That other Chanel

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.

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. —

But Chanel Iman is for real. And so is the overnight success story surrounding this 16-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.


“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 ParisCHANEL signed with the Los Angeles branch of Ford, which quickly dispatched her on the usual rounds for a new model: catalogs and teen magazines. The luckiest fledglings take a solid two years to mature into international stars, agents say. Chanel was jetting off to Paris within months. The fashion world latched on to her unique look -- she is part Korean and part African American -- and her name didn’t hurt either.

“Before, I didn’t like my name,” Chanel says. “I wanted to be a Brittany or a Tiffany. I used to say my middle name was Brittany. I didn’t even know who Iman was at first.”

As her star rose, Chanel left her sophomore classmates at Fairfax High, opting for home schooling. But her mother stayed by her side, hovering in the audience at Badgley Mischka and Gaultier, introducing herself and her daughter to power players such as Talley, and muscling her way backstage to keep a protective eye on her daughter.


“I would always wear black to blend in,” Chanel’s mother says. “Many of them didn’t want to see parents back there. But I didn’t care. I went.”

Meanwhile, out on the catwalk, tastemakers were taking notice not only of Chanel’s look, but her almost dangerous level of cheek. This was not the 1980s, when models were encouraged to act as outrageous as the Versaces and Lacroixs they wore. This was 2006: Models were to glide -- not stomp! -- down a catwalk, stop briefly, stand there, glide back and blend in. Otherwise they risked replacement by some other young stork with an Eastern European accent and no will of her own.

But all the rules seemed to bend for this Chanel person. While other models stopped obediently at the end of a runway, Chanel posed. When other models wore the traditional lobotomy stare during their catwalk runs, Chanel always chose a random person in the audience to wink at on her return trip.

“I said, ‘Who is that child walking down the runway?’” Talley recalls. “Chanel? Oh, please. I thought, ‘She made that up.’ ”

Chanel didn’t care about the rules.

“Chanel can just charm, charm, charm,” says Katie Ford, chief executive of the modeling agency. “She’s just so endearing, she gets away with it.”

Designers started calling. Chanel found herself posing in ads for Tommy Hilfiger and Benetton.


As demand rose, so did her income. She is an “A rate” model, Robinson says, which means she is a recognizable face, in the same tier as Gisele Bundchen or Jessica Stam. And after Chanel’s 16th birthday, she bought her sister’s Mercedes C-series. But Robinson still trims her daughter’s hair (and recently added bangs). And she keeps Chanel on a budget of $5,000 a month.

“She still calls me, asking permission to buy handbags,” Robinson says. “I say, well, is it in the budget?”

(One looming purchase: an iPhone. After playing with a reporter’s during the Venice Beach shoot, she declared, “This is a must buy, so it is in the budget!”)

Of course, Chanel probably won’t have to worry about budgets much longer. Not that she’ll be blowing her allowance at Collette.

Nice dress, there, Chanel.

“Thanks!” she half-whispers. “Forever 21. Thirty dollars.”