By Samantha Miller
Updated June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Michele Hicks is no wimp. When the model isn’t sashaying down catwalks in Milan and Paris or vamping in ads for L’Oréal and Shiseido, she likes to go hiking, ice climbing and windsurfing. But one high-impact vacation three years ago nearly derailed her career. After lugging a 70-pound backpack through Alaskan mountains for 45 days, Hicks found that her new muscles didn’t mix with outfits meant for willowy waifs. “My arms and legs were bigger, and things didn’t fit me the same,” says the 5’8½” 27-year-old. “If I wasn’t in the modeling business, I wouldn’t have worried about it; but that’s all part of the deal.”

Hicks solved her dilemma—and helped propel an ultrahip fitness trend—by taking up the Pilates Method. Based on one-on-one training and a battery of Rube Goldberg-meets-the-Marquis de Sade equipment, Pilates (puh-LAH-tees) stretches and strengthens the abdomen, lower back and buttocks and, devotees say, imparts a slim, sleek shape. Thanks partly to a glitzy list of disciples that includes Madonna, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster and Uma Thurman, the regimen is now the rage among gym rats sick of treadmills and aerobics.

Hicks is among those at the center of Pilates’ resurgence. Ten months ago, she and pal Brooke Siler, a Pilates trainer, opened re:AB, a Pilates gym in New York City’s trendy NoHo neighborhood. Its clients include top models Shalom Harlow, Amber Valletta and Stella Tennant and actresses Maura Tierney and Jennifer Grey. With 175 members and 100 people on the waiting list, Hicks and Siler are already planning to expand. “Coming in at the beginning of a trend was advantageous,” says Hicks, who provided the start-up cash and manages finances while Siler, 29, oversees the staff of nine other trainers.

Not that Pilates is anything new. Interned by the British during World War I, German-born circus performer Joseph Pilates began fitting hospital beds with springs and straps to help patients rehabilitate. In 1926, after coming to the U.S., he opened a studio. Dancers, including students of George Balanchine and Martha Graham, were his main clientele.

Now there are 160 certified Pilates centers in the U.S.—up from just a handful in past years. At re:AB, hour-long sessions using Pilates-invented machines with names like the Reformer and the Cadillac cost $60 to $70. Clients (mostly women) say it’s worth it. Pilates “realigns the body, and I particularly need that from being in high heels for hours at a time,” says supermodel Harlow. Pilates “lengthens and tones the muscles,” adds Valletta. “I don’t want to get bulky.”

Siler and Hicks are quick to puncture Pilates myths. No, says Siler, it won’t give you a boyish body. And yes, you sweat: “This ain’t yoga,” she adds. But it can be both slimming and spiritual. “The exercises release so much from you that some people have ended up crying,” she says.

Hicks, a former teen rebel, isn’t the tearful type. Raised in northern New Jersey by her divorced mother, a registered nurse, she moved out to live with friends at age 14 and dropped out of school at 16 to wait tables. At 17, she worked as a bartender and doorperson at Manhattan clubs. Urged to try modeling, she was turned down by agencies. “The response was, ‘Sure, if you get a boob job and dye your hair blonde, maybe you’d work,’ ” she recalls.

But in 1992, Kate Moss‘s waif look swept onto the scene, and two years later Hicks was snapped up by the Wilhelmina agency (she’s now with Marilyn Inc.). “It was pretty whirlwind,” says Hicks, who now shares her 2,600-square-foot Chinatown loft with boyfriend Christophe Kutner, 37, a fashion photographer. To Hicks, who still models regularly, running re:AB is a much-needed brain workout. “It’s fun to say that you developed something,” she says, “that you put the right people together in the right place, and it worked.”

Samantha Miller

Anna Lisa Raya in New York City