Devon Aoki: Face value

In an age of `quirky' models, one stands out. Devon, the 16-year- old London schoolgirl with Chanel and Versace contracts, has the character and composure of a fashion veteran
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Devon Aoki is sitting cross-legged in the grass on a balmy afternoon in late April playing with her pet snakes, Snake and Kidney, one of which is making a bee-line for the bottom of my trouser leg while I try - in vain - not to seem unduly fazed.

Attempting, rather sweetly, to keep the alarmingly lively reptiles at bay, she drapes one over her slender arm, which it coils around contentedly, and the other round her waist. Snake (or is it Kidney?) then promptly slithers through the belt hoops of her battered, cut-off jeans where he/she remains for the duration of our interview. Even snakes are happy to oblige where Devon is concerned - thinking nothing of standing in as belts (snake belts!) should their lovely owner so desire.

Devon Aoki is far from your average 16-year-old.

One of nine children ("We're not all from the same parents but that doesn't make a difference," she says brightly), she is preternaturally beautiful, a grade-A student, and the daughter of highly glamorous parents. Her father, Rocky, is the Japanese founder of the Benihana restaurants, while her mother, an American, Pam Price, still cuts a considerable dash.

When Devon isn't attending to her snakes, she's studying for her exams at home in north London or jet-setting around the world as that strange and elusive thing, The Face of The Season.

Karl Lagerfeld photographed her for the spring/ summer Chanel Couture campaign, an accolade bestowed on only the coolest models, Stella Tennant and Erin O'Connor included. Devon is one of several models advertising Atelier Versace, and is also the current star of the younger Versus line.

The super-fashionable likes of Steven Meisel and Juergen Teller, meanwhile, are queueing up to photograph her for the also super-fashionable Italian Vogue. It's no wonder that Devon name-drops the Juergens and Karls of this world the way most teenagers talk about their classmates.

"Juergen's been so kind to me," she says, as if she can't believe it herself, in a hybrid New York/ Californian drawl inherited from her mother. As for Lagerfeld, "He's so cool. One of the most incredible people I've ever met in my life. He's so intelligent, so creative. He's really brave in every sense of the word because he's always willing to try out new things."

But, being young, the thing that Devon is most impressed by is the fact that Lagerfeld owns one of the world's most enormous photocopiers. "It's the biggest one you ever saw!" she says, her almond eyes suddenly round. "There are only two in the whole world!"

It would all be enough to make the less kind-hearted among us want to throw up our breakfasts, were it not that, far from playing the tantrum- throwing princess, Devon is as considerate as she is considered, as ingenuous as she is worldly. She is also, for a woman of her tender years, remarkably charming.

"It was really an accident," she says of her sudden good fortune - she's currently one of the world's most in-demand models. "I always thought models had to fit a certain mould. I never thought I had what it takes. I'm too small and my look's pretty weird. I don't fit the status quo. I suppose that's a good thing. Not everyone's 5ft 10in and stick thin. There's more diversity now. It's OK to be shorter and look sort of different."

Much has been made recently of a new breed of models who celebrate the individuality of women rather than adhering to the conventional too-rich- and-too-thin Eighties stereotype, and the perceived perfection of the supermodel. In reality, however, Devon and her contemporaries, Karen Elson, Erin O'Connor and Audrey Marnay among them, are hardly your average girls next door.

Like Kate Moss before them, all have been touted by the media as representing a new and less fascistic look for the future. However, they are all - and this is true of Devon in particular - exceptionally beautiful: a mole in the wrong place, wonky teeth, tiny feet or a couple of inches shorter than the average super-tall model does not a Plain Jane make.

But Devon's celebrated "oddness" has not always worked in her favour. "I've had so many things done to me," she says, laughing it off. "People always want to make me look like a freak. I'm really not that weird. I'm a combination of a lot of different things. Maybe it's just easier to make me look weird than another model who is specifically Caucasian."

So far in her brief career, Devon has been suspended from a beam on the ceiling "like some sort of puppet", had so much lipstick applied to her face it threatened to engulf her tiny features, and had her hair burnt by an over-zealous stylist who attempted, for reasons hard to fathom, to extend her already waist-length locks. This is despite the fact that she looks more beautiful left to her own devices.

