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Under the warm lights in a loft in New York City, Niki Taylor is smiling -- that electric, girl-next-door grin that makes you want to just stop and shoot the breeze. No matter that her face has graced more than 400 magazine covers worldwide. Niki will always be the friend you want to hang with -- the woman practically radiates confidence, despite the challenges life has handed her (the death of her younger sister in 1995, a near-fatal car accident seven years ago, raising twin boys as a single mom). Taylor's resiliency is perhaps her most striking feature. Now that she's in her 30s, her body is more curvy than stick-thin, a fact she is fine with and, in an industry that rewards super-skinny over super-healthy, another example of how Taylor is doing things her way.
FITNESS: You're a supermodel with staying power. That's rare! How have things changed since you started working in the business?
Niki: It was a different generation back then. There were only a few true supermodels: It was a title you had to earn. I was young when I got to New York. I camped out in my agent's tiny apartment with my dad. It really wasn't glamorous. I had to work for everything I got, and I've never lost sight of that.
FITNESS: What do you think about the way models are getting skinnier and skinnier?
Niki: I was only 14 when I began modeling, and I was skinny too. I started working with a trainer at age 16 to help my body get more definition; I had my babies when I was 19. Now I'm in my 30s and I've got curves. So my body has gone through many changes. Yes, there is a lot of pressure from the industry, but I think women are prettiest when they look like women.
FITNESS: How did you feel when your friend Tyra Banks was called out by the tabloids for her size?
Niki: That was really harsh. Tyra is beautiful -- they distorted her photos. There she is, on vacation, and someone is sticking a camera up her rear. Anyone photographed that way would be mortified! I guess they're called rags for a reason.
FITNESS: Does getting older also mean getting smarter about how you treat your body?
Niki: This is the first time in my life I've been on a diet. As you age, your body just doesn't forgive as much, and I've had to learn to be much healthier in how I eat now than I was 10 years ago. I am working with a nutritionist, who has me eat five or six small meals or snacks a day. We count carbs, measure body fat, and generally just try to keep me healthy! She sends the food to my house every four days, so I don't even have to shop for it.
FITNESS: Sounds great. How did you find your nutritionist?
Niki: Through my husband, Burney. He's a NASCAR driver, and his pit crew uses this program to stay in shape. It's a lot of organic foods -- no preservatives. I eat things like turkey sausage and blueberry pancakes for breakfast, salads for lunch, and chicken-and-broccoli casserole for dinner.
FITNESS: Do you follow a specific workout routine as well?
Niki: I try to exercise three days a week, doing at least 30 minutes of cardio -- the elliptical, bike, treadmill. I mix in free weights, so I'll do 10 minutes of cardio, three sets of weights, 10 minutes of cardio and so on. It's hard, though, with my schedule. For years I was a single mom trying to work while raising two sons on my own. That didn't leave a lot of downtime for fitness!
FITNESS: Do you encourage your twins to exercise?
Niki: Oh, yeah. They're typical 13-year-old boys -- they love to ride dirt bikes, they're very active. It's interesting to see how they have different personalities, even though they are twins. Hunter is more reserved; Jake is the more outgoing one. I guess they both have a little bit of me in them.
FITNESS: Do you ride bikes with them?
Niki: Actually, my husband and I ride Harley-Davidsons! I'm a bit of a daredevil these days. After my accident, I think I realized it was good to embrace life. My faith is really important to me, and I am less afraid now than before. Burney and I do these cross-country motorcycle trips where you ride for approximately 500 miles a day, seven or eight days straight. It's a group of 200 or so bikes and it's tons of fun. I wouldn't exactly call it exercise, but holding up an 850-pound motorcycle in the heat is no easy task!
FITNESS: How did you meet Burney?
Niki: We met at a charity auction for the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a camp for chronically ill kids established by NASCAR driver Kyle Petty and his wife, Pattie, in memory of their son Adam, who died in 2000. The Pettys donated 74 acres of land in North Carolina to build this camp. Children with everything from cancer to autism stay for a week, free. They meet other kids with the same disease they have, while doing normal activities. I do a lot of fund-raising for them, and so does Burney. For our wedding, in lieu of gifts, we asked for donations to Victory Junction.Niki's Mind, Body, Spirit Charity
Each FITNESS Mind, Body, Spirit Superstar chooses her own health cause to support. Niki's pick is the near-to-her heart Victory Junction Gang Camp, which gives chronically ill children the chance to meet other kids dealing with the same health conditions, during a one-week stay. The camp, located in Randleman, North Carolina, offers mountain climbing, pottery classes, theater workshops, and other activities.
FITNESS: Tell us about your new TV show, Make Me a Supermodel.
Niki: There's a lot of travel between the studio in New York and my home in Tennessee. But I'm loving being a host -- I get to be positive and encouraging to the kids (both girls and guys), who are aspiring models, without having to choose who stays and who goes. It's like being Mama Bear.
FITNESS: After a lifetime in front of the camera, are there any confidence secrets you share with the contestants?
Niki: It comes down to knowing your own body. I used to practice posing in front of a mirror. Modeling is like acting without words -- you have to learn how to move in a way that says something. When I'm nervous, I think about my husband, and that gives me confidence. Being secure in how you look comes from never taking yourself too seriously. It's as much about an attitude as it is your size and shape. Have a good time, and your confidence will come through.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2008.