I’m so thankful for the invention of the telephone, I need a new word for this level of gratitude. Being between addresses and currently living out of a suitcase at my in-laws’ until we take possession of our new house, I’ve been wearing what has become something of a
uniform for the last month: coffee-stained yoga pants that embody the descriptor “elastic waist” and uncombed hair in an unkempt ponytail. It’s been so long since I’ve put on mascara, the wee wand would likely render me befuddled. So the irony isn’t lost on me that this is the state in which I find myself when I prepare for my talk with supermodel Niki Taylor. If ever there were an instance to fall down on my knees and thank higher beings for the magic of technology, allowing me an over-the-phone-and-therefore-not-visible chat, this would be it. The whole thing is nothing short of a miracle.

Guinness World Record holder for youngest model to sign a six-figure deal, the distinctly recognizable Niki has been a regular fixture on the cover of this planet’s most revered rags since her foray into modeling two decades ago. Almost immediately following her debut in Seventeen, the fresh-faced then-14-
year-old became a household name for her personal brand of girl-next-door sweetness. So stratospheric was her ascent to superstardom that in May 1996, the term “the Niki Six” was coined to describe the unprecedented phenomenon
of her simultaneous appearances on the cover of America’s six most popular
women’s publications: Vogue, Allure, Self, Shape, Elle, and Marie Claire.
And, like good-luck numerology, New York City’s Times Square was virtually wallpapered in six larger-than-life images of Niki, due in no small part to her tenure as the face of Liz Claiborne.

Perhaps it’s this girl-next-door quality that has created in me the sense that she and I somehow grew up together; that I have “known” Niki for years. As a member of her generation, I not only watched with jaw-dropping awe as her career hit meteoric heights, but, like many admirers, followed the events of her life with a mix of fascination, envy, and, when tragedy struck, empathy. The sudden death of her younger sister, Krissy, in 1995, and a 2001 car accident that left Niki critically injured were followed
by a struggle to cope and heal in devastation’s aftermath. However, as someone who considers herself well-versed in the School of Niki, what I didn’t know was that this woman with the famous big smile and big strength, also possesses an equally big heart. Compassion for animals oozes from her like moisturizer from a CoverGirl tube, flowing in no short supply. And while part of me is relieved not to be meeting her face-to-face in my current mid-move condition, the other part of me is admittedly disappointed
I won’t get the chance. After all, she and I grew up together.

MD: You’ve walked the runways of Paris and Milan, but where are you living now?

NT: We’re in Nashville. I moved here in 2002 and I love it. It’s such a great place to raise kids.

MD: Tell us what it was like to transform from an everyday 13-year-old kid to, a year later, an international supermodel.

NT: Well, at 13, I was in eighth grade and going to softball practice. I had a great childhood. My parents always kept me grounded.
They always made sure I was in sports. I was a totally normal kid when I started to work. But yeah, the shift came as a culture shock. My first runway show was in Paris. My dad and I went together, and we were introduced to so many colourful personalities…everything from transvestites to artists. It was a really, really cool experience. Then I had to go back to school and real life. I kept pretty much to myself. I had my friends, of course, but I was still a bit of a loner. I knew what I was going through was different, and I didn’t want to talk too much about it.

MD: You were wise beyond your years.

NT: Travelling will do that. To experience different foods, people,
artists. You see the world. You learn. You grow up fast.

MD: Can you describe the feeling the first time you saw yourself—
one of the youngest models ever—on the cover of Vogue?

NT: I guess I didn’t think about it that much. Or even talk about it. I didn’t want people to think I was full of myself. I still wanted to be a 15-year-old. Then, I signed with CoverGirl, Liz Claiborne, Anne Klein. It was all incredible. It really still hasn’t hit me, actually. I don’t take anything for granted. None of it. I owe a lot to my parents. I mean, family is everything. I always wanted a family, my own kids…to also have a life outside the fashion world. I’m so grateful for it all.

MD: Having appeared on more than 300 magazine covers, tell us something we may not know about what it’s like to be a supermodel.

NT: It is hard work. You have to look good all the time because you have to sell a product. And if the product doesn’t sell, the job goes on to the next girl. It’s constant. The hair, the make-up, the stylists,
the clients. It’s really hard work. But it was my gift and my passion, and just something I’m good at. So to me, it’s just a blessing of a job. Even when it’s freezing
cold and you have to do swimsuits. Or, you’re doing really warm stuff in hot weather. It’s a difficult schedule, and you’re not going to get the best sleep.

You have to be flexible, and be able to roll with the punches. You have to be able to make fun of yourself. You have to have a good sense of humour. Life is so short, it’s too much to take things so seriously. Really, that goes for any career. That’s one of the things I love so much about animals. They don’t take anything too seriously. They’re always just happy to see you. Anyone who doesn’t have a fur is really missing out.

