I don’t often think about today’s teenager for two reasons: One, I am not one, and two, I’ve spent the past 10 years trying to forget what it was like to be one—the angst, the exaggerated heartbreak, the countless pairs of Frankie B’s (it was the 2000s, everyone looked like trash). Though a decade and change separates me from those formative years, today’s teenager is just as far removed—their mindsets, styles, and behaviors have evolved way beyond Y2K.
Gen Z has grown up with a screen in their hand, a voice in their head, and an inherent activism that would propel them into extreme independence at an early age. At the same age I was ditching school to go buy Cinnabons and plastic hoop earrings at Forever 21, these multi-hyphenates are crafting personal brands, leading social justice movements, and inspiring a wave of unprecedented creative commotion.
Toni wears Jumpsuit – $300 – Reebok by Pyer Moss available at pyermoss.com. High Heel 70s Strappy Sandal in Gold – $550.00 – by Suzanne Rae available at no6store.com. MY ENEMY Savage Statement Earrings – $320 – by Chris Habana. MY ENEMY The Ceremony Fingertip Ring – $60 – by Chris Habana.
Among them is Toni Smith, an on-the-rise model and musician who also moonlights as a 16-year-old high school student. It’s been a whirlwind year for Smith as she finds her footing in the fashion industry. Fittings and shoots may seem the norm in New York City, where ‘where dreams happen’ are stitched in gold above our heavy, hustling heads. But for this Jamaica-born baby, the nonstop energy came as a shock to the system. “[My childhood] was like 95% fun,” she says. “It’s weird switching into being responsible all of a sudden. When I came [to America], school, everything is different. The structure of New York itself is just crazy.”
I remember how that felt, how the city and its big, burning asphalt opened up and sucked me in. I see that in Smith, but she hasn’t been jaded, hasn’t been swallowed up by the here-nows, the has-beens, and the 13-going-on-30s. Not at all. In one word, she is gentle. She describes herself as “chill, really laidback. I’m going based off what other people say about me because sometimes it’s so hard to have a really good look at yourself.” It’s owed only in part to her years, the rest an attribute of artist as observer.
Which brings us to her music. Light vocals accompany acoustic guitar (inspired by “lots of alternative rock indie stuff like Rex Orange County and Lana Del Rey”) with favorite songs like “Same” and “Far” (both which she released on Apple Music this year). When asked about her calling and what it’s like to balance two creative careers, she says, “I always say that music kind of found me. Because it’s like, I can just shut everyone else out. I’ll be in my head just coming up with new ideas. There’s always creative energy flowing.” She agrees that modeling is more interesting when underscored by another passion. Also, that it’s all really just a stepping stone into her ultimate goal, acting.
“I want to do screenwriting and acting,” she says. “I’ve been practicing writing scripts and I’m really interested in on-screen acting. I think it just looks really fun and different.” Like others in her generation, she’s considering the option of a less conventional path to get there. “I think I’m gonna take a gap year. I want to focus on modeling during that time period and also start researching and figuring out my writing style… Like, do you spend all this money [on college] and maybe get what you want? Or do you just say never mind to the whole thing and do it on your own? I know a lot of people who have done that and they’ve been really successful at it.” It’s a lot to consider for someone on the edge of 17, but the beauty of growing up in this age is the freedom to forge one’s own path.
That applies to personal style, as well. She loves a lot of international and internet stores—Lulu’s, Bershka, Tunnelvision Vintage—and mixing and matching is her go-to styling trick. “Anything striped, I love it. It goes with any outfit. And bright colors are a key thing for me to buy. I mostly try to mix things up as much as I can. But there’s always a common theme in my outfits, always something oversized over or under something else,” she says. “I’d describe my style as ’70s kind of, but also mixed in with tomboy stuff because it just aligns with my personality.”
From music to modeling, the act of performance makes Smith feel some type of way. And at such a tender age, having a creative vision to shape one’s path is paramount. I look back and can remember that feeling of waiting for the whole world to happen. The whole world is here, we’re just waiting for Toni Smith to happen.