The Arrival Of Aoki Lee Simmons
As soon as exams wrap, the Harvard undergraduate is making a beeline for the country’s fashion capital.
Aoki Lee Simmons is used to a bit of cognitive dissonance. Take today, for example. We’re sitting in the dusty back office of a 19th century Roman Catholic church in New York’s Alphabet City, where she’s simultaneously getting her hair, makeup, and nails done for Bustle’s photoshoot, which will happen in a few minutes down the hall, past a line of well-worn pews. Her lineup of thigh-barring mini skirts might feel out of place here, but Simmons never does. She’s spent her life convincing people she deserves to be in disparate spaces. Why would today be any different?
She may have been born into fame, but the 20-year-old is more likely to name-drop Socrates than her parents, Russell and Kimora Lee Simmons. In May, she’ll graduate from Harvard University with a degree in classics and government before moving to New York to pursue modeling full time.
In doing so, she’ll have big shoes to fill. Her mother, who walked the Chanel runway at age 14, has been called both “the Queen of Fabulosity” and “the first lady of hip-hop.” Her mogul-yogi dad co-founded Def Jam, shepherding the careers of artists like Run-DMC and Public Enemy. Befitting her legacy, Simmons recently fronted a Tommy Hilfiger campaign wearing a recreation of Aaliyah’s tube top and denim look from the iconic 1996 Tommy Jeans shoot.
“I love the brand,” says Simmons, who stars in its latest campaign, too. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to ruin their shoot.’ And then I was like, ‘They know what they’re doing marketingwise, and they pick people for a reason, so calm down.’”
Simmons traces her passion for fashion back to the runways of the midaughts, when her mother, the designer of Baby Phat, would bring out her then-toddler daughters for finale bows, cameras rolling for her reality show, Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane. “That was the one time [each] year I got to wear lip gloss and get heat curls. It was my little fun glam moment,” she says. “People say, ‘I never pictured you’d start modeling.’ But if you go way back, I was always like, ‘Can I do a backflip on this runway? Can I do a cartwheel? Can I stay?’”
So, is Kimora supportive of her daughter following in her Manolo-made footsteps? “She’s into the modeling, but I’ll call her from Harvard, and she’s like, ‘Did you walk by the law school today? Did you walk by the med school?’ She’s very into a grad-school moment.”
She has always made it crystal clear to her daughters that academics were the priority. (Simmons’ older sister, Ming, is a New York University student with a blazing-hot influencer career.) Growing up primarily in Los Angeles, Simmons tested into a gifted school, where she studied STEM subjects like computer science but also ballet, violin, and piano. Today, she posts TikToks from Harvard libraries’ “study caves” during all-night cram sessions.
“My mom was in charge,” she says of her childhood. “My mom is the person who gives the instructions; my dad is like a cool uncle.” But her three younger brothers — ages 13, 13, and 7 — are living with a more relaxed version of Kimora. “[When I ask] ‘What are you doing?’ they’re like, ‘I’m at the mall, hanging out with my friends,’ and I’m like, ‘Not Kumon? What’s up? It’s a weeknight!’” she laughs. “So I think she’s lightening up.”
Simmons’ pure love for the industry is something her social media critics would do well to remember. (“No one cares that much, pls just go be rich,” is a typical dig from the comments section.) She acknowledges her “luck and privilege and gifts in life” — as well as the shakiness of meritocracy as a concept. “There are different stressors on your life, whether it’s COVID or having to work through high school to help support your family,” she says. “I work my hardest for me. I have no idea if that would have been enough in a different life.”
Below, she talks with Bustle about mental and physical health, family dynamics, and her not-so-secret secret boyfriend.
Congrats on opening Kim Shui’s show last month and on the new Tommy campaign. Does your mom give you modeling tips?
She came to watch me at New York Fashion Week for the first time. At one show, I held onto a stairway railing for a second and was like, “She’s going to say, ‘Girl, get your hand off the railing!’” But I got down and she was like, “Those stairs were intense. I’m really proud of you. That was risky. I would’ve been scared.” I was like, “Ah! Thanks.”
You’ve talked on TikTok about how you used to feel insecure. When you were younger, you didn’t even like to show your face on camera. Did modeling help you feel more confident?
For sure. I got a lot of criticism when I was younger. It took me a while to realize most [people] aren’t having [public] pictures taken of them when they’re 12. Middle school is not the time. There are comments on my Instagram like, “I always knew you’d turn out great!” Or “I’ve always thought she had it in her to be pretty.” And my boyfriend will ask, “What is this supposed to mean? You were 14.”
You went to boarding school in Switzerland around that time?
Yes, it was high school, but I was 12. I did learn to ski there. I don’t like skiing actually, but I’m glad I know how. My mom said, “OK, in theory…” — let’s be clear, this was pre Meghan Markle — “In theory, [what if] you meet Prince Harry, and he’s like, ‘Do you want to go skiing?’” At the time, Prince William had taken Kate skiing. And she said, “And if you can’t ski, you’re screwed.” I was like, “That’s valid. Let me get on these slopes.”
What made your family decide you should study abroad at that age?
Oh! No one decided that. I applied [for] me and Ming. This was all my idea. And then I was like, “Hey, we have an interview for a boarding school.” She was like, “What? Mom!” She ended up loving it. The great thing about an international boarding school is that if I go to Fashion Week in London or Paris, we have close friends from there. It gives you an international community. But at the time, Ming was like, “You did what?” And I was like, “Just write your little essay. Don’t worry.”
