Popular Mechanic

updated 05/02/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1994 01:00AM

AT DESIGNER ANNA SUI'S SHOW IN NEW YORK CITY last November, former garage mechanic Jenny Shimizu held the audience rapt: with enough tattoos for a sailor or two, the androgynous newcomer stomped down the catwalk, smirking like a spoiled schoolgirl in the frilliest of Sui's baby-doll smocks. "She was the perfect little girl from hell," remembers Sui admiringly. "She's beautiful, with a bad-girl attitude."

Currently the only Asian-American in supermodel contention, the 5'7" beauty was discovered by a television casting agent only 10 months ago as she roared up to L.A.'s hip Club F—-astride her 1971 Triumph motorcycle. That chance meeting led to a quick gig in an En Vogue video, followed by fashion spreads in Vogue, Glamour and Elle, among others, and ads for Banana Republic and Anne Klein. "I was really into being a mechanic, being happy just collecting bikes," says Shimizu, 26, who remains refreshingly unimpressed by all the fuss. "And now I'm traveling places I've never been and drinking Evian."

She's also meeting new people. Take Madonna (Shimizu denies rumors the two are romantically involved), whom Shimizu met while filming a small part in her "Rain" video. "We go to movies or dinner or to clubs," says Jenny. "She's a superstar, with lots of money, but she doesn't flaunt it. When we're hanging out somewhere, you know, she doesn't pick up the bill all the time." As for Calvin Klein, who tapped Shimizu for his Hollywood Bowl fashion spectacular last June: "I was so nervous, when he came over I couldn't speak. I'm like kind of a hick. So, when he said, 'Oh, Jenny, nice to meet you,' all I could do is repeat what he said, 'Oh, Calvin, nice to meet you.' "

Though she may be the haute hick of the moment, Shimizu, in fact, spurns the couture lifestyle. Her diet consists of Big Macs and TV dinners, and her duds are strictly Army-Navy surplus. Her favorite prank is to leave "You suck" messages on friends' answering machines courtesy of her talking Beavis and Butt-head toy. As for those tattoos, she is thinking about adding to her family of four, which includes a blue flaming spark plug on her left forearm (done by a tattoo artist in exchange for car repairs) and a curvy blonde straddling an eight-inch wrench on her right triceps. "I live my life the way I want to," says Shimizu. "My tattoos aren't for anyone but me. People don't have to look at them, right?"

Shimizu's bad-girl bravado came naturally from growing up as a tomboy in Santa Maria, Calif. The youngest of two daughters born to Keido Shimizu, a pharmacist, and his wife, June, Shimizu raced motocross with the local boys while her sister Connie, now 28 and a secretary, played house. "My sister had this baking set and stuffed animals, and all the neighborhood girls would come over and play Barbie, and I would just be like, 'Uhhhh, get me out of here,' " Shimizu remembers.

Dropping out of Cal State North-ridge in her sophomore year, Shimizu moved to L.A. before deciding to enroll in auto-mechanic trade school in 1992. "I always loved bikes, loved motorcycles and loved getting dirty," says Shimizu, who repaired cars in an L.A. garage for 2½ months before being discovered. "I was, for a
Japanese-American girl, very much a troublemaker in my family's eyes. My mom wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer."

These days the elder Shimizus are nothing but proud of their offbeat offspring, whose new home is a spacious loft in New York City's East Village furnished with not much more than a good stereo and a bed. "It's the nicest place I've ever lived in," says Shimizu. "My friends come over, and we sit around and draw huge pictures and lack them on the wall."

In L.A., Shimizu and her old pals prefer to cruise for used-car parts in her '54 Ford pickup. Though she is currently hot as a piston, Shimizu is savvy enough to know that the beauty business regularly trades in its own used models. For the future, she is socking away the bulk of her pay (recent take for a one-day Versace shoot: $5,000) to open her own auto-body shop. "Someplace where me and my friends could work on our bikes and hang out," says Jenny. But right now, she concedes, "modeling is a nice life. And as a job, it's easier than putting gaskets on cars."

JANICE MIN
ALLISON LYNN in New York City

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