25 in 2009: Jessica White

Born: 06/21/84 In: Buffalo, NY Is: Model

Anyone who starts modeling at 13 (in Buffalo, New York), walks the runways at 16 in Paris, and launches a charity event at 24 (for her peers, to benefit her Angel Wings Foundation), might be rushing to rest at 25 -- that is, unless you are Jessica White. The stunning 5'9" model with rich brown skin, piercing eyes and a body to die for is still trying to meet her own expectations: "I figured that by this time I would have an Academy Award."

Although White has had small roles and appearances in a handful of films, including Big Momma's House 2, the budding actress has yet to land her defining role. But if her early accomplishments are any indication, it won't be long. White was the first African-American model to be in Sports Illustrated's legendary swimsuit issue seven consecutive times, and the first to score two cosmetics contracts (for Cover Girl, and Maybelline).

As a teenager growing up in Buffalo, White turned to modeling as a refuge to get away from her gritty, industrial hometown environment. Her statuesque frame caught the eye of a model scout, who whisked the 16-year-old to the catwalks of Paris, where White, the daughter of a preacher, had a transformative experience. "Paris taught me to be cultured," says White. "I grew up completely sheltered, but being there exposed me to different races -- and foods! When I first got there, I remember eating McDonald's for six straight months," she recalls with a laugh. "By the time I returned, I was well on my way to eating a lot more than that -- from sushi to escargot." Her openness to learning new things has served her well, especially in recent years, during which rocky relationships have attracted less than stellar press. "I made some mistakes," she concedes, "but God really granted me the opportunity to be able to come back and be more successful the second time around."

With more than a decade of modeling under her belt, White is on track to follow in the footsteps of Tyra Banks, whom White counts among her supporters. "In this industry," she shares, "you have to have staying power. Achieving that means excelling at the art of modeling, and God has blessed me with that. I know the difference between taking a good photograph and taking a great one. You learn through trial and error, and because of that I feel like I'll be great at whatever I do." And as White rolls off her laundry list of upcoming projects -- none of which involve a photo shoot, bikini or runway, but rather a book, a production company and expanding her Angel Wings Foundation -- it's clear that she does not lack for ambition.

"Now I have [the] contracts that allow me to work less, so I can finally concentrate on writing the book and enjoying the foundation I started. By this time next year, I probably won't be modeling full-time." The modeling industry's loss, our gain.
Zandile Blay

Wears: a dress by Zac Posen and shoes by Miu Miu

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