02/19/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
When Jeff Leatham draped a floral display for L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel with a pair of his own boxers and a bikini, he was hoping for a reaction. He got it. "The flowers are nice," the manager told him, "but we're not sure about the underwear." Down they came.
Why were they there at all? "I try to make people stop and look," says Leatham, 29, since 1999 the florist-in-residence at Paris's five-star Four Seasons George V Hotel. He succeeds. The lobby is regularly jammed with camera-carrying Parisians and tourists alike, attracted by the 150 lavish confections—none involving underwear—that Leatham creates every other day. He is also the florist du jour for such visiting celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow
(peach roses, white and peach orchids), Tina Turner (fuchsia orchids) and Ricky Martin (floating orchids and candles).
Working with an estimated $50,000-a-month budget, Leatham imports about 10,000 flowers a week from Amsterdam, transforming them with such signature touches as arranging only one type of bloom in a vase or tilting the heads so, as he puts it, "you can look at their faces and say hello."
Inspired by his father's prize flower beds, Leatham, the son of a now-retired high school principal and his schoolteacher wife, claims his floral flair bloomed in his teen years back in Ogden, Utah. His father, Larry, 61, remembers differently. "He didn't know a weed from a flower," he says. "Maybe he'd mow the lawn every so often." Still, Jeff spent hours obsessing over creating the perfect corsages for high school dates: "I was more proud of the bouquet than of the girl I was with," he says.
In 1990, after high school and a year working at a Salt Lake City Gap, Leatham moved to Los Angeles, where, after another four years with the Gap, he signed with the Wilhelmina modeling agency. "I set out to be a supermodel," he says.
That didn't happen, but modeling took Leatham to Paris. There, in 1996, he saw exotic blooms in a flower shop and "got zapped," he says. "I was reborn. I went home knowing I had to work with flowers." Back in Beverly Hills, he landed a job assisting the flower-shop manager at the Four Seasons. That led to freelance gigs for events like the Grammy Awards and for such private clients as Suzanne Somers, for whom he once created a "baby-skin-pink orgy" of flowers for a television appearance. "I love that kind of creativity," says Somers.
In 1999 the renovated George V hired him full-time, and Leatham, who occupies a one-bedroom rental on the Left Bank ("I haven't found true love yet"), says he couldn't be happier. "I'm living my dream," he declares, "living in Paris and working with flowers every day." Adds Didier Le Calvez, the hotel's general manager: "We're never letting him go back to America. He's part of this building."
Cathy Nolan in Paris