Kimora Lee Simmons reflects on her iconic career with ET, from reclaiming Baby Phat to potentially rejoining the reality TV ranks.
Kimora Lee Simmons is coming face to face with Kimora Perkins for the first time in 30 years. The supermodel-turned-business mogul first sat down with ET in November 1990, when she was 15-year-old Kimora Perkins, a polite girl from the St. Louis suburbs who went to school on weekdays, and walked the runways of Paris and Milan on weekends. In the three decades since, the now-45-year-old has superseded her own expectations, becoming a mogul, social justice advocate, mother of five and iconic TV personality.
"That's a question that I've never been asked," a then-teenaged Kimora told ET, at home in Florissant, Missouri, musing on the idea of whether she wanted to be famous. At the time, her modeling career was just starting to pique the interest of mainstream media, as she became fashion powerhouse Karl Lagerfeld's muse.
"I think it's something that I think you have to be pretty stable for, because everyone says, yes, I want it and then, when it hits you, you don't know what to do with it," she added. "Some people do get caught up in it and it totally knocks them over. But as far as I’m concerned right now, it's fine."
"I don’t remember I said all that," Kimora admits to ET today, Zooming in from her Los Angeles home, as another clip from her first major TV interview plays out.
"My wildest dream?" 15-year-old Kimora poses to her 1990 interviewer after being asked where she saw herself at age 20. "There's so many things. If it were in fashion, you know, I could, I could be the top model and be on every magazine cover, but then if it's just as far as my life is concerned, well not when I'm 20, but I always, you know, as far as government, there's a lot of things I'd like to see done in America that I think we could make better with our society."
"There's a lot of things I'd like to see done with that, and with the drugs, and things like that," the teen sensation added. "When I'm 20 years old, I think I'm just going to be getting started and I think I can intertwine both of them and be successful in the fashion industry and everyday life, making a change."
"It's the same stuff we face, kind of, talking about it then," present-day Kimora remarks. "I think I felt like the black sheep of my family in St. Louis. Just in the sense that I look different, and being in the Midwest in the '80s ... and I was so tall and they weren’t very accepting."
Kimora was already her adult height by age 15, a 6-foot glamazon, towering over her classmates as she marched around the halls of her high school. She was the "other," described as "exotic" by the fashion world, which hadn't quite found its footing when it came to reflecting back the world as it existed, diverse. Kimora is of Japanese and African descent.
"I've always felt like kind of coming out against the grain, right?" she poses, noting how much more reserved she was when she was 15, as opposed to the "fabulosity" of her present self. "I know inside I was so much more fabulous than that, so I just had to roll with the punches -- literally -- because I got my butt handed to me on a regular basis because of these crazy girls or whatever."
"Those people that picked on you, they are trolls and they are ugly and they are ugly inside and out girl, listen to me," she says, speaking to her younger self. "I always thought then -- but now, I know -- they are mean."
"They are losers," she adds, doubling down. "I know that for a fact, they are mean trolls. I hope they watch this."
While Kimora has let her freak flag fly, in a sense, a bit more since 1990, she's very much the same girl ET first met three decades ago: opinionated and politically minded. So much of what she mentioned in that first interview sticks true today. When she reacquired her lifestyle brand Baby Phat last year, she made it a mission of the company to contribute to social causes. Proceeds from the label's recently launched beauty line (a range of products including lip gloss, body spray and lotion) go toward Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight, an organization committed to ending voter suppression. Funds are currently contributing to getting out the vote in the Senate run-off race in Georgia.
"We have to bring literacy and awareness to this process," Kimora says of the right to vote. "If you want to make a change, you have to take advantage of lots of these laws and rights that we have as voters -- as women voters, as people of color -- use it or lose it."
Kimora doesn’t agree with everything she said back in 1990, though. At the time, she confessed to preferring McDonald's to French cuisine ("That's horrendous,” she confesses today) and professed that she would never leave her hometown of St. Louis.
