Eighteen-year-old model, Leni Klum has just comeback to visit family in Los Angeles for the holidays, on break from college in New York. Her first two days in the City of Angels, she worked.The third, she chilled in bed watching TV with her boyfriend—a rare moment of doing nothing in Klum’s whirlwind of a schedule.
Klum has been pulled in a single direction: toward the front of the camera. She’s known she wanted to model since before she was a teen, in part inspired by her supermodel mother Heidi Klum’s career—though she does think of it as more a coincidence that they love this same line of work. “I do what I love, she does what she loves,” the young Klum says, “We have different interests, but modeling happens to be one of the things we have in common.” Klum recalls her early years of going to watch her mother on set, inadvertently planting the seed of her own ambitions. “I would go to my mom’s work all the time—it was the most interesting thing to me,” she remembers, “I watched her work and thought, ‘This is so fun, it’s so exciting. This is what I want to do.’”
But her mother didn’t let her pursue it as a career until she was a teen. Still young, Klum agrees. “I feel like eighteen is still pretty young, which I’m at now,” she considers. But it’s a different stage of youth, and one worth exploring to its fullest be- fore embarking on working life—the cocoon of life experience is forming.
However, the time she had before working was worth the wait, she says—the affordances of hindsight under her belt are valuable. It’s less about the working-while-young side of things than the perspective she’s gained, and the judgement calls she’s now able to make. “It would’ve been so different if I’d started younger,” the model reflects. “I would’ve regretted posting certain photos of myself. I would’ve been like, ‘This was so embarrassing.’” We’ve all been there, but most of us haven’t had to endure millions bearing witness to our tween inclinations to post filtered Snapchat stories and Facebook albums of make-shift photoshoots with friends. We, the masses, have the option to laugh, hit archive, and reinvent without a second thought. By holding off on cover stories and billboard campaigns until a few years later, Klum gave her younger self some breathing room.
Now, Klum experiments and toys with what she wants to do in the years to come, what direction she wants her path to follow—or rather, to forge. This comes with scrutiny, especially off the back of late last year’s cultural obsession with the concept of “nepo babies.” The child of one of the most famous models in the world, Klum is no stranger to the label. She’s been asked by a few outlets whether or not she “believes” she’s a nepo baby—a question she doesn’t seem to think warrants much discussion, because, it’s a matter of fact, rather than opinion, in Klum’s view. And she doesn’t see it as a negative. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I am,’” she says matter-of-factly, “and that’s what a lot of other people are.”
Klum embraces her family ties, often working on set with her mother. “It’s like working with my best friend,” she says. “It’s just great vibes. We have the same energy; we’ll be jumping around, dancing around, listening to music on full blast. It’s really fun working with her.” The two have graced covers and campaigns alongside one another, experiences Klum feels grateful to have had. “I was really nervous for my first job, so it was really nice having my mom there, not just on the sidelines, but doing it with me.” That said, she’s not reliant on her mother now. “I don’t think she knows half the things that I’m doing,” Klum jokes. But she does still go to her mom for advice.
Though her mother is German, Klum was born and raised in the US. Since embarking on her career, she’s been spending more time across the Atlantic, tapping into her German roots by working with European publications and brands. Her first modeling job was the January 2021 cover of German Vogue with her mother. “Vogue was insane,” she says. “Especially because it was my first job ever.”
For that piece (and multiple others since), Klum’s interview was in German. “There’s definitely a reconnection when it comes to the language,” she says. “My grandma only speaks German, so I grew up speaking German.” But she wouldn’t say she’s fluent, which makes interviews with German mags a challenge—but not one she shies away from. “I’m surprised people can understand me,” she jokes. “I switch words around, and everyone says I have an accent as well.” But the effort is there, and she’s getting better, she says with a smile.
While balancing the bridging of country and culture, Klum is taking the time to explore other facets of her identity. She’s parlaying her love of aesthetics to her studies, majoring in interior design and fine arts. “I always want to branch out and try a bunch of new things,” she explains. She likens interior design, a longtime love, to “designing clothes for a home, if that makes sense.”
She’s also collaborated on her own collection for German fashion retailer, About You. Klum hadn’t heard of the company beforehand, given her US upbringing, but was excited about the chance to “put [her] own thoughts into the clothing.” She’d send in mood boards and work with the design team to alter and play with the shapes, colors, and texture of the pieces. “I’m a huge Pinterest girl, so I took pieces from there. Or I’d take photos of people on the street.” The most surreal aspect was seeing her designs in person. “Seeing the pieces in real life was mind blowing,” Klum gushes. “Because for so long I’d only seen the pieces via email or Zoom. So that was the craziest part.” She’s now got another collection in the works. “I love the team, and I love being able to put my own ideas into the clothes.”
It’s a lot to juggle, but Klum is determined to do it all, leaning into both work and play—at times merging the two. “I’m still a kid,” she says. “I wanted to do the whole college experience. But I also love working, so I’m trying to balance both. So far, so good.” But between the two, work is her favorite—“It’s my happy place,” she says.
One might wonder what touchpoint or milestone Klum will strive for now, in her modeling work, at least—her very first gig was a Vogue cover, after all. But when asked what key moment she’s working towards, no one project, publication, or brand comes to mind. Instead, for Klum, it’s about the inward process. “My ultimate goal would just to always be happy with my job, and to love going to work,” she says. “I know a lot of people don’t love going to their job, so my goal would be to be happy with what I’m doing and how I’m working,” she says. “So far, I love it. If I could continue to love it, that would be my ‘I made it’ moment.”
Klum is determined to find joy in what she’s doing and this growth process—be it work, or study, or the rare moments of downtime she manages to sneak in. In school, she’s set to take her interior design classes next semester, “but if it turns out I don’t like studying interior design, I’ll try something new, and I’ll keep trying something new until I love it,” she says.
When Klum does manage to steal a moment or two of re- spite, her go-to’s have a familiar ring to them. She’ll go for lunch at Bar Pitti with friends, or head to her favorite ramen place—she doesn’t know its name, but she can tell you how to get there, in true New York fashion. Either that, or she’ll spend the day in bed watching TV with her boyfriend, “or taking a four hour bath.” As for which shows will be playing on the TV? She’s been on the Love Island train—but only the Australian and British versions (Klum likes the accents and the lingo—“I think it’s so funny when they say ‘fancy’ or ‘he’s fit,’ because I’d never heard that,” she laughs).
The model is doing her own thing, and coming into her own in the process. This involves a step away from her family, not just in her approach to work, but in moving across the country. It’s a physical separation about which she feels somewhat ambivalent. “I like and don’t like being away from my family,” Klum considers. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot being on my own. It’s only been four months—I just left,” she laughs, not reneging, but perhaps reconsidering. Though at eighteen, in times of fast and abundant change, those few months can indeed feel like a lifetime. With her own space in a new city, she’s got ample time (in stolen moments between work and school) to enjoy the bustle of New York, and in doing so, to figure out just where it is she’ll be drawn to explore next.