IN AN INDUSTRY WHERE the end of one's teenage years is often synonymous with career extinction, 29-year-old Kati Nescher, one of the planet's most in-demand supermodels, has leveraged her worldly poise to astounding effect. She's become a runway fixture, booked Vogue editorials and advertising campaigns for brands like Prada and Chanel and gamely succumbed to the five-locales-in-one-week scheduling of fashion's most famous names—all since kick-starting her career just two years ago.
Before her Bambi-like green eyes and perfect Slavic cheekbones ever found a home on the runway, Nescher, a native Russian, had cycled through the usual roster of postadolescent temp jobs, lived abroad in Germany and had a son, Theo, with an ex-boyfriend. "It was just bang, bang, bang," she says of her mom-to-model rise over lunch at Manhattan's Hôtel Americano—steak tartar, a cheese quesadilla, French bread, a glass of orange juice and two cappuccinos, all for her (she actually lost weight after giving birth). "It's all about the question of success: Are you lucky? Are you in the right time at the right place—I don't know, but I get this feeling I'm in the right time."
After so many seasons of runways crowded with what casting director James Scully calls "drab, pale blonde androids"—read: very young models—her timing couldn't be better. "I think Kati's appeal and the reason she rose to the top immediately are her age and life experience," says Scully. "Kati is a woman and came into the business with everything it takes great models years to develop. She already possessed the grace, personality and the drive that most new models today don't have."
At the age when many of her peers are plucked from home and sent overseas, Nescher was enrolled in high school, studying piano and ballet, "like every Russian girl." In post-Perestroika Russia, fashion was a distant thought for Nescher—though people always remarked that she could be a model or a movie star if she wanted. When she turned 18, she enrolled in a language program in Munich. "Putin came to power, and I left," she says. "It was perfect." Nescher spent the next 10 years in the Bavarian capital, getting married, divorcing, going to translator school—and finally giving birth to her son, who is now three. "And then I was just Mom," she says. "It was amazing, I enjoyed it every day. But then I realized that I was just Mom, so I started to search."
At 27, with the encouragement of a makeup-artist friend, that search led her to a small modeling agent in Cologne. "I called her, and I was like, 'Yeah, um, I want to be a model,' " she says, laughing. "I was so insecure!" That meeting turned into casting calls in Paris, which in turn led to starring roles in fashion shows there, and finally to New York, where she's just leased a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village with "a little balcony and a fireplace that works."
Her first fashion experience in New York was a Louis Vuitton campaign shot by Steven Meisel. During the shoot—"this pretty story with candles and pink"—she found herself talking freely with the famous lensman. "It was my first big job and I was like, all right, be yourself," she says. "And I realized he was talking to me like a normal person." That knack for easy conversation and insight on set—not to mention her impressive work ethic—is intrinsic to Nescher's appeal, both in photographs and in her day-to-day dealings with her fashion "family." Her ascendancy is such that the scales might finally be tipping toward older models with emotional experience—a kind of lived beauty that's impossible to feign.
At least once a month, Nescher visits Theo in Munich. She's thought about bringing him to live with her in New York, but for now life is too hectic. "Of course I want him all the time and sometimes it's very hard," she says. "But you know, I would say that since I came into this world, I'm the happiest mom ever."—Megan Conway