Kofi Forson in conversation with Jenny Shimizu
Jenny Shimizu, Japanese American model, actress, television personality and avid motorcycle rider was discovered by Kelly and Calvin Klein. She moved to New York started doing runway for Donna Karan, Versace and Jean Paul Gaultier among many others. Her ad campaigns include Levi's, Calvin Klein, J Crew and The Gap. She has appeared in numerous television shows, including America's Next Top Model and, currently, a series regular on Bravo's Make Me a Supermodel. As an actress, she has starred in movies including Foxfire and Itty Bitty Titty Committee.
Kofi Forson: Time has been good to you Jenny.
Jenny Shimizu: Well thank you.
KF: We’ve all matured haven’t we?
JS: We sure have.
KF: I remember you as this female James Dean…
JS: Ha…a nickname already? (Laughter)
KF: Well you’re more graceful now. The Jenny Shimizu in those Calvin Klein ads was a rebel. How did that come about - getting picked?
JS: I went to a casting call at the Hollywood Bowl. Kelly and Calvin Klein saw me on my motorcycle. They came up to me shocked that I rode a motorcycle to the casting. They decided to bring me to New York got me into an agency. From there I started my career.
KF: What happened then?
JS: Bruce Webber called. I did a Banana Republic Campaign. I shot for Italian Vogue. It all kinda happened within a three week period.
KF: The Calvin Klein ad was indicative of the 90’s. People like Tony Ward, Stella Tennant and even Vincent Gallo were all pushing that edge. You, of course - a Japanese American woman, a lesbian, had tattoos…
JS: It was a huge change in the industry. As a matter of fact I was looking at some old magazines… Calvin Klein said this was where modeling was going and he pointed at a picture of me… not so much me as a person but generally what we are as real people.
KF: It explains the shift that trickled into the market and is still to this day running rampant.
JS: People wanted to relate to products they were buying. They wanted to see themselves. Race issues were breaking through as well as gender issues… The whole androgyny thing was becoming popular. I feel like they always tapped into androgyny but in a negative way. In ‘92 and ’93 it became relevant. People wanted to see themselves as they were. There was a call for races to change. Issues concerning different types, body shapes, tattoos all became significant in the modeling industry.
KF: I can’t for the life of me think you had a traditional childhood.
JS: I had a very normal childhood. I grew up in Central California in a city called Santa Maria. What it’s most famous for now is the Michael Jackson trial.
KF: How normal could it have been?
JS: I lived in a farming community. Everybody had four by fours. We drank a lot of beer and chewed tobacco.
KF: Were you interested in music, art or literature?
JS: The funny thing is that I read a lot of teen books on African American and Latino gangs… gang novels. I got so obsessed. It brought me to a world I’ve always enamored… the dark side. When I came to New York I would flock to the Lower East Side or Echo Park in Los Angeles. I’ve always been obsessed by the seediness of our culture.
KF: As an openly gay model how were you received in the business?
JS: I never tried to hide it. The modeling world loved it. There weren’t a lot of lesbians. It’s all full of queens and straight women. It was like I had become a new toy. They welcomed me with open arms.
KF: I’ve always felt an artist is not someone who just makes art but exists as a prototype whether it’s inner turmoil, manifesting, evolving… Tragedy doesn’t define an artist but overcoming hurdles in life completes him or her as a man or woman.
JS: I believe that coming from the ‘90’s and surviving, I do feel that art is not about tragedy. We were talking about Dash Snow earlier. It’s so sad that someone or anybody would die of a drug overdose. That in itself is super creative. To come from a dark place with no hope…You can’t do it with money, clothes or a brand new car. (Sigh) Dash Snow was celebrated as an “infant terrible”. He was probably given access to a lot of money, drugs and people. It’s a difficult lifestyle to maintain. It either eats you up or pushes you forward.
KF: Success and fame does truly push one closer to the limelight. You come from celebrity status and are known for two love affairs with Madonna and Angelina Jolie. How do these relationships complete you if at all?
JS: They don’t. It’s part of a puzzle definitely. Obviously those are the two most public relationships. Madonna and Angelina were very public people. I learned a lot actually. I learned a lot about PR. It wasn’t like dating some one you met on the street or at a bar. Whether good or bad, a lot of baggage comes with these relationships. I learned a lot definitely. I learned a lot.
KF: So do you find meaning in love and art…as these relationships revolved around creativity?
JS: I believe love and art is defined by the artist. What the artist chooses to create has to do with love. That love is art.
KF: What do you look for in a woman?
JS: I listen to people. The most attractive quality about a person is that they are comfortable in their own skin. I’m down to earth. I seek that in other people.
KF: What then becomes the art of modeling? What is the language between the model and photographer?
JS: In order to be a great model you have to learn to relate not so much to the photographer but the camera itself as an object. There’s something in it that you can transfer straight into that machine and then it becomes something beautiful. My message has always been “humanness”. I look into the camera and try to pretend that I’m talking to somebody. The idea of “humanness”…I think that’s key.
KF: How have you adjusted from working as a model to acting?
JS: As a model turned actress I’ve always been a strong personality. Most of the jobs I get offered is to be myself. I’m on BRAVO television, the show Make Me a Supermodel. I’m a judge helping young kids become models. I’m on a lot of shows as a host. I’ve been in some movies. I’m realizing acting is fantasy where you become not yourself. I’m hoping to do more of that in the future. I did an independent film this summer. In it I play a very feminine woman, a lady who owns a hair salon. I wore make up, high heels… I had the most incredible time not portraying myself.
KF: What does New York mean to you? How does it feel to be back?
JS: I’m extremely happy to be back in New York. It’s almost like recharging my battery. To be surrounded by people that are like-minded is really a nice place to be. I lived in Hollywood for the past ten years. I always thought differently from the people who lived there. It’s a beautiful place, very relaxing… but when I’m in New York my brain is always challenged. (Sigh) I needed to be vulnerable so I can start to be more creative, writing, perhaps painting. I think really putting it on paper or canvas is way more difficult than being in front of a camera…It’s really heart-wrenching.
KF: Will you ever be able to forget the ‘90’s? Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
JS: I don’t forget about the ‘90’s. No one who has survived the ‘90’s in the modeling world forgets it. There are so many beautiful and sad stories I have about the nineties. The ‘80’s in L.A., the ‘90’s in New York…I feel very blessed to have lived in two great decades and two wonderful cities. I often find myself twenty times a week saying…”Back in the nineties”. (Sigh)
KF: Ten years from now…?
JS: Ten years from now I hope to be celebrating my fiftieth birthday with the girl I’m here with. Hopefully there are no motorized wheelchairs in my future.
view all articles from this author
Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.