New mom to 2 1/2-month-old baby boy Kenzo Lee Hounsou, Kimora Lee Simmons found the time to write an article for Working Mother. The 34-year-old Baby Phat CEO and Style Network star addresses the racism she faced as a young girl, how her mom always encouraged her to believe in herself and work hard, and how she plans to instill these same values in her three children.
“My friends are surprised to learn that, outgoing as I am today, I was a loner growing up. I was a mixed-race girl with a Korean-Japanese mother and an African-American father, and none of the other kids at my school were like me. I was nearly six feet tall by the time I was 11 years old. And I was an only child being raised by a single mother.
At school in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant, MO, everything about me seemed to be a source of ridicule to other kids: my face, my height, the texture of my hair, my body shape. I was a real fish out of water. And because I had so many growth spurts, it took time for me to grow into my body. The popular kids were into sports, but I was awkward and gawky. I was super clumsy—I still am. Kids can be cruel. They called me “chinky giraffe.” I cried all the time. But my mother wanted me to turn my tears into something else, something positive.
My mom, who worked for the Social Security Administration her entire life, has always been my role model. She did her best to make me feel comfortable in my own skin. She always reminded me that we’re all different and that’s to be respected. “Put on your game face,” she’d say. “Yes, it hurts, but don’t succumb to it. It will pass.”
Mom was right, of course. Even though I felt a bit like a freak in school, my unusual looks were just right somewhere else—in the world of modeling. To a camera or a catwalk, my height and exotic looks were assets instead of liabilities. Realizing this, my mother enrolled me in modeling classes when I was 11. She’d take me on “go-sees” during her lunch hour and would rush back to work. If she didn’t get back to her job on time, she’d be reported. It was stressful for her. But she did it for me because she saw how modeling seemed to be a place I could finally fit in. Almost overnight, everything the kids at school thought was weird about me was now good.
When I was 13, I was discovered by agent Marilyn Gauthier at a Model Search in St. Louis and sent to Paris. There, I was selected by Karl Lagerfeld to model his Chanel collection. It seems funny now, but at the time what I really wanted was a normal job at the grocery store like everybody else. But my mother knew that modeling offered a path with more opportunities.
She also taught me a lot about the determination of single mothers. You can’t be lazy, you can take things into your own hands, and fear can propel you. She also made it clear that working moms need to prioritize. You can’t worry about all the things on your list. You do what’s in front of you, and step-by-step, you get it all done.
Things have changed so much for career women since I was growing up. It’s accepted now that as women we work—and we’re a force to be reckoned with. But there are still obstacles, and these are universal. Every woman feels them. I’m the president of Phat Fashions, yet some people in the business world think I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m a woman, and a woman of color. What can you do? If you speak up you’re considered bossy. You get a bad rap for knowing what you want. Through it all I try to maintain a good self-image. Now more people understand my vision.
As my mom did for me, I’m helping my own girls, Ming Lee, 9, and Aoki Lee, 7, learn about tolerance—to respect differences in culture, religion and even the way we look. I also try to set boundaries, let them know what’s expected and give them room to develop and grow. I will do the same with my infant son, Kenzo Lee Hounsou. I recently married his father, Djimon Hounsou. He’s an actor and a model, and he speaks five languages. We learn a lot from him.
I involve my kids in my work, so they can see that even though the balancing act isn’t easy, it’s possible. They also see that fashion can be a creative way to express yourself. Ming and Aoki love to sew and make their own clothes. They have a real fashion sense and inspire me creatively. I listen to their ideas and often consult them, especially for Baby Phat Girlz, one of our children’s fashion lines. Sometimes they appear with me on the runway. They love to go into my closet and pick out my clothes. Our kids help us stay youthful.
As working mothers we need clothes that are fashionable and functional. We need great basics and accessories. Every mom needs a wonderful extra large leather tote, for instance.
And we deserve respect. We’re all in the same boat. We have similar fears and hopes for our kids. We bring home the bacon, and then we enjoy it with our kids. They need us and we need them. My kids and my business make my world go ’round—they’re what I live for.”