Author and reality TV star discusses what’s behind the glamour of a model
Karen Floyd: You were raised in the Midwest?
Kelly Killoren Bensimon: I’m from Rockford, Illinois, and I go there all the time. My father still lives there. So I travel twice a month to visit him. When you are raised in the Midwest, that value system is something that follows you throughout your lifetime. The Midwest instills core family values, the importance of education and a grass-roots way of life. It’s hard to explain, but you know that food, water, shelter, are essentials and everything else is extra. That is really important to me so I pass it on to my girls to keep them grounded and appreciate everything. The other day I lost a purse, and people asked why I was so upset. I worked very hard to buy that purse. I place a lot of value on myself, my family, and the things that I’ve worked hard to achieve.
Q: So, you were discovered at 15 for modeling. How did that come about?
A: Isn’t that crazy, 15 years old? I mean, I look at my kids, and I think they are babies! I was discovered in this contest for ELITE. Cindy Crawford was in the contest as well. We were both corn-fed, well-bred, well-read girls. It went from there.
Q: Has anyone ever told you that you favor one another; there is definitely a “look” that you both share?
A: Oh, that’s nice. She’s beautiful. So, thank you! You know, she has a mole like I do. When I was a kid, I thought that was such an imperfection. I grew up in the Midwest, brunette and have more of a Latin look to my face. Everyone was like, “You’re not blonde, you’re not blue-eyed, you’re not pretty. You’re dark and you have this weird thing on your face.” I use to try to pick it off, and I always wanted my hair to be light. You always want what you can’t have. I was so insecure growing up.
Q: To be selected as an ELITE model, what an amazing career trajectory.
A: Well, I think — you know, it’s totally different now than what it was back when I started modeling. There weren’t that many brunette models then. Everyone was always saying, “You’re tall, you’re thin, you should be a model.” One day I was reading a magazine and said to myself, “I’m going to do this.” My brother actually took pictures of me, and we sent them in. I was asked to be in this contest, and then Cindy won it, and I was the runner-up. We both were brought to New York, I was ecstatic.
Q: Just a black and white photograph was submitted?
A: My twin brother snapped some Polaroids in the backyard. And now, you have these “insta-girls” that are instantly famous. Now you can just email a picture to an agent, and you can have a million followers for whatever reason. Back then it was totally different. It was fun, and thankfully, I started working immediately my first week in New York. I went to college in New York, but I was modeling in New York and Chicago between the ages of 16 and 18. So I would go back and forth.
Q: Eventually, you transferred to Columbia from Trinity College?
A: I did. I was working and traveling a lot, and my father said, “You have to get your education.”
Q: What is your father’s occupation? I’m curious.
A: My father is a lawyer and would say, “It’s great to have beauty, but you have to have more brains.” I’m so grateful for the looks that my parents gave me, but it’s the brains that my father gave me. He was always encouraging me to think outside of the box. He never said, “This is your path.” He just said, “Get educated and let the world open up to you.” That is very exciting because I still think about that today. I don’t have fear inhibiting me. I just have excitement to do more.
Q: Was your mother a beauty?
A: Yes, a gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous woman. She was May Queen. She was beautiful.
Q: Do your children have any interest delve into the modeling, fashion or the style world?
A: I don’t know. My older daughter loves football and sports media, which has been so great. As a single parent, when they were young, I was like, “See ya, I’m going to the football game. Do you want to come?” She was 8 and said, “Sure, mom.” She was exposed to sports at such a young age. So, she’s loving that. And my younger daughter is very artistic, and she’s an amazing pianist, she’s also just incredibly artistic. She’s still 16. So, we’ll see what happens. But I don’t want my kids, at 16 and 18, to be like, “I want to be this right now.” The world is their oyster and I’m their cheerleader.
Q: But you had a vision for yourself at that age?
A: It wasn’t that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I just knew I had a formula because I was educated. So, whether it was if I was taking poli-science or if I was taking physics or whatever, I knew how to plug everything into a formula. So, whatever I did, I was like,“Oh, you want me to write for a magazine? No problem. I can interview that person. Oh, you want me to do that? Okay. No problem. I can do that.” I never had fear because I always knew the formula. And that’s what I want for my girls. I want them to have the formula. Because you never know what will happen in life. You just have to be open to possibility and be ready. You can’t just be like, “Oh my God, I want possibility.” If you are not ready for it, it will never happen.
