It’s been over a decade since Ocala Magazine’s first cover model contest and as we look at yet another successful year we are also fond of looking back at where it all began. Kimberly Leemans has built herself a life of beauty and now that she is established as a seasoned industry professional, she took a moment out of her busy schedule to speak about what it takes to survive in one of the worlds toughest industries.
For Kimberly, stardom has always been in her veins. It didn’t matter that she is from a small town in central Florida, she knew what she wanted and was determined to make it happen. Like many young girls, it was the big screen that drew her in. The creativity and magic created in front of the camera captured her attention and never let go. “I feel like the first movie that really marked me was Hocus Pocus. The youngest actress was about my age when it came out, and I just wanted to know what I needed to do to be able to play with Bette Midler in this awesome witch adventure. And then watching Disney Channel I just so wanted to be a part of the shows that I was watching, I wanted to live in those worlds.”
A stunningly natural beauty, her expressiveness and charm are one part nature and one part nurture. She has learned how to work the camera not in a classroom, but through trial and error. Now a polished professional, it is observation and experience that were her teachers. Back when the roadmap wasn’t always clear, this wide-eyed dreamer from Ocala took a chance during Ocala Magazine’s very first cover model contest and that chance has paid off in a big way.
“Honestly, the first time I ever thought or felt like a model was during the Ocala’s Next Top Model magazine photo shoot. You guys did an incredible job putting together a professional shoot for five local girls. I feel like we maybe had five or seven different wardrobe changes and setups. I remember feeling so excited and so nervous because I had no idea what I was doing but getting to see the final photos when the voting began was an incredible confidence boost of like Wow! That’s me! And then after I won and saw my face on the cover of a magazine all over town. That was a pretty special moment. So thanks Dad, for submitting me without my knowing because other people could see something about me before I could.”
One thing you will notice when talking to Kimberly is that she carries a surprising amount of humility for someone in the heart of the fashion and entertainment industry. “The truth of it is that without this experience I wouldn’t have had the confidence boost to apply for America’s Next Top Model.”
Always a fan of the show when the opportunity came for her to audition her family and friends rallied around to support her. “Going out for ANTM was a two-parter. I was a freshman at Florida International University in Miami and my girlfriends would all gather together in one of our rooms every Wednesday or Thursday night and we would pig out while watching the show. Any time the girls on the show had challenges and would freak out about not being able to do it I would be like ‘I could do that!’ So eventually my girlfriends put me to the test and said ‘why don’t you audition then?’ ”
Not one to back down from a challenge, she did just that. But the auditioning process would prove to be more difficult than anticipated. “I Auditioned with the big mass casting call and didn’t even make it past the first round of elimination. To be fair, I had this terrible brassy blonde hair and had definitely packed on some freshman 15lbs. So leading up to the next year I went back to my natural brown hair and started working out. I sent in a taped audition and was later called by the producers to come back to the mass auditions, but in a different category. I made it through the first eliminations, then the second, third, fifth. Seventh, and then It was a waiting game. ‘Don’t call us we’ll call you.’ And maybe three months later I got the call that I was in the semifinals! That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had!”
Out of thousands of models in attendance, the small-town girl from Ocala Florida was thrust onto the worlds stage. “There isn’t an adjective thrilling enough to explain the pure joy and exhilaration I was feeling. I wanted to shout it from the roof tops but I wasn’t aloud to tell anyone. Only my parents and my boyfriend knew. I couldn’t even tell my best friends, it was super-secretive. So my celebration was intensely intimate. I just had to tell everyone that I was going on vacation for a few months and it wasn’t until the promos came out in September that I could finally admit to it!”
A roller coaster ride from the start America’s Next Top Model 9 was filled with everything you would expect from the show. From the outside looking in, the average viewer assumes that the rumors are true. That the modeling world is notoriously competitive and at times almost vicious. So how does a small-town girl adjust to life on such a competitive scale underneath the scope of an international audience?
“The models have always been really nice. I never felt like I fit in, though. These girls are so naturally classy-looking that they could just rock a white t-shirt and jeans and look like a cover of GLAMOUR. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel as effortless and maybe came off as a little try-hard, but I didn’t know any better. There’s no guidance or how-to on being a model. It goes back to being as authentically you as possible. One girl’s authenticity is to casually resemble a magazine cover and another girl (me) is just coming across as a goofy noodle.” She laughs. Maintaining a sense of humor is important in an industry that is built upon physical appearance and even someone as steadfast as she had her moments.
“It takes its toll for sure. I lost a lot of work because my skin was never clear enough. You would think with all the photoshopping they do that it wouldn’t be such a deal-breaker (but it is). I went to Europe to test out those markets and my breasts were too big for Paris, my look wasn’t edgy enough for Belgium, my look was too classic for Milan. It was always something.”
