By Ting Yu
December 04, 2000 12:00 PM

MTV House of Style host Molly Sims didn’t exactly burst onto the fashion scene sheathed in black leather hip huggers and Jimmy Choo slingbacks. When she began to model five years ago, she was a self-described fashion emergency who “wore shoulder pads and a lot of jewelry and had big pouffy hair,” she says, covering her eyes. “I had the bangs, the whole scrunched-up thing, trying to be Julia Roberts. I was a freak!”

That was then. Now, the chic 5’9″ 25-year-old, who began hosting the weekly House in May, has become one of the sought-after faces in modeling, appearing in the Victoria’s Secret catalog, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s most recent swimsuit issue and ads for Chanel and Armani. Her House duties include chatting with stars about couture at red-carpet galas and cohosting Fashionably Loud, MTV’s runway special, which airs Dec. 16. And she empathizes with the style misfits she helps on MTV’s House spinoff Mission: Makeover. “There was one episode where this guy applied for a new look and a date for the prom,” says Sims’s pal, stylist Danna Weiss, 28. “Molly went herself—the Victoria’s Secret model that came to prom! This guy is like the cat’s meow now. She’s great because she has heart.”

She also has a rare sense of groundedness. “I don’t really take it too serious,” drawls the Kentucky-born Sims. “I went to the Charlie’s Angels premiere, and I’m not at all jaded. I’m like, ‘Oh my God! I’m sitting between Richard Gere and Claudia Schiffer!’ ” Says MTV news and production vice president Dave Sirulnick: “Many models have an element about them that’s unapproachable. Molly is so warm and sweet and does a wonderful job of cutting against that.”

After all, it wasn’t so long ago that a teenage Sims was watching then-House host Cindy Crawford on TV and emulating “what she wore, what she said, the way she did her hair.” Raised in Murray, Ky., by parents Jim, 59, and former model Dottie, 60, owners of a wholesale college textbook company, Sims was a tomboy who often roughhoused with brother Todd, now 26 and a golf pro. “She hasn’t changed much at all,” says Todd, who is still unaccustomed to seeing his sister vamping in magazines. “It’s kind of surreal.”

A straight-A student who wanted to be a lawyer, Sims entered Nashville’s Vanderbilt University in 1993 to study political science. Encouraged by a college classmate who modeled, she sent pictures of herself to an agency early in her sophomore year and by second semester found herself prowling the catwalks of London. “I had worked so hard to get into Vanderbilt,” Sims says of her decision to drop out. “My parents asked, ‘Are you sure?’ But they never held me back.”

Her path to House of Style was not so charmed. “It was a disaster,” says Sims, who still cringes at the memory of her audition last March. “I had to interview [music journalist] Kurt Loder. I mean, Kurt Loder! He’s huge! I was so nervous! I was trying to be, I don’t know, like Katie Couric, but it was horrible because it wasn’t me.” However, she had other qualities MTV appreciated—such as a savvy mix of high and low fashion. “She would go, ‘Oh, I got this at a thrift store for $1.98, but this skirt is by such-and-such designer,’ ” Sirulnick says. “She was saying that’s who she is, and we liked that.”

Like her House predecessors Cindy Crawford and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos—both of whom used the show as a career springboard—Sims hopes to parlay her stint into an acting career. (While law school has lost some appeal, Sims says, “I still think about it.”) These days, when she’s not playing House, modeling or taking acting lessons, Sims keeps lean with a rigorous routine of Bikram yoga and hangs out with her two constant companions: boyfriend Stephan Dessaint, a French entrepreneur, and her 7-month-old Yorkie Poupette. Sitting cross-legged on the bed at her two-bedroom Manhattan flat (she keeps another apartment in Paris), Sims reflects on her rapid ascent to the heights of the fashion world. Though she felt pressure to adopt the emaciated heroin-chic look early in her career, she resisted it. “Now, having House of Style, I’m like, I am who I am, I weigh what I weigh. I didn’t have to starve myself or change to be where I am,” she says. “I worked hard, and I was me.”

Ting Yu

Cynthia Wang in New York City