August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

Vive la différence! It’s this quintessentially Gallic attitude that Missouri teenager Kimora Perkins credits with catapulting her from the sidewalks of St. Louis to the runways of Paris. “Being different sells in Paris,” says Perkins, whose sinewy 6-foot frame, mocha complexion—a legacy of her Korean-Japanese-African-American heritage—and toothy smile were first seen last summer by designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Likening her to a Gauguin painting, Lagerfeld hired the then 14-year-old ninth grader, dubbed her one of the “girls of the ’90s,” and immediately cast her in his couture collection for Chanel, making her the youngest model in that venerable house’s history. Perkins has since become a favorite of other top designers as well, including Ungaro and Saint Laurent.

“I love it so much,” says the spirited teen of her newfound career. “When you walk down the streets of Paris and people look at you, it’s great.” Perkins wasn’t always so high on her unique looks. She stood 5’10” at the age of 10 and “was bumping into everything,” recalls her mother, Joanne, a single parent and manager of a St. Louis Social Security Administration office. “She’d cry and call herself clumsy. Her self-esteem was really low.” But after enrolling in a modeling course, Perkins not only met other girls who were nearly as tall, she also signed with Delcia Corlew, head of a St. Louis modeling agency. Soon she was off to Europe.

These days Perkins divides her time between Lutheran High School North in St. Louis, where she’s a B + student, and an apartment in Paris that she sometimes shares with other young models. Since her mom has to stay in St. Louis and work, Perkins brings some homey touches with her by filling a suitcase with her teddy bear and reserves of tuna, ravioli and peanut butter. “I don’t eat Paris food,” she sniffs. Haute couture hasn’t entirely won her over either. Despite the attention and affluence (she makes from $125 to $450 per hour) modeling has provided, she has other plans for the future. “I don’t expect to model until I die,” says Perkins. “I think I’m going into corporate law.”

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