Tired of the endless cycle of being told who to be she did what anyone in her situation would do, she rebelled against the system that created her image in the best way she knew how. “So, a few years ago I started cutting my hair. My agents freaked and I bought extensions. You’re a product, and you have to stay consistent so that they can sell you. But when you feel like, your full potential isn’t being recognized you start to rebel. So the next step was to bleach my hair white-which continued to evolve by shaving my sides. I no longer wanted my talents to be based off what people thought would sell—because it wasn’t selling enough for what I wanted. I wanted to have free-will over my self-expression again.”
It’s her ability to express herself that has landed her roles on mega-hit television shows whose fandoms and syndication span worldwide. “I you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, I played Crystal from The Hilltop in season six. Spoiler alert, I punched Rick for killing my boo and then Machonne kicked my a**.” Die hard Walking Dead fans know who she is, as there are very few people who can fight both Rick and Michone and live to tell about it, but in the show that exactly what her character did. So does this mean she will be making another appearance on one of the shows upcoming seasons? “She’s still technically alive and I think she’s probably made it to Canada by now but I’m sure she could find a ride back down to help the good fight if the contracts align.”
The Walking Dead was not her only foray into the sci-fi/horror community “One of my favorites was playing a witch (the younger version of Jo) in Vampire Diaries. And the next time I should be on your screens is this October in a new Syfy Tv series called Spides.”
Darker characters seem to be well established in her wheelhouse but they’re not the only tool in her arsenal. With an ability to channel any character, she found herself on the hit show Nashville. “I got to play (alongside) Miss Hayden Panettiere in Nashville as a reporter that got to follow her daily life for a week.”
With a chameleon-like ability to go from modeling to television, the experiences in and of themselves are worth their weight in gold. “My favorite memory of those TV experiences are the sets, just the massiveness of the productions. The amount of people and expertise in every department it takes to entertain you for a few minutes. I love community, and these sets are like self-sufficient little villages and the crew becomes like a family. The sad part is not being able to stay longer. The dream would be a 7-year series where we just get paid to play and entertain. That’s what attracted me to becoming an actor. I always had an active imagination but how much more fun is it when you can play make-believe on real sets and then see all the magic come together in the end. Best. Game. Ever.”
Transitioning from one venue to the next is not something that everyone can do. Both models and actors must have within themselves a sense of timing, but in acting, it’s the delivery that matters; and Kimberly has mastered her craft.
With the knowledge she has acquired over the years, she has branched out from being in front of the cameras to now running the show. Models come to her for advice and guidance entrusting her to help them build the very career she previously built for herself. “The opportunity came up that a talent agency was opening up in Bend, OR where I live now. I was so excited to finally get the insider scoop of how the submission side of things worked. I wanted to be the change that I wanted to see in this industry. I let each of my clients know when I bring them on that I want there to be an open line of communication. There can be this weird hierarchy/gatekeeper vibe between agents and talent when really we both need each other. There’s not one without the other, so let’s talk to each other like human beings. I’ll let you know when things aren’t working or the feedback I get from casting,” she explains.
As time moves forward and technology changes the industry changes along with it. It’s been over decade since Kimberly Leemans was named Ocala Magazine’s cover model and the years have been filled with lessons, both good and bad.
“The industry is changing so fast. Especially with social media. I’m not sure how long the ‘followers’ game will be an active part of getting people work. The pros are that anyone, anywhere can become an ‘insta-model’ and promote what they have to offer by themselves. The con is that it seems like a lot more work and a lot more competition to just get in the game and stay relevant.”
With trends in a constant state of flux, whether it’s modeling or acting, one needs to know who they are and what they want. “Something I’ve come to grips with now that I’m in my thirties is that I’m tired of my skillset being ‘trendy.’ What I have to offer, the experience I’ve built, the talent I have developed is flippantly discarded because of a look people are going for at this moment. It’s in, it’s not, you’re hot then you’re not. There’s no stability and there’s no way to predict the next move. My wise advice is, be who YOU are. Always. The tides will change and when it’s ‘your’ turn you’ll have been authentic from the get-go. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Do find a balance of work and play. Never put your life on hold for your career.”
Perspective is often the best teacher. We do not know where each step will lead. That is the beauty of life, not knowing. Taking each opportunity as it comes and having the courage to step through the doors when they are opened. That is the lesson to be learned, and for our current models, Kimberly has one final thought.
“Girls, I want you to know, however this experience has been for you, to appreciate the support system around you. To the photographer that helped coach you into your best angle. To the hair and makeup team for highlighting your naturally gorgeous features. To the editors and designers that highlight and layout this gorgeous spread that you get to keep forever. To your community that voted and routed for you ‘winner’ or not. And most importantly to YOU for showing up, doing something out of your comfort zone, being vulnerable and brave. What you do with this experience from here on out is yours and maybe it will take you 13 years to take a moment to reflect at how young, innocent, naïve, beautiful you are in all of your unknowing. Congratulations!