A super girl and super model: Herieth Paul

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Herieth Paul’s slim backside wiggles as she rummages in her overstuffed bedroom closet, searching for her second most prized possession.

The rest of her room is surprisingly neat—for a 17-year-old supermodel-in-the-making, that is. Her size 8 shoes are lined up at the foot of her bed, her desk is only slightly cluttered with makeup and hair stuff. Plastered on one wall are cut out magazine pages of models, while over her bed, the Jonas Brothers, Taylor Lautner and Chris Brown look on.

“Found it!” she muffles, before emerging, slightly disheveled, but smiling. She holds up an oversized tote. “This one is by Celine. I love it. And this one,” she reaches back into the closet, “I bought it in New York. It’s from Miu Miu. I use it on shoots for carrying books, shoes and snacks.”

They’re duly gasped over—each is roughly equal to a healthy mortgage payment—before she shoves them back into the closet. (Her most prized possession is probably in the wash: a Phillip Lim t-shirt with “LOST” on the front and “FOUND” on the back she received after she did his catwalk show in New York City. “Out of everything,” she says, “that’s my favourite.”)

With that, she perches cross-legged on her bed and hugs a stuffed bear, ready for questions. It’s a slightly incongruous setting, given the places the Lester B Pearson high school student has been (New York, London and Paris in February alone) and the magazine covers she’s graced (most recently Teen Vogue, i-D and Elle). She’s walked with supermodels Coco Rocha and Naomi Campbell for some of the biggest names in fashion—think Zac Posen—and although she earns an average $10,000 per shoot, is on track to reach the lofty heights of $80,000 a day. In the past few years, she’s also been the face of Calvin Klein and Tom Ford.

The mention of that particular campaign elicits a giggle and a blush. “We went to New York to shop at Christmas. At Calvin Klein, I was recognized in the store. I was treated like a celebrity!” she laughs, her eyes widening. “They looked at me and snapped their fingers,”—she clicks hers—“and said, ‘You’re that girl!’”

From the doorway, her mother, Nsia, and sister, Happiness, 21, both chuckle at the memory. It’s not that they shadow the youngest member of the family, but they are protective. After all, from the moment Paul walked into Angie’s Model and Talent International agency (ATMI) on Clarence St, her modest suburban life in Orleans instantly changed to fittings, shoots and international fashion shows.

“One word. Wow,” says agency co-owner, Angie Sakla-Seymour of the moment she came face-to-face with the girl who has put ATMI on the international modeling map. “She was 13 and knocked on my door. It was really early—the open call was at 1pm and she showed up at 10am. I was taken away by her beauty, but then I told her to come back and closed the door,” she laughs. “And I thought, ‘Why did I do that?’ I could have said yes straight away. She’s one in a billion. She’s a game-changer.”

Herieth Paul became the face of Tom Ford.
Herieth Paul became the face of Tom Ford.

And yet, she hasn’t changed herself. Coached by both her mother and Sakla-Seymour, (“She’s like a second mother to me,” admits Paul), the teen has blossomed from a painfully shy child into a poised and open-natured young woman who has traveled internationally alone since she was 15, carries a bible in her luggage, does housework for privileges and always asks her mother to open her pay cheques. She does homework on planes, files assignments online and, although she struggles with math learned long-distance, is happy to do summer school to graduate this summer.

It’s a disarmingly sensible attitude in an industry rife with too-young girls exposed to too-adult ways far too early. But it is one her family has engendered in her from the moment they moved to Canada on a diplomatic posting for the Tanzanian government and left behind their Catholic boarding school in Dar es Salaam, extended family and father, Isaya, who remains at home for work.

“She is the kind of child that when you say no, she listens very well,” observes her mother, who speaks her native Kiswahili with her daughters at home. “She never does anything without consulting. If she needs or wants something if she’s in Paris, she will call and I will say, ‘if you need it, take it. If you don’t, do not.’ She listens very well.”

Even on the subject of a car. Once she became an eligible driver, Paul had her heart set on a bells-and-whistles black Mercedes coupe. “Mum’s not convinced my first car will be a Mercedes. I have to write ten reasons why I have to have one. I understand her reasons—she wants me to save money—but that’s not the point. I still want one,” she sighs, a whisper of frustration in her voice. “I’m a normal teenager. Except that I can buy a Mercedes—as long as my mum says yes.”

If anything, it’s really the only nuance of teenage rebellion she ever displays. From the moment she first learned to work the runway—a skill that did not come naturally—Paul has developed a curious, gentle maturity and warm personality that “you just don’t see every day in this industry,” says Sakla-Seymour.

Her one, and apparently only, misstep came early, when she was alone in New York City for bookings. “She was almost sent home,” remarks Sakla-Seymour. “She wanted to sleep off not feeling well, but you can’t do that; it’s not like summer camp where you decide which day you want to go. The casting director called me in Ottawa. I called Herieth and asked her what she wanted and she said, ‘I want to be a supermodel’ in such a nice, sweet way. I said, ‘Get out of bed. Get to the casting.’ It was a hard lesson to learn.”

But learn it she did. Yet even when she landed Calvin Klein last year, she was humbled. Having just settled in front of the television for the night at the shared modeling apartment in New York, her then-agent texted and asked to see her immediately. “I texted him back and said, ‘It’s 8pm. Do I have to come?’ He said, ‘Now’. So I took a cab to the office and said, ‘Just give it to me. Whatever I did wrong, just say it.’ Then they all started jumping up and said, ‘You got the Calvin Klein campaign!’”

Such early success could have gone to her head, but instead, it’s “made her a much stronger person,” observes her oldest and closest friend, Nina Barbossa, 17, who admits they are “completely different people. She likes Chris Brown; I like rock, punk and alternative. She’s open-minded and listens to suggestions, but she follows what her heart says. I find that inspirational. Not many 17-year-olds have that much faith and hope.”

Nor are they that thoughtful about what the future holds. Although still unsure about whether she will attend post-secondary school in Canada or the US, Paul says she’s considering a career in real estate or social work, “in case the modeling thing doesn’t work out,” she explains, without irony. “I mean, it is right now,” she adds, quickly, “but you don’t know. Maybe one day it won’t.”