"I said that?!" she exclaims. "Oh my gosh, no! My whole life is telling everyone to get out of St. Louis. Only because, I think you should tell everyone to [get out to] go back to your home, to your roots. Like now, I wanna go back. I wanna work on the riverfront project, we have the Arch, and I think I can be very influential. … I think I could help St. Louis."
"But I don't, it's not a place you wanna be landlocked and your idea of water is the Mississippi and the Missouri River, honey!" she adds, pronouncing the state name as Missour-ah.
"There's no way I could stay in St. Louis, Missouri," Kimora says. "I was six-feet tall! I'm 6'4" in heels! If there's any sort of platform, then I'm 6'5" or 6'6” …. I don't think I could've stayed in St. Louis, but you gotta go back. It's like any small town. You can't just stay tipping cows forever, Dorothy from Kansas. But I am out of Kansas and those red, glittery shoes are, like, I don't know? Christian Louboutin. We made it all the ways, girls!"
Kimora says there was a "drag queen" waiting to come out of her once she broke out of Missouri, a queen she's happily living as today.
"I am proud to look, all these years later, I have five kids... three husbands," she notes. "Lots of candy, lots of dogs, lots of friends, lots of cats. Come on, that’s crazy."
The mom of five is currently quarantined with her big brood -- daughters Ming, 20, and Aoki, 18, whom she shares with ex-husband Russell Simmons; son Kenzo, 10, her child with ex Djimon Hounsou, and 5-year-old Wolfe, her son with current husband, financier Tim Leissner, as well as Gary Lee, a 10-year-old boy she adopted at the beginning of the year.
"I love having all the kids home," she gushes. "I have thoroughly enjoyed being home with the kids and ... having said that, the 18 and 20-year-olds can exit stage right. 'Cause all they do is ask and beg, and want and need and I'm like, 'Wow, go back to where you came from.' And they're always like, 'You're gonna miss us when we're gone!' And I'm like, 'Really, I'm not. I'm OK. Go.' But I love them, honestly. That's the truth."
Kimora spends a lot of time with those 18 and 20 year olds, as Ming and Aoki are helping to run the family business. When Kimora reacquired Baby Phat last year, after selling it in 2010, she made her daughters partners in the brand. Ming and Aoki balance their fashion work with attending school, at New York University and Harvard, respectively.
"I feel like only today I can say that we are what we set out to be 20-something years ago, which is a heritage brand, which is a legacy brand," she says of turning the company into a true family business. "I think that's how people remember us, walking down the runway and the girls were little and now they're big and can do their own runway-ing. But, you know, it's like a family. We built it together. It's like, I didn't have Brooke Shields in my jeans, but I had Ming and Aoki on that runway."
The streetwear line made casual fashionable back in the late '90s and early 2000s, with their velour tracksuits, baby t-shirts and more designs inspiring countless copycats. Kimora's quick to mention being the first to bring fur-lined puffer coats to market, a look that spiked in popularity: "Everybody went and made a snorkel coat and charged you $4,000 for it, sweetheart! … You don't need to pay $6,000 for a snorkel coat." In the year 2020, all those trends are back in a big way.
"It's about retro brands," Kimora says of the current landscape. "Everything repeats, and we've heard this, right? It goes in 20-year cycles. ... I didn't really know that I'd be in one of those cycles, but that's what I wanted and that's what's happening now."
Kimora describes her daughters-turned-business partners as "outspoken entrepreneurs" who aren’t afraid to challenge their mother/boss’ ideas.
"Oh my God, they are killing me," she jokes. "Like, everything in terms of social media, marketing, whatever it's supposed to be. … [But] they bring -- they try to keep things current and a little bit more modern."
"Everything starts with something that's classic and retro, classically us," she adds. "It's all crazy stuff, but you know, hey, I listen and I think they know."
