Photography by Seth Kushner
Styling by Monica Cotto
Hair by Bradley Irion; Make-up by Quinn Murphy
Kelly Killoren Bensimon is a name that rolls off the tongue with unusual grace. But it’s a name that was relatively unknown to those outside of the fashion world until the former model hit the reality television scene with Bravo TV’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” in 2009. From then on, Bensimon’s life in the spotlight took on a whole new dimension.
Rather than spending her days posing for fashion photographers and writing about style, the leggy mom found herself letting cameras inside her home and into the most personal parts of her life as a New Yorker.
The result was a whirlwind two-plus years of filming, socializing and embodying her Housewives mantra: “I’ve created a great life and I love living it,” which eventually evolved into the more playful: “I’m living the American Dream, one mistake at a time.”
To her credit, Bensimon is usually the first to admit her mistakes, but the past year seems to have been one of very few missteps. The prolific writer, successful career woman and mother of two tween girls has become a celebrity ambassador for the Food Bank For New York City, worked as Guest Editor for AVENUE magazine and acted as a judge for the Miss New York USA 2012 pageant. This spring, she also ran a local half marathon to raise nearly $10,000 for Generosity Water—a nonprofit that brings clean drinking water to areas in need. During the race, a paparazzo stopped her midstride. Fearing the worst, Bensimon braced herself for the expected onslaught.
“He said to me, ‘I just want you to know that you’re the only celebrity I’ve ever seen who says you’re going to do something and then you actually do it,’” Bensimon recalls. “I was sweating like a pig, but I literally started to cry because I was so moved.”
Aside from running around the city (in more ways than one), what is perhaps most exciting in Bensimon’s life right now is her latest publishing venture. She has just released her fourth book, I Can Make You HOT!: The Supermodel Diet (St. Martin’s)—and is donating a portion of the proceeds to Generosity Water.
In a nutshell, the book is an easy-to-navigate guide to nutrition and wellness, with recipes and hot tips by which Bensimon lives her life. The title acronym, Healthy Options Today, is meant to inspire readers to make the best choices for themselves—whether it’s deciding on a dish to make for lunch or picking out what to wear to feel confident.
“Anyone can look like [this], you just have to work at it,” she says, referring to her fit-as-a-fiddle figure.
For Bensimon, what originally started out as an idea for a cookbook evolved into something much greater. And although it took her only a month to write the book, the lessons found within its pages were learned over time.
“When you meet people who are living on $39 a week for food, you have a totally different perspective on making healthy choices,” she says, thinking of her charity work with the Food Bank.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bensimon details some of the extreme measures that supermodels go to in order to stay thin—and some of the methods she tried during her early days in front of the camera. As a former pro model, she’s learned a lot about health and nutrition.
“I was a healthy American girl from Rockford, Illinois, and when I came to New York they were always telling me to lose weight—always telling me to lose ten pounds,” Bensimon remembers.
Like most living, breathing human beings, Bensimon became frustrated under the pressure and did quite the opposite: dieting, but also eating Dove bars and complaining about not losing weight.
Fast forward ten years. As an expectant mom, she gained fifty pounds during both of her pregnancies, eating what her body craved and letting nature take its course. But she didn’t let weight issues or motherhood keep her from following her career ambitions, such as writing for Hamptons magazine, launching ELLE Accessories, penning three books on culture and style, and blogging about her daily adventures. In fact, all her weight-watching and mothering seem to have done quite the opposite.
“I’ve done a lot in the past fifteen years and my whole perspective changed because [of] my desire to want to be a better person for my kids,” she says.
But her résumé of career accomplishments—from book deals to fashion features—seems to pale in comparison to her family life at home.
“I’m most proud of my girls,” Bensimon gushes. “When you have kids, all of a sudden, your priorities change.”
To get a sense of where those priorities started, consider how Bensimon began modeling at the age of 16. As a result, she experienced all the glitz and the glamour of New York’s fashion scene early on. It’s a fast and fabulous lifestyle that might lure other women into a routine of living for the moment. But Bensimon seems to have transcended the here-and-now.
As a working parent, Bensimon has always known that the juggle can be a struggle. “With working, everything that I do that is away from my kids has to be 100 percent exactly what I want to do,” she continues. “Otherwise I would be taking time away from my kids.”