MD: A fur? That’s what you call animals?
That’s hilarious. How many furs do you have?

NT: I have two dogs. Ace is a terrier
mix. He is beautiful. He’s got spots with wiry hair. One blue eye and one brown. He’s a rescue from the streets of Greensboro.

My other dog is Jesse. She is from Brooklyn. I was working there and I got her from a pet shop across the street from the shoot. Everyone gave me a hard time for that! The photographer took a photo and it went in People and all of a sudden, readers were writing in with things like: “If Niki were a real pet lover, she’d have adopted.” I learned my lesson. I will now always adopt. But she is amazing. She’s 10 now. My husband and I always say if pets were human, she’d be the soccer mom secretly smoking cigarettes and yelling
at the ref. She has a big personality. Ace, we’re sure, once played with the Grateful Dead. With him, everything is just groovy. It’s all about doing yoga outside
in sun. In addition to Ace and Jesse, I also have three felines.

MD: So Ace and Jesse have very distinct personalities. Who would play them in the movie of their lives?

NT: Oh, Jesse would be played by someone who is pretty and also tough. A firecracker. And Ace would have to be played by Jerry Garcia.

MD: You have three human kids too, yes?

NT: Yes, my boys Jake and Hunter are 15 years old. And my daughter, Ciel, is 15 months. I am loving each and every stage of their lives. Jake and Hunter are so into their skateboards, their dirt bikes. They’re honours students, all A’s and B’s. I always say it’s like Ciel has three dads. They are great big brothers for Ciel.

MD: Have you always considered yourself
a dog person?

NT: Oh yes! I’ve had many rescues. With all the home foreclosures recently, we rescued a few dogs and found amazing
new homes for them. My whole family,
we’re all huge animal lovers. I have an aunt who is very, very involved in cat rescue as well.

MD: So it makes sense that you are an often-heard voice on the rescue scene in Tennessee. As a volunteer with Happy Tales Humane Society, what is it about rescue that makes you so passionate?

NT: There are so many animals that people just choose to give up on. I feel that if people aren’t prepared to take care of an animal, they should just not have them. It’s ridiculous how many animals we are putting down. True love means spaying and neutering. The statistics at Happy Tales, with the cats in Nashville alone, are unreal. To provide every cat in Nashville with a home would mean every household would have to have 15 cats. And that’s just here! People are so fixated with having a purebred dog, and yet, even as people, we are all mutts.

MD: If someone was in the market for a new pet, what would you tell them in support of going the rescue route?

NT: I would tell them to foster first. That’s what’s so great about Happy Tales, for example. They have families who foster. So, if someone’s in the market for a new pet, they can spend a couple of weeks with it and learn its personality first.

MD: What have you learned about life and yourself from being involved in rescue?

NT: It’s opened my eyes. We simply need more people to love these animals.

MD: Your husband is Burney Lamar of NASCAR fame, you have two teenagers and a baby, two dogs, and three cats. What’s the feeling in the Taylor-Lamar household?

NT: Our house is a very lovey-dovey house. Anyone who comes into our house says “Oh my gosh! I’ve never seen cats get along with dogs so well!” And I’m like: “What do you mean? Of course they do!” If you have pet allergies, you can’t come to my house! From the moment we get up, we have dogs and cats on us. Our animals are such a part of our family.

MD: You’ve been through a lot in your personal life, and have really served as a role model for the ability to dust yourself off and carry on. As your coping mechanisms have shifted, how do dogs bring you a sense of centeredness today?

NT: They are a huge part of my support group. No matter what, they don’t give me attitude. They don’t talk back. They are only here to love and be loved. I am so much more relaxed, more patient, more at ease, more calm because of my animals. They are the ultimate stress reliever.

MD: Is it something
of a relief for you to be around these beings that don’t care what you look like?

NT: Yeah. I never thought about that before, but yeah. They sense if you’re having a bad day. I will get a nudge on my leg or a jump on my lap. Nothing compares
to the totally unconditional love of my animals.

MD: Your career transitioned to entrepreneur with the advent of your boutique Abbie and Jesse’s, to co-host of Bravo’s Make me a Supermodel, to creator of your perfume, Begin, and to philanthropy
as well. What are your next goals?

NT: I’d love to own my own line. My own lifestyle brand…clothes, cosmetics, accessories, shoes. I’ve been in the fashion industry for so long. It’s in my blood. Even my dogs are supermodels.
If there’s a camera around, they seek it out!

MD: I’m mid-move, living out of a suitcase right now. Feeling hideous. Please tell us, do you ever have ugly days?

NT: I actually love living out of a suitcase! I love having just two or three simple things to wear. If the washer and dryer works, hey! As a family, we’re always outside: the dogs, the kids. We’ve got nice farmers’ tans. I love living in a ponytail. If you were to see me now…

MD: Does this mean my current look is Niki Taylor-endorsed?

NT: Yes. Go with it!