Childhood & Early Life
Kimora Lee Simmons was born Kimora Lee Perkins on May 4, 1975, in St. Louis, Missouri to Joanne "Kyoko" Perkins and Vernon Whitlock Jr.
Her mother was a Korea-born Japanese lady who was adopted during the Korean War by a U.S. serviceman, while her father an African American, Vernon Whitlock Jr., worked in various capacities; as a Federal marshal, as an investigator for the ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’, a bail bondsman, and even as a barber in the city of St. Louis.
Kimora grew up in Florissant, a northern St. Louis lower-middle-class suburb where life proved to be pretty tough. Studying at the Lutheran North High School, she was the constant target of teasing and bullying, especially because of her height compounded by her mixed ancestry. By the time she was ten years old, Kimora was already 5 feet 10 inches.
When Kimora was still in school, her father was arrested for dealing in narcotics and sentenced to 24 years imprisonment after he refused to turn informer in exchange for probation. While he was released after serving three years of his sentence, his marriage broke up, and Kimora was subsequently raised by her mother.
To give her the confidence and poise to handle her height, Kimora’s mother got her admitted to a modeling school at the age of 11. Just a couple of year later, Marie-Christine Kollock, representing the renowned Paris modeling agency, ‘Glamour’, discovered her when Kimora was participating in a Kansas City model hunt competition.
Arriving in Paris at the tender age of 14, she was immediately spotted by a ‘Chanel’ designer Karl Lagerfeld and signed up on an exclusive contract with the famous design house. In 1989, Kimora starred as the show closure for Lagerfeld’s haute couture line, dressed opulently as a child bride. In an interview given to ‘People Weekly’, Kimora said, "Everything people thought was weird about me before was now good."
Kimora created quite a splash in the fashion world and working with Lagerfeld for the next couple of seasons, she became a very successful model. It was during this period of heady success that she developed a penchant for costly luxury items and by the time she was 15, had spent most of her not inconsiderable income on designer bags while sporting a ‘Rolex’ wristwatch and riding around in a ‘BMW’ convertible despite warnings by her mother to be prudent.
To her credit, Kimora kept on shuttling between Paris and St. Louis, and with the assistance of an academic coach managed to graduate from St. Louis's Lutheran North High School on schedule.
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After making a sensational start to a career on the ramp, she was soon on the runway for some of the top fashion designers of the day like ‘Fendi’, ‘Yves Saint Laurent’, ‘Emanuel Ungaro’ and ‘Valentino’. Kimora was featured by the popular fashion magazine, ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ on the covers of its Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia editions.
In 1993, she acted in her first film, ‘For Love or Money’, a romantic comedy starring Michael J. Fox.
In 1999, the year after she married Russell Simmons, the owner of ‘Phat Farm’ clothing line, she launched ‘Baby Phat’, a fashion label that she wanted to make an aspirational brand. With her passion, she took the label from mere baby T-shirts to a complete line of urban sophisticated women’s wear.
After the ‘Kellwood Company’ bought ‘Phat Farm’ and ‘Baby Phat’, from Russell Simmons in January 2004 for $140 million, it appointed Kimora, then the creative director of ‘Baby Phat’, as the president and creative director of ‘Phat Fashions’.
During the period 2002—2006, she acted in minor roles in films like ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Beauty Shop’, ‘Rebound’ and ‘Waist Deep’. In 2003, she was a judge in the American TV reality show, ‘America's Next Top Model’ and also made an appearance in a music video ‘Change Clothes’ that reached #10 on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’ in December 2003.
In February 2006, ‘HarperEntertainment’ published ‘Fabulosity: What It Is and How to Get It’, a self-help book written by Simmons.
In fall of 2007, she launched ‘KLS’, a high-end line of sportswear. Simmons played herself in ‘Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane’, a TV reality show that premiered on ‘Style Network’ on August 5, 2007, and had a successful run till 2011.
On September 1, 2010, she resigned from ‘Baby Phat’ and parted ways with the ‘Kellwood Company’. Kimora planned to dedicate herself to make the ‘KLS’ collection more vibrant and to launch the ‘Kouture’ by ‘Kimora Brands’. She also planned to sell stylish clothes for under $40 at ‘Macy’s’ with the launch of a new brand.
On September 14, 2011, she announced on her website that she was the president and creative director of ‘JustFab’, a shopping website delivering personalized services. However, in May 2015, she parted ways with the company.
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Kimora again played herself in’ Kimora: House of Fab’, an American reality television series on ‘Style Network’. The show chronicling the day-to-day life at ‘JustFab’ debuted on January 23, 2013.
In June 2015, Kimora relaunched the ‘KLS’ collection, this time as a high-end couture line with the first boutique opening its doors in the tony Beverley Hills. In 2016, the line also became available at the ‘Aventura Mall ‘Bloomingdale’s’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Kimora Lee Simmons first met Russell Simmons in November 1992 at the ‘Fashion Week’ in New York City. At an impressionable age of 17, she was swept off her feet by the lavish attention given to her by Russell and ended up getting married on December 20, 1998. The couple separated in March 2006 and got divorced in January 2009.
In March 2007, Kimora started dating Djimon Hounsou, a model and an actor and the next year took part in a traditional Benin commitment ritual. The couple, however, never got married legally in America, and separated in November 2012.
Kimora confirmed in February 2014 that she had been married for some time to Tim Leissner, a former ‘Goldman Sachs’ banker who had been barred by American market regulators from participating in the securities market for his failure to provide work-related documents.
Through Russell Simmons, Kimora had two daughters, Ming (born January 21, 2000) and Aoki (born August 16, 2002, and through Djimon Hounsou, a son, Kenzo (born in May 2009). With Tim Leissner, she gave birth to a boy named Wolfe in April 2015.
Kimora Lee Simmons is a prolific and generous philanthropist. She founded the ‘Kimora Lee Simmons Scholarship Fund’ to give financial assistance to deserving students of her St. Louis alma mater and also actively supports a number of youth advocacy organizations, including ‘Keep a Child Alive’, ‘The G&P Foundation’, ‘Amfar’, ‘Hetrick-Martin Institute’. She is also on the board of ‘Rush Philanthropic’.
For her contribution to society, Simmons was presented the key to the city of St. Louis by the mayor who also announced that St. Louis would observe March 18, 2008, as ‘Kimora Day’.