By: Leslie Barker | Photos By: Kim Leeson ~
Jan Strimple spent decades as a model.
She traveled tens of thousands of miles to take her talent and beauty to fashion shows around the world. She’s graced covers of dream-worthy fashion magazines. She’s had mannequins designed in her likeness. She’s worn countless couture outfits most of us couldn’t come close to doing justice, couldn’t afford even if we could, and whose fabric we’d probably never get close enough to touch.
These days, Jan produces fashion shows, such as the Equest fundraiser in Dallas, Texas. She weaves her expertise into extravaganzas of music, lights, technology, and design. Tickets can cost hundreds of dollars, the modeled clothes many times that, and the funds raised for the organizations sponsoring the shows in the tens of thousands of times even that.
Yet talk to Jan and you don’t feel intimidated in the slightest. She’s as friendly and warm as she is willowy and gorgeous, as likely to share stories about fashion icons Bob Mackie and Yves St. Laurent as she is her “crazy fabulous” pasta recipe.
“Long ago,” Jan said, “I adopted a very clear idea: Modeling is what I do. It’s not who I am.”
It’s what she’s done since she was 13, when her mother enrolled Jan, her older sister Chaffee, and their cousin Rachel in the Wendy Ward Charm School near their Kent, Ohio, home. The girls spent six weeks learning how to sit properly, set a table, and “cross our legs like a lady.” It all culminated in a fashion show.
“That was the first time I walked on a runway, which was probably 12 feet long,” Jan said. “I thought I was on Broadway. I thought, ‘Oh wow, I kind of like this!’”
Within three years, she was teaching the class and appearing on TV spots to talk about fashion.
“I didn’t think anything about it,” Jan said. She was six feet tall by then. “It put me in a position to speak in front of people, to be able to speak to anybody. It certainly helped the poise factor of a 16-year-old, as did dance, as does anything that puts someone on stage. You learn to move, to carry yourself.”
Much of that poise and love for beautiful clothes comes naturally. Her father would tell his daughters, “The way you carry yourself in life tells the world how you like to be treated. Carry yourself with respect.”
“One of my sisters is 5-feet-6-half inches tall, and the other is 5-feet-8 inches,” Jan said. “We all stand up really straight.”
Her mother, a professional singer, had a bedroom filled with ball gowns and beautiful jewelry. Every Saturday, Jan told The Daily Campus at SMU, she and her mother, grandmother, and sisters Chafee and Shelly went bowling, out to lunch, and on a “trip to Paris” — their term for the Goodwill Store. They’d buy clothes, tailoring them to fit each of the three girls.
“I was a very serious seamstress, nearly a tailor,” Jan said. “When you understand construction and work as a model in the world of haute couture or high-end American designers, you can speak in an educated way with the designer of what’s going on inside the garment.”
Which she did.
When she and her husband, Dan — whom she met when she was 17 and married two years later — went on an extended honeymoon around the United States, her sewing machine was imperative. The two housed it in a little trailer, which they pulled driving Jan’s orange Vega. They had $600 between them.
“When we got to California, we lived in a tent on the beach for four weeks,” she said. “We never stayed anywhere longer than seven weeks. We’d do something for cash, pick another place on the map, and go.”
Then, Jan Made Dallas Her Home and Her Modeling Took Off
Jan and Dan decided to make their home in San Antonio, where Dan got a job in the golf industry and Jan became a house model at Frost Brothers, a high-end department store. In 1980, they moved to Dallas, where Jan did a little “random modeling.”
“When I went to The Tanya Blair Agency, Tanya said, ‘You’re too tall. No one will hire you,’” she said.
But at The Kim Dawson Agency, Kim said, “You don’t look like anyone here, but we’ll list you and see what happens.”
A woman who hired models for Neiman Marcus also told her she was too tall; that she’d “never look good in clothes.”
But Jan persevered, calling upon her Midwestern upbringing and a family who believed in her and taught her to do the same.
“I was raised with the power of positive thoughts,” she said. “I have a very uncrushable spirit. Drama was not encouraged or allowed in our household.
My sisters and I are different, but we never functioned in the world of drama. I love it on stage, but don’t bring it backstage.”
She first modeled overseas at age 27, almost a decade later than most models begin their global journeys.
“After all my travels, I always came back home to Dallas,” Jan said. “Dan and I were married; I wouldn’t relocate my life without him. Dan’s more of a playful spirit than I am. He’s helped me through. I would be gone for six weeks at a time. It’s not what he signed up for, but we didn’t know what we signed up for.”
