too I was doing videos for MTV and what happened is that Calvin Klein came to Los Angeles and I went to a casting and Calvin and Kelly [Klein] asked me to come to New York. When I got to New York, Bruce Weber took me and put me in a campaign for Banana Republic and so I didn’t really know what was happening, I just was like, I think one of my things in life has just been to find these challenges and the fear and whenever I sweat and it makes me uncomfortable, then I say yes to everything. And I’m really glad I did, it’s been a very interesting, wonderful experience…lots of learning too.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?
I think one of the highlights was the fact that when Bruce Weber was taking pictures of me like a month later my friends woke me up in the middle of the night and said come to Times Square with us, so I went to Times Square and that’s when they used to put the big billboards of models up there and I looked up and saw a huge billboard of just me and a portrait of my face and it said underneath “American Beauty.” And I had never thought of myself as beautiful, I never really thought of myself as American because I was Japanese and I couldn’t…it was just one of these things where it was almost overwhelming…the acceptance of that was very powerful for me. That and of course show seasons in Europe with all the supers and stuff, they took me under their wing, I was such a freak. Kate [Moss] just had come into the scene, she was causing the whole waif thing, and then I think she disrupted it so much that when I came they were just like, come hang out with us! And I think that I came at a really interesting time and being able to model and grow up with people like the supers and Carla Bruni and I think it’s just like an ongoing thing. I just love to see, I guess now, that these girls still work and that they’re brands and basically what they established back in the 90s now is that people relate to them, people trust them, and I think those are the things…I came at a time where it was very freakish and crazy and it was like, there will never be another time like that again. And man, the experiences in the back of limos, at CFDA…it’s incredible and the people I’ve got to meet and the things I’ve done. It’s such a huge life experience.

What do you think of modeling right now? It seems like it’s going more towards individuals again?
Yes, thank you. Gosh, I’m so glad, and once again I’m back in the swing of things and being a booker now at Women Direct, it’s really interesting that I come back in a community and there’s this whole resurgence of older women models, of older, bigger models, of the 90s models coming back. It’s very…I’m so happy because even I stopped reading magazines from the late 90s to almost 2005. I was like, this is so boring, I don’t know who these people are. I’m not so much interested…in seeing celebrities on the cover of magazines and I understand that it’s a business so it sells, but I really am hoping that we do get back to the models being more interesting…not them being more interesting, but that we give them time to be more interesting and make them a personality and I’m really excited about the next couple years.

Me too, thank you!

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Tao Okamoto

Will you tell me a little bit about the charity that you’re here for today?
Okay. Yeah, I belong to the group called Save Japan, it’s happened in Japan but in New York we are five girls now and the first project we just did was a charity sale. Basically we got fashion items, like bras, shoes, bags from friends, models, stylists, editors, designers from all their own closet. And…we sold that and then we raised money and sent it to, it’s called Peace Wins, which is big buildings and some stuff…

Have you been back to Japan since the earthquake?
I was there when it happened and then I was going back and forth maybe two times after that.

Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like?
Yeah, the earthquake was really, really scary. Like…I’ve never felt that scared in my life. Even after a few days…I spent only three days after, and we still had really quite big aftershocks and tsunami came right after and nuclear stuff was happening and everything was happening at the same time, quickly and we had no idea what we would be like and…people are quite panicking for sure, but after that now of course the disaster area is still not right. But we are trying to have like normal life, and especially in Tokyo it’s like walking through everything. So we’re getting normal, we’re getting better, and people are working really hard to reconstruct the country.

I’m sure. That is very overwhelming. So I’m just going to ask you, not to change the subject from something so incredibly serious, but just a couple of lighter questions just about you. So, where do you live now?

I live in New York.

What are some of your favorite things about New York?

I don’t know. All the exciting things is going on here.

Can you tell me the story of how you got into modeling?
When I was in junior high I was walking on the street and this guy just came to me like, are you interesting in doing…actually it wasn’t model, like TV stuff.

Were you nervous?
I mean they were strangers. Then I thought like, oh, maybe I can do something to use my height and looks. Then I talked to my parents and they said, “Oh, if you really want to do it, you have to find a good agency.” Then I sent some pictures to model agency. That’s how I started.

And what was your first big modeling job?
I only did modeling in Japan for like five years since I started, then I went to Paris. I think my first big, big thing was the YSL show in Paris or the Moschino campaign…something like that.

Very cool. And what have been some of the highlights of your career so far?
I would say Alexander McQueen and Givenchy.

What would be your dream modeling job?
There are so many dreams I’d…I always want to do a Chanel show because it’s just major and like so spectacular, so yeah, I’m going to do it before I quit modeling.

Tell me a little bit about your own personal style. How would you describe it?
Very…I wear anything. I wear designer clothes and vintage and just really casual stuff. Today I’m wearing vintage, both vintage…I don’t have like my style but I like shopping and I like mixing expensive things and really cheap stuff.

What’s the last good vinage item you bought?
I just got YSL big coat from maybe early seventies or something and it’s so beautiful and it cost only 900 bucks.

Is that your last fun purchase?
No, that was at the end of the year, so recently I got big bag from Reed Krakoff because I just fell in love. And it cost quite a lot, but… (laughs)

Do you have any go-to beauty products?
I don’t really care, I try many things, but I just found a really good salon so I go there once a month or something.

You’re very known for your hair and it’s such a cute cut, have you always had your hair short and what made you chop it?
No, I’ve been only having it like this for three years now, so before I had really long hair like everybody else. So I miss it sometimes. (laughs)

Tell me about your relationship with Phillip Lim.
I met him on a job when I was doing his lookbook before fashion week, so I got the job and I went there and he came and he was like, “You’re so beautiful.” And I was like, “Oh, thank you.” And after like a week later, I was confirmed for his show and he came to me like, “Oh, you’re opening the show. And I’m gonna put all the girls in your haircut.” So like, who are you kidding? (laughs) He was a really great supporter and he took me everywhere, like parties, dinners and introduced to people so he actually offered me like, “I want to be your biggest supporter.” And I was like, “Really?” (laughs) He’s just sweet and I’m so grateful.

What was it like seeing all of the models with your hair?
It was weird, I mean, I like it.

When you were a little kid, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be like… at Disney Company, because I love the Disney animations. And after that I studied music so I wanted to do something music.

What are your goals after modeling?
Nowadays there are a lot of girls who’ve not really quit but they still come back sometimes when they have really good things. So, I think we don’t have to decide the end or something, so maybe I can start something else but then when I have something I can come back. I want to do that style.

Since you were into music, what are some of the bands or music that you’re listening to now?
I love the Broadway musicals. So, when I have time, I go there and watch the shows and in my iPod I have so many show tunes.

That’s amazing, what’s the last show that you saw?
I saw “Sister Act” recently.

Are you on Twitter?
No. I don’t tweet.

Do you have any style icons?
I don’t know, I love all the models in past or now or…I just love them all. But recently I check the Stella Tennant’s style especially because she has androgynous style and I kind of have to, so I’m kind of following her style and how it changes.

And do you have any blogs that you read regularly or websites?
I have favorite one: “Cute Overload”

Oh really? With the animals?
I check every single day. I love it.

Amazing! Thanks so much.