Boarding school must have made you really independent.
It did. I had a little budget. The boarding school recommended a certain allowance, and my mom — love that lady — said, “Can I do less? Can I do half?” They were like, “This is the recommended minimum. If you want your kid to have fun, go up.” But she was like, “I’m going to go down.” So I had to budget out all my stuff: food, shampoo. It was very useful. I think that’s why I was ready for college at 16.
Let’s talk about your style.
My style is a combination. I’m very influenced by ’90s model style. I like simple stuff, but I also spill things, so it’s going to be a lot of black and navy. I got the idea to wear Adidas Gazelles from pictures of young Kate Moss. She used to wear them all the time to her shows. There’s a little bit of ’60s, a little Once Upon a Time in Hollywood vibes. I have lots of little plaid mini skirts, trouser-cut jeans, preppy things. But my mom’s always like, “Remember to have something young or edgy, because if you put your favorite pieces together, you look like a tenured professor.” When I left for Harvard, Ming was like, “OK, anytime you want to throw on ballet flats, put on sneakers instead. And give me your pearl earrings. You can do little hoops, safety-pin earrings, a gold stud, something youthful and fun.”
You interned for NYC Mayor Eric Adams’ administration. Do you think you’ll eventually go into government or politics?
I don’t know. I did wear a clear PVC raincoat and no pasties on the Kim Shui runway, so that might have ended that. But maybe. I’m thinking I’m going to take the LSAT, because I can keep the score for five years. So when I go to castings and don’t cut it, maybe I can just apply to law school.
You’re inspiringly open on TikTok about some of your health challenges, like ADHD and Hashimoto’s.
Oh, thank you. I struggle to lie. If you have ADHD and you’re up late, if you have insomnia, or if you have Hashimoto’s and you’re chilling in bed not feeling great, social media is a good way to feel less isolated. I’m really just there to talk to people my age. It feels like a very communicative platform, the way I use it. I actually made a great friend on TikTok. We started doing Pilates together in Boston.
That’s amazing. We hear a lot about the downside of social media and its negative impact on young women’s mental health.
Oh, let’s back up. It’s a problem, for sure. Social media can be really fun and useful, but it can also take your attention away from other things. The instant gratification really messes with our delayed reward system.
So how do you manage that?
I set a time limit on how much I’m allowed to be on social media every day. It shuts down automatically. There’s a password to override it, but I had my roommate set it, so I don’t know what it is.
And the boyfriend: He’s a biotech venture capitalist.
He’s amazing. We met at a law school party, through a mutual friend.
Your mom must be thrilled.
She likes him a lot, yeah.
When you “hard launched” your relationship, you got some backlash.
That was a weird moment. It’s crazy to be discussing interracial relationships in 2023. He plays the harp, so there was a harp in the picture. Our picture was cute. I got some positivity, but some of the comments were very chaotic. Someone brought in slavery. I was like, “What? Why are we here? How did the harp turn into…? Screw you.” But he’s a very unshakable individual. I was like, “This is a lot of meanness. This is hundreds and hundreds of people who have a crazy opinion.” And he’s just like, “Yes, babe, it’s unhinged. Remember, the world has billions of people.”
I got upset when people started digging up pictures of his family. It was a level of sleuthing I didn’t even know existed. Also, one of his parents passed away, and [people] were posting it. He wasn’t even tagged! How do you go from not tagged to deceased family members?
Does that make you want to be more private online?
I think I’ll probably be more private. I’m not a big poster anyway, in terms of relationships.
You’re studying all night, flying on red-eyes. How do you take care of your health? Does Hashimoto’s make you more vulnerable to illness?
Definitely. I’m always trying to fight inflammation. For some people, when they don’t sleep, they get very snatched and Bella Hadid. When I don’t sleep, I look like a potato. It’s not chic. It’s just sad. With Hashimoto’s, but also just with being a puffy individual, I try to keep the lymphatic system stimulated. When I get sick, it’ll get very puffy very fast, and it hurts around the lymph nodes. So I try to keep the body in an active, flowing state, whether that’s through dry brushing, yoga, sauna, sweat, working out. My skin is OK if I drink a lot of water. If I don’t, my skin just hates me and no skin care can help me — but keep in mind, there’s water in iced coffee.
Is it true you ice your face?
I do like dumping my face in a bucket of ice water. When I was younger, I had a very round, puffy face, so ice facials came out of trying to combat that. In modeling, I used to get told, “You have a really sweet, round face, [but] you’re not really going to do much runway. It’s not very fashion.” And I was like, “I’m just young, and I have baby cheeks, and I’m Korean! Why are you like this?”
But now I’m not trying to fight my face. I want to look my personal best, just not inflamed. And I still end up looking like a very happy cherub baby. But I’m going to age well! I will age with grace.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Top Image Credits: Sweater, shirt, and tie provided by Tommy Hilfiger, AMI skirt, Jennifer Fisher earrings, Tiffany & Co. bracelet, Il Bisonte backpack, MK socks, Roger Vivier shoes
Photographs by Danny Kasirye
Styling by Jan-Michael Quammie
Clothes provided by Tommy Hilfiger
Hair: Sasha Nesterchuk
Makeup: Jamal Scott
Manicure: Tak Okamura
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert