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That Other Chanel

The universe took a hint when this girl came along -- could 'Chanel Iman' be anything but a top model?

September 09, 2007|Leslie Gornstein | Special to The Times

A top model named Chanel Iman? Are you kidding? To steal from Richard Roeper, who once marveled upon a golf newcomer named Tiger Woods, that's like having a baseball star named Slugger Bats.

But Chanel Iman is for real. And so is the overnight success story surrounding this 17-year-old sprite from Baldwin Hills, a girl the fashion world is calling the hottest thing to come bouncing out of the L.A. Basin since Tyra Banks. That rumor that she caught the attention of Vogue editor Anna Wintour with a cheeky wink from the catwalk? That other rumor, that three top modeling agencies called Chanel's mother on the same day, desperate to sign her forthwith?

Both true (and yes, that's the name on her birth certificate too). Less than two years after her first gig -- a poolside beauty shoot for Teen magazine -- Chanel landed on the cover of Vogue last spring, the youngest of 10 girls the magazine anointed "The World's Next Top Models." Her idol Tyra Banks has become a friend and mentor. And this week, she's all over the catwalks in New York -- she's expected to walk in the Ralph Lauren, Doo Ri and Diane Von Furstenberg shows -- and on to London, Milan and Paris after that.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Chanel Iman: Model Chanel Iman's age is incorrect in an article in today's Image section. She is 16, not 17. In the same article, this quote is attributed to Chanel: "I would always wear black to blend in. Many of them didn't want to see parents back there. But I didn't care. I went." Her mother, China Robinson, is the person speaking.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 16, 2007 Home Edition Image Part P Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Chanel Iman: Model Chanel Iman's age was incorrect in the Sept. 9 section. She is 16, not 17. In the same article, this quote was attributed to Chanel: "I would always wear black to blend in. Many of them didn't want to see parents back there. But I didn't care. I went." Her mother, China Robinson, was the person speaking.

"I like the creativity of what designers can do to the clothes. And I like how it transforms me into a person I'm normally not," she said

Chanel embodies the ideal of a 21st century model: An unconventional beauty. A mix of glamour and mischief. A quirky individual style that, in Chanel's case, is utterly underwhelmed by the highfalutin' fury of $800 stilettos and breathless label-worship that pervades high fashion.

"I didn't really like them," Chanel told a horrified makeup artist, when asked about a pair of "genius" shoes she'd modeled. "They were OK."

These days -- between shoots for Vogue and Allure, walking for Marc Jacobs and Dolce & Gabbana, posing in ads for Benetton and Tommy Hilfiger -- Chanel's home base has shifted East. But when she can, she flees her New York apartment and swoops in for a visit, eager to reconnect with her mother, China Robinson, her best friend, Qeona Pirtle, and her favorite bits and pieces of this city.

"I just love to just get in my car and go," Chanel says, chilling in a production trailer during our fashion shoot on Venice Beach. "My family lives in Baldwin Hills now, but I am a Culver City girl, really. I'll just pick up my friends and head on out!"

And where, we ask, does a darling of Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs roam free? Barneys, perhaps, where she might glide upstairs for a little look-see? Milla Jovovich's Hollywood atelier?

"Um," Chanel quavers, her brows dipping in worry, "does it have to be a designer's place?"

When assured it does not, Chanel melts, her momma-instilled poise and impossible limbs returning to their standard tangle of teen.

"Melrose!" she says. "Melrose Avenue! We just love to walk around. And then sushi -- or, oh! Soul food! Roscoe's! Chicken and waffles!"

And Forever 21, and the Sunday flea market at her former school, Fairfax High, and of course, sales, sales, sales. Nice designer moccasins you've got there, Chanel.

"Thank you!" she says. "I got them at Marc? By Marc Jacobs? On Melrose? I already get a 50% discount because I walked in his show, and then they were on sale too!"

Part of her down-to-earth attitude can be chalked up to her age; really, other than the Fairfax High prom, what use does a 16-year-old have for the Carolina Herrera ball skirt she modeled on the cover of Vogue? But it also has something to do with her mother, a flight attendant who until recently traveled with Chanel as chaperon, disciplinarian and rock.

"You have to trace it back to her mother," says Andre Leon Talley, Vogue's editor at large. "Honestly, I don't see many mothers backstage the way I did in the early '90s. But she is always with her, in the same way Tyra Banks' mother was with her when she first started out."

Banks recently took Chanel to lunch and was impressed enough to offer to be her mentor.

"I do see some of myself in Chanel," Banks said in an e-mail. "She is a driven, motivated professional and doesn't seem to be at risk of getting caught up into the dark side of the modeling world. But, at the same time, she's a regular kid from the same part of L.A. that I am from. Girls like Chanel don't come by the modeling industry often."

The adventure started when she was 13. Though Robinson had named her child after a designer and a model -- and, she has said, always knew Chanel was destined to model -- she wasn't sure the girl was mature enough back then. An aunt persuaded Robinson to let her take her niece to visit a few of the top agencies. Within hours of those first go-sees, Robinson knew she had a budding phenom.

"I remember she went into the agencies that day," Robinson recalls. "I was on layover at the airport, and my phone started ringing that night."

--

Off to Paris

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