SHE MAY BE WHITE-HOT IN THE FASHION cosmos, but Siberian-born model Irina Pantaeva tries to stay cool concerning her status. "We have many, many big stars in Siberia," the 21-year-old Eskimo says, stifling a giggle. "They're in the sky at night. They're really huge."

But few are as recognizable as Pantaeva, a 5'10", 118-lb. sensation who has the beau monde abuzz. With a look that ranges from impish to exotically elegant, she brightens the pages of Vogue, Bazaar and Mademoiselle and is the centerpiece of Missoni's current print ad campaign. When Seventh Avenue showed its coming fall lines in April, Pantaeva walked the walk for 19 designers—including Isaac Mizrahi and Richard Tyler—and USA Today proclaimed her "the hit of the season." Says Tyler: "She reminds me of a graceful gazelle. She makes our clothes look like a million dollars."

Pantaeva grew up the youngest of three children in the industrial city of Ulan-Ude (pop. 300,000), a 9-hour plane ride from Moscow (brothers Nickolay, 32, and Sergey, 30, still live there). She developed her theatrical flair hanging out at the local playhouse, where her father, Vladlen, works as a composer, and her mother, Tatyana, is an administrator. "I tried on all the costumes," Pantaeva recalls. "That's how my interest in fashion started." But the glamorous life wasn't easy to come by. Western fashion magazines were a rarity in Ulan-Ude, where even staples such as fruit and vegetables were often scarce, and Pantaeva and her friends often foraged in the nearby forest for berries. "It's not like here," she says, "where you go to the supermarket or to Bloomingdale's whenever you want."

Still, Pantaeva was modeling and sewing for a local designer by the time she finished high school in 1989. After a stint doing her own designs for a dress shop, she was encouraged by a visiting model from St. Petersburg to go in front of the camera full-time. The advice paid off: in 1991, Pantaeva won a modeling contest in Moscow and soon afterward was on a plane to Paris, where she worked the runways for Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler.

Restless, she moved to New York in March of last year. "It's in my blood," she says. "Eskimos used to travel from one place to another depending on the food available." The Big Apple has proved a veritable feast: Not only was she swamped with work within weeks of her arrival but Pantaeva revived her relationship with Roland Levin, 38, a Latvian-born New York City fashion photographer whom she had briefly dated in Moscow. They were married last year at City Hall, celebrating afterward with champagne in Central Park.

Now living in a sun-drenched 29th-floor apartment on Manhattan's West Side, Pantaeva spends her free time studying acting and perfecting her English, carrying a dictionary wherever she goes. Come August, she and Levin will spend a month in Ulan-Ude with her parents, who, despite seeing her pictures, can't quite comprehend her success. "For them," says Pantaeva, "I am someone who is adventurous, who is doing something else, somewhere else, again."

JANICE MIN
ALLISON LYNN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Allison Lynn.