Q: You have an incredible resume of accomplishments. So, help me to wrap my head around the tenure you spent with the reality show, “Housewives of New York City.”
A: You help me to wrap my head around it! I’ve been thinking, over eight years now, “What happened? How did I get there?” You know, I have a contagious personality and a lot of energy. I’ve done a lot of TV, and I had so much fun. The first time I was ever on television, I had this fun show called “Behind the Hedges” for Plum TV. I really loved exploring different people’s worlds and celebrating all these amazing, amazing game-changers. That’s something that’s always been interesting to me; figuring out how a person becomes who they are. When Bravo and the producers asked me, I was supposed to be on another show with Tim Gunn. I just finished working with Elle Accessories and just finished “The Bikini Book.” They wanted me to be on a fashion show, working with women who didn’t have style but were going to go into the workplace. The purpose of the show was helping women learn how to navigate that world because I have an easy sense of style. I’ve worked in fashion all my life. I was a model. I’m not complicated and am very down to earth. So, that would have been a perfect, perfect fit. When Tim Gunn wanted to work with Heidi Klum, the executive producer said, “Would you work on this new show?” They were having a hard time legitimizing the reality show,and it was brand new. I had never been on a reality television show. I had acted and had my own show with interviewing people,but I’ve never actually been on anything like that. I don’t really watch TV that much. So, it was really, really interesting. I remember the first scene, it was like you’re Madonna. I was like, “What are they talking about?” And I’m so real, and they’re so not. Later, they said, “We thought you’d like the Madonna comment.” I said, “No, that is weird, and you can’t say things like that.” It is difficult to explain the framework of a reality show because the viewers are like, “Okay, who is this person, and why is she attacking her out of the blue” and everything. Nothing made sense. So, the girls were like, “Oh.” And when they met me in real life, they’re like, “Oh, my God, hi.” I’m like, “Hi.” And they’re like, “Wait, aren’t you suppose to be a super bitch and nasty?” I’m not, you know.
Q: I read your book “A Dangerous Age” and I’m curious if it has any relationship to the “Housewives” experience.
A: Well, that’s so funny that you’ve asked me because everyone wants to know if “A Dangerous Age” is about “The Housewives” because it’s very similar. “The Real Housewives” is a docusoap. So, what that means is that they took the soap operas off the television and put reality on. NBC, all those “Guiding Lights” are now “Real Housewives.” Each woman has her own storyline, and then a major plot.
Q: Most of the time, people say true friends are the people who are there when you’re down and out. I believe that friends are the ones that can celebrate you when you ascend. Do you believe that?
A: That was interesting. When I went on “Housewives,” all of a sudden, even though I was supposed to be like the nemesis and I was suppose to be like the bitch and horrible person, I became a breakout star. So, I got all this coverage. People are doing all these interviews. People were hating on me and loving me at the same time. There were some of my friends who didn’t want to talk to me anymore because I was on TV. Later, when I became well known, I was afforded all these major luxuries, and then I had all these friends back. But my solid, solid friends were always there. That was a good life lesson too, because I don’t care if you are worth two cents or have a gazillion dollars. I like you because I like you. I’ve always been like that. That was really eye-opening being on “The Housewives,” and the result made me very, very, very insular. When I was on “Housewives,” I would do my work, stay at home, never went out anywhere unless it was work-related. I would be at home all the time. I was almost afraid. Here I am talking about fearlessness, but when I was on that show, I stayed home all the time.
Q: Would you do it again knowing what you know now?
A: “The Housewives?”
A: I mean, you never say never. If Andy were to call me tomorrow and say, “Kelly, we really, really need you. Can you please come back and just do whatever you want to do?” I would be there in a second. But I can’t be on a show where I’m in a scene with you, and, all of a sudden, you’re talking to the cameras. “Hey, L.A., by the way, this is not the way the scene is going. It is supposed to go like this.” … I cannot be on a reality TV show like that.
Q: So, that was my next question. Is it truly “reality” or is it orchestrated?