Bensimon’s daughters, Thadeus Ann, 11—who goes by “Teddy”—and Sea Louise, 14, are “New York kids with a Midwestern attitude,” according to their mother. “They’re synthesizers. They’re able to acclimate too, which is very unusual for that age, because most tween kids are just so narcissistic,” Bensimon says. “My girls, fortunately, are super interested in a lot of different things.”
And as far as larger parenting philosophies go, Bensimon runs a tight ship. “I just want my kids to have really strong values and to be raised with integrity, more so than anything,” she says with conviction. “The Bensimon girls, they have rules. They’re not like other girls. They always have to be polite and shake people’s hands. They always have to say ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’ They always have to write ‘thank you’ notes. They always have to be respectful of other people.”
The hands-on mom doesn’t mince words when it comes to her style of parenting. “If they’re in a mood to have a tantrum, they have to remove themselves…” she says. “We’re strict. We don’t play around.”
At the same time, Bensimon encourages her girls to push the boundaries and discover the wider world for themselves. “The worst parenting advice that I ever got was: just let kids be kids. I think that’s the worst thing you could ever do!” she says with a laugh. “If you let kids be kids then you’re not encouraging them to learn and exposing them to different things.”
It’s clear that the mom of two has given her mothering strategies a lot of thought—not to mention, the consideration she gives to how she co-parents with the girls’ father, fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon, who lives next door. The former model takes a refreshing approach to her relationship with her ex-husband, whom she first met on set while shooting for ELLE.
“One thing that bothers me about some divorced parents is that they’re always criticizing the other person. Well, if you didn’t love them so much, then why did you marry them in the first place?” she wonders. “I also just think it’s really disrespectful to the children.”
Her approach seems to be working. Sea and Teddy come across as lively, gracious and highly self-aware young girls. They’re playful with one another, loving towards their mom and not afraid to try new things.
When asked about her daughters, Bensimon takes as much care to compose her descriptions as a pianist would a concerto, or a photographer would a portrait.
“Sea is really, really pragmatic, but she’s also incredibly creative,” Bensimon says. “She really loves to write. She’s a great tennis player—a natural athlete. She is probably the nicest girl I’ve ever met in my entire life. And I’m not just saying that because I’m her mother!”
As far as younger sister Teddy goes, Bensimon praises her creativity. “She is care-free. She is dynamic. She’s an incredible pianist; she plays by ear. She’s really, really talented.”
With summer on the horizon, the Bensimon girls look forward to a sun-soaked season on the East End of Long Island where the haze of the city fades at the shoreline.
“I can’t wait to be out there [horseback] riding, bike riding and just being at the beach,” Bensimon says. “I love the Hamptons. The beach culture is such a huge part of my life.”
Whether it’s making pancakes, letting the dogs and kids run around, or simply getting some sun, Bensimon is anticipating the sweet release of finding some downtime. But that’s not to say that she won’t miss Manhattan. Some of her favorite local spots include the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where she’s involved with the Costume Institute), SoulCycle in Union Square, Nobu in Tribeca, Delicatessen (where Executive Chef Michael Ferraro is a great friend of hers) and Barrio Chino for Mexican cuisine on the Lower East Side.
“I just love their spicy margaritas,” she says. “You have to wait two hours, but the food is really, really good and worth the wait.”
Another thing that might be worth the wait? Mr. Right. But Bensimon isn’t hoping for someone to come running down Fifth Avenue and sweep her off her feet. She’s a bit more practical about the matter. What she really wants is someone who has a good education and confidence.
“I definitely want to get married again,” she says.
What kind of love is in store for Bensimon remains to be seen, but in the meantime, she apparently has a lot of love for NYC.
“I feel really lucky to be able to live in a city like this because I’ve met so many unbelievable parents and they’ve been such great friends,” she says. “They encourage me to do all of this!”
Kelly’s HOT Tip On How To Eat Healthy
A great way to combine your meat and vegetables is by stuffing. Stuff cabbage, sweet peppers, tomatoes, or even onions with ground meat, chicken, or turkey seasoned with salt and pepper. Bake until the meat is cooked through and the vegetable is softened. If you mix the ground meat with cooked rice, you’ve got a whole meal in one neat package.
Copyright 2012 by Kelly Killoren Bensimon. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
For Kelly’s Impromptu Pepper Party recipe, see I Can Make You HOT! available in bookstores now.