"You have to have your own personality. I would hate people to think I was a blank canvas or a coat hanger because I totally don't feel that way. But in a sense, you have to let them do what they want because that's what makes them creative. I've been sitting in a make-up chair and they've been doing something really strange to me and I'm like `Oh my God, what are they doing?' But in the end the pictures look amazing."

Fashion legend has it that, aged 14, Devon was discovered by Kate Moss when Moss spotted a picture of her in the US style magazine Interview and brought it to the attention of her agency, Storm - with whom Devon later signed.

This is a neat assumption: Moss, after all, was famously discovered at JFK airport aged only 15. Her waifish good looks are also not a million miles from Devon's, and Moss herself was singled out at the beginning of career for being only 5ft 7in. The two are equally unusual in that they share that rare thing: an enviable personal style - as well as a love of clothes. In reality, however, a number of elements converged to launch Devon's career. "Basically, I got into it through people I know," she says, "through friends."

Many of her mother's closest friends work in the fashion industry, including Devon's godmother, while her stepfather was a model for 10 years. "He's very adamant that Devon maintains her schooling," says mother Pam. "He knows just how fickle the business can be. He's always reminding us of that."

Nonetheless Devon admits that, "Of course modelling's beginning to interfere with my schooling. At times I'm sort of stressed out but I've managed to stay afloat so far, to do well at school and also be involved in modelling."

Society reacts extremely to such young models. The press - and the tabloids in particular - whip up a frenzy every time a model under the age of 16 makes an appearance. Worried readers write in, expressing their not unreasonable concern that the girls are being exploited in the pages of newspapers and magazines. My own first experience of Devon came when I was working as a fashion editor on a particularly time-sensitive cover shoot and the model pulled out at the last minute. The photographer cast Devon in her place, leaving us with a 14-year-old cover star.

Before I can ask Devon how she felt about this, her mother leaps in: "Nobody exploits my daughter," she roars. "But seriously, I can understand the fuss, but it all depends on the girl. Devon's shown an incredible degree of individuality, independence and self-confidence from a very early age. I might worry about some of my other children but I think that Devon - because of the way we moved around and the fact that her dad, you know, is really easy-going - she's had to be able to look after herself."

Neither, says Pam, is Devon taken in by her peer group. "At the weekends she's a home body: she's not one of those kids who wants to go to clubs. She's not interested in that in the least." Instead of chain-smoking the requisite Marlboro Lights, Devon is more likely to be found playing with her hair: she doesn't smoke. While the rest of us sip on chilled white wine, Ms Aoki is happy to make do with nothing more noxious than cranberry juice.

Devon spent her childhood moving between New York and California. Aged eight, she insisted on being allowed out in New York on her own - then was outraged to discover that her mother was secretly following her: "She was like, `I can't believe you did that to me!'" Pam recalls. By the age of 11, she was flying to Tokyo on her own, acting as courier for paintings her father was sending there.

Devon moved to London three years ago and now has the world at her feet. She travels with the most highly paid photographers and stylists ("I've been to Russia, I go to Paris a lot," she says beaming) and appears in the most glamorous shows and magazines.

She has a business manager and intends to go to college when she finishes school: she is already impressively articulate. She insists that she's "still pretty sheltered. My agency takes good care of me. My mom's always there if I have a problem. I've someone to accompany me whenever I go somewhere. I have a car, I stay with a booker. If my grades weren't good any more, I'd probably reconsider what I was doing. I feel like I've experienced something completely different from the rest of the kids at my school and I'm meeting these great people and doing these great jobs. I feel very privileged, you know."

Despite the fact that the child in Devon is more comfortable in moth- eaten sweaters and tatty jeans, she has at her disposal more free clothes than any woman could wish for. She produces one designer garment after another as if in possession of the world's most expensive dressing-up box. She models a black Dries Van Noten dress with a huge overblown skirt for me, grinning from ear to ear. "Actually, I bought this one," she admits sheepishly, as if it was an outrageous extravagance. Next comes a Chanel slip dress, two tiny, tell-tale interlocking Cs at the neckline, and a pair of Manolo Blahnik spike-heeled mules.

"Aren't those shoes snakeskin, Devon?" asks photographer Jane McLeish, a close friend of both Devon and her mother for many years. Devon shuffles coyly and, as if worried that Snake and Kidney are within earshot, just giggles naively

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