A: Well, the way that it works is that you get mic’d up, like you and I are today. Then they say, “By the way, you’re going to be doing this interview.” So, while you are doing the interview, all of a sudden, the interview is not going in the storyline. There are on-site producers that are present, and the other producers are in L.A., so they don’t see everything that is going on. The L.A. producers are just editing. My nemesis would literally look at the camera and tell them what she didn’t like. It was very uncomfortable for me because I am so genuine and authentic. I am the same all the time. You will never, ever, ever see me not the same. So, when something unspontaneous was injected, I was like, “Hold on, back it up here for a second.” The back-and-forth was just really upsetting for me. I would sit there, and my stomach would be upset. I’d ask myself, “What are we doing? A. I’m not having fun. B. We are not even fighting. If we’re really fighting, let’s go at it and show women how to have conflict resolution.” But it wasn’t like that. She was screaming and saying, “I don’t want this to happen,”so it was artificial for me. But if Andy calls me and were to say, “You know, we’re going to be genuine, everyone is on the same page, everyone is just going to be themselves, and when we film you, we’re just going to let you guys go for 24/7. We won’t stop and start, and inject these interviews. We are just going to go for it.” Can you imagine what a show that would be? It would be epic. It would be so awesome. These women would be at it. I would be at it.
Q: Before you joined the show, who did you know?
A: I knew LuAnn. I met LuAnn from the Hamptons. She was married to someone very, very social and was quite prominent on the Hamptons scene. Where I was just a fixture.
Q: Post “Housewives,” are there any of the women that you remained friends with?
A: Yes, LuAnn. LuAnn and I are really good friends. She invited me to her wedding set for New Year’s Eve. It’s was so exciting. I won’t lie, I’m jealous because I want to get married! I want to have more kids! I only have two. I should have had a farm load of kids.
Q: Is she happy?
A: She is so happy, and she’s a really, really lovely woman. She is amazing on television too. She’s incredible and very dynamic.
Q: What was the inspiration for “The Bikini Book”?
A: “The Bikini Book” is such an amazing book. It is how I started in television. I wrote “The Bikini Book” while I was at Elle Accessories. I was working on my second issue, and Lycra asked me to write whatever I wanted. I was their host for their first Miami Swim Week, which was super fun with IMG. I learned so much about social history through this bikini. This little itsy-bitsy tiny provocative little swimsuit created during the jet age In France. They brought it over to America. When Annette Funicello wanted to wear it, her uncle Walt said, “You can’t wear this. It is scandalous.”We can’t show anything below the navel because it’s the Zone of Contention. Women were being handcuffed for wearing the bikini. You know, the first model that actually wore the bikini wasn’t even a model, she was a prostitute in the South of France. The bikini is a sexy and fun vehicle to outline social history. I mean, I had no idea.
Q: It was a bestseller.
A: It was. It did very, very well. The cover is one of the reasons I was asked to be in “Playboy.” When I was looking for all the images for the bikini, I wanted to like show off the bikini from all over the world. Not just in L.A. or in Miami, in Florida. It was weird because I was looking at all these “Playboys.” I found a lot of images that were provocative. ‘78 to ‘79 were my favorite years in “Playboy” with the most beautiful women, beautiful bodies. I wanted to use one of the images for the cover. I had this back-and-forth conversation with the editor-in-chief of “Playboy.” When I got on “Housewives,” they asked me to be in “Playboy,” and I said yes. But I don’t have the body of a hottie, but we can figure it out.
Q: Did you enjoy the shoot?
A: No. My ex-husband was the photographer. I thought it was going to be sexy. I was 40. He would say, “Okay Kiki, good. Good, Kiki. Good. Turn. Good. No smiling. Okay. Smiling.” I’m like, “Okay. I’m smiling. I’m smiling.” I didn’t feel sexy. I feel sexier and am in better shape now. My daughters want me to do “SHAPE” again. I’ll be 49 this year! But I have to admit, to be on the cover of “Playboy” is the ultimate honor. I was so proud to be asked. So maybe its time for another “SHAPE” cover and who knows what cover I’ll be on at 50…
Q: You also did the cover of “SHAPE” magazine.
A: Yes. I wanted to do “SHAPE” too, because, you know, so many women in their 40s are in amazing shape. I wanted to celebrate the idea that just because you’re in your 40s doesn’t mean that you have to let your body go. I mean, actually a lot of women in their 40s are in better shape than girls in their 20s. And it’s not about like having the highest butt or like the firmest thighs. It’s just about this raw wellness. You know, being the best version of themselves is hot. That’s all I want from women. The biggest takeaway, if I die tomorrow, I want women to be like, “KKB says be the best version of you.” That’s it. Nothing else. E