Head of the Class

updated 01/27/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/27/1992 01:00AM

Cutting class, she's off to Paris or Milan

AS A WORK-STUDY VOCATIONAL STUDENT at a suburban Miami high school, Niki Taylor devotes much of her time to on-the-job training. Most of her classmates go off to bag groceries or answer phones for the $4.25 minimum wage. But not Niki.

This average student, who typically dresses in blue jeans and ponytail, regularly gets transformed into a pouty-lipped, tousle-haired supermodel, earning some $500,000 a year from her after-school work. Niki may be only sweet 16, but her image has graced more than 40 magazine covers in less than three years, and in 1990 she became the youngest model ever to glean the ultimate plum, a cosmetics contract—in her case a two-year deal with L'Oréal.

The daughter of Florida Highway Patrol officer Ken Taylor and his wife, Barbara, a former real estate agent, Nicole Renée Taylor (known simply as Nick at home) captures accolades as easily as she loosens purse strings. "She has it all," says Anne Klein designer Louis Dell'Olio, who predicts Niki will be the celebrity model of the '90s. Photographer Matthew Rolston, who has shot her for Harper's Bazaar, calls her "a magic presence in front of the camera."

Bob Hazelcorn, Niki's English instructor, has a different take. "I can't evaluate her as a model, but I can evaluate her as a teacher, and I believe I don't see enough of her," he says. "Semesters are 45 days, and last semester she missed 22 of them."

Oh, well. Niki does excel in life-experience geography. The food in Paris, where she glides down runways twice a year for such designers as Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, is "terrible," she says. And sleeping accommodations in Iceland, where she stood on an iceberg last August in rhinestone-studded hot pants for German Vogue, were, she declares, "like prison beds."

As for Hazelcorn's concern that she's the mysterious disappearing student, Niki says most of her teachers are "so cool. They're, like, excited for me." Niki took a rain check on final exams last June to do a Vogue shoot in New York City during the parade for Desert Storm troops. Argues her mother, who chaperoned her: "It was a lesson in history that she couldn't have gotten in a classroom."

Not that mundane requirements never intrude. "I'm still staying after school making up tests from this last report card," says Niki. "And my mom is great at helping me with reports. If it weren't for her, I would have failed a long time ago."

Barbara also helped launch Niki's career. In 1989, when Niki reached 5'9" (she now stands 5'11") and her braces came off, Barbara sent out her daughter's pictures. Niki registered with top Miami agency Irene Marie, and the booking frenzy began. She did her first shoot for Seventeen at age 14. "There's always one who comes along each year that you think is going to be a star," says the magazine's editor-in-chief, Midge Richardson, who made Niki the cover girl for 1989's all-important back-to-school issue. "Niki is probably the most comfortable person of that age in front of the camera of anybody we have worked with."

When Niki became a ninth-grade celebrity, Ken and Barbara anticipated that their other daughters, Joelle, now 21, a secretary, and Kristen, 13, an eighth grader at the local middle school, might be jealous. "I had Kristen and Joelle go on a shoot with Niki when all this started so they wouldn't feel left out," Barbara says. "Joelle hated it, but Krissy kind of thought it was fun." To kick off the new year, fledgling model Krissy shared the January cover with her older sister on Niki's Seventeen swan song. "Niki will not work for us anymore because she's on Vogue and Elle and Mademoiselle" says Richardson. "Once they move out of the teen area into high couture, they don't want to do us."

Even though Niki's growing up fast, her parents still hold the reins. They hired an agent, two lawyers and a publicist for Niki, in addition to forming TR Management Consultant Group, a company charged with investing her money. "I worry about her safety, about her being exposed to the adult world too soon," says Ken, who helps make sure that Niki is always chaperoned by a relative or a member of her management team—an arrangement that doesn't delight his daughter. "It's like being baby-sat 24 hours a day," she complains.

She escaped at least once, in the summer of 1990, when she succumbed to a fad among models and got two tattoos—a dolphin on her right ankle and a sun on the top of her right foot. Niki wore socks around the house for a couple of days to try to hide them. "It was just one of those little rebellious things that she tried to get away with," says Barbara.

Normally, however, Niki is on good behavior. "Niki brings her homework on jobs," says modeling star Cindy Crawford, with whom she has been compared, partly because they both have distinctive moles above their lips. "She has her head on straight."

At the family's modest three-bedroom house, Niki shares in the chores, emptying the dishwasher and changing the kitty litter. She even turned down a $10,000 Paris assignment to attend her school's homecoming dance last fall with her high school beau. Her dress? A white satin number that her mother made.

Still, being just a kid is not easy. "I feel bad," Niki says, "because some girls at school bring in pictures of themselves and say, 'I want to be a model. Can you tell me what to do?' " Of course, she can't. "I'm nice to everybody," Niki says. "But it's like I live in two different worlds."

ELIZABETH SPORKIN
CINDY DAMPIER in Miami and SABRINA McFARLAND in New York City

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