Traveling the world and meeting icons of the fashion industry was exciting, but the business side of her work is what initially appealed to her and continues to do so.
“Ultimately,” she said, “that made me a very smart model.”
And a very smart and savvy producer. Currently, she produces about 40 fashion shows each year.
“One of my strengths is I design shows for my audience,” Jan said. “Who are they? What do they want to see? Let’s push their comfort zone a little bit. You show the respect due them. They bought a $35 ticket, a $1,000 ticket. Why would you leave them feeling unentertained?”
Her first show was done as a favor to a friend, who asked for help producing a jean jacket show. The next year, he didn’t want to do it. But Jan volunteered in his place and produced the show for many years.
After one such show, three women who were co-chairing a fashion show luncheon for Kidney Texas, Inc., tracked her down. Would she produce it?
“It was fun and theatrical,” Jan said. “That set up my entire production career in Dallas.”
She wasn’t modeling much by then.
“You naturally age out of the industry,” she said. “If someone had a big commercial smile, they could be the smiling mom in a commercial. But I look like I’m from Pluto.
I’m not very commercial-looking, which is why I had success in the high arena of fashion. I’m more of the fantastical creature, not the girl next door.”
Three years ago, Jan was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a lumpectomy. She handled the diagnosis and treatment with her usual face-it-and-deal-with-it demeanor. The day she began losing her trademark long red hair, she and Dan drank a bottle of wine while he shaved her head.
“I don’t like the word survivor,” Jan said. “I just had breast cancer and now I don’t. I didn’t look at it as a battle. It wasn’t a fight. It was a path I traveled, a different fork I had to take.”
That attitude she again attributed to her upbringing.
“Cancer doesn’t define me,” Jan said. “I don’t react dramatically to things and I don’t react emotionally to things. I react wanting to understand something. I had no fear. I had thoughts.”
What buoyed her were handwritten letters and emails from friends and strangers. Longtime Fox 4 News anchor Clarice Tinsley won an Emmy Award for “In the Moment: Fierce and Fearless,” her feature about Jan.
Two years later, the pandemic hit. One after another, Jan’s shows were cancelled. So she and Dan made a decision.
“With all the sadness, the tragedy, the misinformation, and the hate, Dan and I looked at each other and decided to go to our home in Ohio,” Jan said.
“It was a dairy farm Dan’s father and stepmother purchased as a side project and started planting Christmas trees on it. He had made money in insurance, but how does that fuel your heart? Working the land, planting trees gave him a whole existence.”
Simplifying fuels Jan’s heart, she said.
“We watched two geese claim our pond, and another two try to land during mating season,” she said. “This is what nature does naturally. The geese would lay eggs and a coyote would come and eat them. Every day, we’d watch her come back and look for her eggs again.”
She continued: “It sparked something in me: I just want to watch something simple.”
In the middle of 2020, she stepped into her 2,500 square-foot storage space in Irving, filled with costumes and props.
“As much joy as it’s given me,” she said she had told herself, “I’m done.”
She called friends at the Dallas Opera, Dallas Black Dance Theater, and Texas Ballet Theater, and they happily took carloads away. She now has 300 square feet of storage.
Instead of material things, she and Dan nourish their souls in the 40 acres of nature and wilderness surrounding the house they’ve completely redone.
Dan lives there most of the time, and Jan is based there, only returning to their Irving home when she has an event. The house is a gathering place for extended family, where they all can laugh and cook and feel alive.
“I’m turning over the reins to some of my smaller shows to other people,” Jan said. “I’m a little spoiled. I only want to do what I want to do.”
Which, for now, is spending time in nature (“It’s total beauty up there.”), teaching aspiring models the ropes (“I love to teach. I love helping young women find a natural ease of what feels easy and secondary to me.”), reading (“I’ve probably read only five books in 25 years.”), and maybe writing children’s books (“Years ago, I wrote two titles for two children’s books. I love writing; I appreciate writers.”).
And of course, cooking, which brings us back to that “crazy fabulous” pasta recipe. In a nutshell, it consists of peppered bacon, plenty of fresh garlic, fresh Roma tomatoes, fresh rosemary, bowtie pasta, and lots of parmesan cheese.
Cooking and so much of the last 18 months — watching geese, soaking in nature, spending time together, simplifying — is, Jan said, “really who we are and what we’re doing. It’s our joy and our pleasure.”