Kimora's choice to bring back Baby Phat came after a few years out of the limelight. Her last reality show, Kimora: House of Fab, ended in 2013. She says offers to return to TV have come her way since, but she hasn’t entertained them.
"It was fun, but it was a little crazy," she says of her time on reality TV, which also included the series Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane.
"The excitement to the world cannot be, like, only how downtrodden [you are] and all of your downfall," she says. "I wanted to inspire people, I wanted to educate them in terms of fashion and business and how to create your own, and how to get out there and be a go-getter and how to have something from nothing, and this whole spirit of entrepreneurship and vision and those things, so I did it. It was very tough. My kids grew up for a long time in front of the camera, but it was hard … and then it went, reality TV just kinda, everything crazy came in, where it's an invasion of your life."
Kimora's not sure what it would take to return the medium, but she's a little bit intrigued by the idea of Bravo's The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She says the network has reached out "every couple years, in between seasons or in between people," but she's always turned down offers to meet because she's not super excited about exposing her home life to the prying eyes of an audience.
"They definitely have asked me, but I've never been in, like, real talks," she says. "It's always through someone else, through an agent or whatever. … I've never had a conversation. They have called my office. I always say no. I do hear about it going on, I always have a lot going on, I never really know. I really like -- probably love -- most of the girls. I'm sure there are a few that you could slip through that I don't."
Kimora says she’d be more inclined to take a "friend of" role on the show over being a diamond-holder, as she’s "not into all that fighting and crazy drama."
"I mean, I can be but I don't want to be," she notes, before saying Housewives boss Andy Cohen is free to call her up and discuss the idea further. She's open for a drive-by cameo, ASAP.
"We’ll see," she says. "We'll talk, we'll laugh about the things they're gonna say. We'll see. We can be like, no one can come over here except for Garcelle!"
Yes, while Kimora doesn’t religiously watch the show, she admits to being a fan of current star Garcelle Beauvais.
"I just love her," she professes. "I feel like we have a lot of similarities in our life, things we've gone through. She's probably hot-headed, like me… Email all, girl! Yes! I love her. My idol."
That "email all" comment references a message Garcelle sent to her now-ex-husband’s company after she learned he had cheated on her for five years, a story she shared on RHOBH.
"You can only let people walk over you so much, and then you feel the need to strike back," Kimora muses. "There comes a time when we can't take it anymore. That doesn't mean afterwards that we can't be friends, or we have to agree to disagree -- probably means you're gonna get your a** beat. I'm always saying that, I'm violent. I'm gonna stop that."
Kimora catches herself from divulging more, offering only a "no comment" when asked if she's currently single. She’s still, at the least, legally married to Tim Leissner, but in a recent interview on The Carlos Watson Show, Kimora made comments about looking for love, and poked fun at her three marriages, joshing that she’ll probably tie the knot twice more before she dies.
"It's been a crazy time, though, I will say that," she admits. "It's been a crazy year. And for me personally, it's been a crazy couple of years, and everybody in the world who knows how to read between the lines is going to read between the lines, and underneath it they're gonna be typing, 'I knew!' and 'I told you this...' and I'm just trying to avoid all that and keep my head down and mind my business."
"It's a very tricky time out there for a lot of reasons, I'll say," she adds, "and I'm always cracking jokes, and inappropriate jokes, and they're always loaded with truths and innuendo, honey. But that's just me, and you just have to dig through it to understand. But offline, we can have another talk about the state of some affairs."
For now, Kimora's focused on taking Baby Phat into 2021, continuing to evolve the brand she considers to be her sixth child.
"I think nowadays, she's a little bit more sophisticated, she's grown up," she says of the modern-day "Baby Phat girl."
"She's definitely a go-getter, she's definitely gonna get what she wants -- she or he! I don't want to have all the boys later on, saying, 'You keep saying she...'" she continues. “I can't tell you how many guys love our brand. … They love it.”