Leni Klum knows she "got a lift into" the modeling world. The 18-year-old daughter of supermodel Heidi Klum and pop R&B soul singer Seal has the self awareness and gratitude to appreciate the head start. She also has the determination and work ethic needed to succeed in the industry.
"It's just a fact. My parents are famous," Leni tells PEOPLE when asked how she feels about he "nepo baby" (the child of a celebrity) stereotype, which has been trending lately. "I did get help starting off, and I know that people would dream to start off with what I had. I'm so grateful that I've been able to take what was gifted to me by my mom. But I am doing the work and putting in the time. Now I'm working on my own, traveling alone, going to school. My mom and I just have the same love for the same thing."
The rising industry star, who has already landed beauty deals with Dior and GHD, just moved from L.A. to N.Y.C. to not only pursue her modeling career, but take on another new role: college student. Leni is studying interior design. She has a roommate. They meal prep together. She walks to class, usually dressed in her boyfriend's sweats or jeans. She stops at bodegas for coffee on the way. She also flies to Milan to walk the runway and has to bring homework along.
On a warm fall day in New York City, Leni steps out — dressed in a Brunello Cucinelli suit, Michael Kors pumps and a rare mini Hermés Quelle Idole Kelly Doll bag gifted to her by dad Seal ("He gave one to me and my sister — apparently there was only a few ever made") — to chat with PEOPLE about her fresh start across the country, breaking down stereotypes of what it means to be a model in 2022 and what she's learned from her famous mom.
Welcome to New York, Leni Klum! What's the experience been like so far?
It's been amazing. I've always dreamed of moving out and designing my own apartment. I have been talking about it since I was 14. And I finally I did it. I used to come to New York every summer with my family because my mom had work here, and I loved it. I knew that I wanted to go to school here and study interior design.
Why interior design?
My mom's house actually sparked my interest; I always talk about redoing it. I'm more a minimalist — a few pieces here and there that stand out — but we have completely different tastes. She's a maximalist, with fashion too. In the future, I'd love to be on Fixer Upper. I'm obsessed with that show.
Did you swipe anything from your mom's closet before you left for school?
Honestly, I don't take from her closet often, because we aren't the same shoe size. And she's so much taller than me, but I do take her jewelry because that'll fit no matter what. She keeps everything — even if it doesn't fit anymore or if she doesn't like it. Her closet is wild. It is huge. It's stacked. You can't even move. There's so much stuff. My closet is almost empty. There needs to be an inch in between each hanger, so I can see all of the pieces.
Your mom said it was super hard for her when you left for school. Do you talk often?
After I saw her being interviewed saying that she freaks out that I'm gone, I've been texting her more. I didn't think she'd be that worried, since there's three other kids that she's looking after [Leni's siblings Henry, 17, Johan, 16, and Lou, 13]. I feel I'm all grown up now, and I can live on my own. I'm not technically on my own because I have a roommate, but I get that it's hard for her.
She loves to send us groceries. I got an alert the other day, and I looked outside the door. There were 25 big bags of groceries. My roommate and I were freaking out. We started meal prepping everything. It almost didn't fit in the fridge.
Can you pinpoint the moment you knew you wanted to model?
I was stopped in a Brandy Melville when I was 12 and they asked me to model for their clothes. I was freaking out because Brandy Melville was my favorite at the time. It was the only place I went shopping. I said "Mom, Mom, guess what? Brandy Melville wants me to model. Please, please." And she was like, "Absolutely not." I was really sad about it, but in the end she was right. And I feel like that's what sparked me to want to model more.
And then you landed your first modeling job with Vogue Germany at 16. Worth the wait?
That's like insane that I did that as my first job and my mom was with me, which made it so much fun. It was just such a good day. I wasn't nervous at all. I was just so excited. I was like, "I'm finally modeling and it's Vogue." It was just so many things to be excited about.
You just teamed up with your mom again for Intimissimi's new lingerie campaign. What was that experience like?
My mom and I are just completely comfortable around each other and we were dancing around the whole day. That was what we had to do, and we do that anyway, so it just fit right. It was just such a fun day.
When you first started modeling at 16, you were very open about struggling with acne. Why was it important for you to share that on your platform?
I feel like there is a thought behind having acne that you're not beautiful with it or it makes you look not as good as you could look. There's this stigma. I honestly used to feel like that too, a while ago. Then I realized, "Oh my God, this is normal." Everyone goes through it ... It's not bad if you have it. It's something that anyone can get and it's not your fault and it's hormonal.
There were days where I just wanted to stay home and didn't want to leave the house until my acne cleared up. Then I realized I can't live like that. I can't let pimples on my face prevent me from leaving the house. So I decided to post a photo of my acne because it's normal.
A lot of people have acne that make it seem like they don't and then people see that on social media and they're like, "None of these gorgeous girls have acne." But some do and I don't think that's a bad thing.
The industry is also becoming more inclusive. Did you ever feel like being petite would hinder you from pursuing a career in runway modeling?
At the beginning I didn't even think of doing runway — and now I love it. I want to do more. I don't think, and I never thought this, that you need to be a certain height or you need to look a certain way. I don't think there should be a certain standard, especially when it comes to height.
If you have a passion to do something, you should go for it. I'm 5-ft.-4-in., and I have a passion for modeling. Just like someone who is six foot who has a passion for modeling, we should both be able to follow our passion and do what we love, so I'm really glad that everything's changing.
You just hit the runway for About You in Milan. What was that experience like?
It's always a fun trip going to do that with About You. My mom and boyfriend were in the front row supporting me. I'm actually designing my second clothing collection with the brand for spring/summer 2023. Everything's very casual. Comfort is key. A lot of linen. I'm also doing bathing suits. I always have trouble finding bikini tops, because no bikini top brand really fits me perfectly. Which is why I definitely wanted to include a diverse size range in my About You collection.
Sebastian Reuter/Getty Leni Klum walks the Leni Klum x ABOUT YOU runway during Milan Fashion week on Sept. 22, 2022.
You recently went brunette. Were you trying to set yourself apart from your mom in any way?
I feel like a lot of people had said that, but that's genuinely not the reason at all. I was just so sick of looking the same every single day and I needed a change. I was also dyeing my roots every month. And then obviously, from bleaching your hair all the time, your hair gets really dead. So I dyed it brown, it got so much healthier. And then I was like, "Okay, well, it's still dead. I need to chop it."
What have your parents taught you about work ethic?
They have both taught me to be myself, and to do what makes me feel comfortable. You can tell if you're not comfortable and then the best of you isn't brought out. I just think you should be open and honest with what makes you comfortable, be yourself, do what you love. And if you do all those three things then you're golden.
Your mom is the Queen of Halloween. Any hints on this year's extravaganza?
My mom always went all out for Halloween, of course. We'd have people come and decorate and there'd be cobwebs everywhere and massive pumpkins. They'd come on buses and they'd [unload] these huge pumpkins. My mom definitely loves it more than I do. I love dressing up and turning into something crazy. Her costume is amazing, but I obviously can't say anything. There's an open bar and I'm not 21, so as of now, I can't go. I've been asking my mom to go for a while, but in any case, I do have my own friends out here.
Hair: Kevin Murphy and R+Co/Avery Golson/SEE MANAGEMENT
Makeup: Robert Sesnek using Dior Forever Foundation for A-Frame Agency
Location: 45Downing, New York City