I underestimated Kimora Lee Simmons.

Kimora Lee Simmons
, heads a multi-millionaire apparel empire called Baby Phat. She is the ex-wife of media and fashion mogul Russell Simmons. I'll admit I have joked about her fashion line and ad campaigns for being, well, tacky. Too much lame' for my tastes. Really it's just that I think I'm too old to have a gold lame' cat logo on the back of my coat. Not that Ms. Simmons has ever made any pretense about being "to the manor born". She's been quoted as saying she is well aware of being nouveau riche, more Donald Trump than Maria Kennedy Shriver in the culturally refined department. (Hey, you don't see all that gold leaf in the Hyannis compound, keep it real.)

I Have to Eat My Words

Kimora has a reality show now on Style network, Kimora Life in the Fab Lane. Kimora is literally her company's brand; as a former Chanel model, she is the 'face' of the Baby Phat line. So Mattel asked her to submit her likeness to a Kimora Lee Simmons Barbie Doll. What ensued in their "final details" meeting on the doll prototype was remarkable.

Kimora had given explicit instructions that the doll's skin tone, lip thickness, and hair texture was to reflect that of an African-American woman(Simmons is African-American and Japanese.) One of the Mattel reps referred to the doll as the "Kimora Lee Simmons doll", at which Ms. Simmons proceeded to cut said rep off at the knees. Beauty be damned, this lady is a smart, smart business woman who does not miss a trick. Simmons shot back "See, you keep trying to slip that in there. This is not a Kimora Lee Simmons doll, this is a Kimora Lee Simmons Barbie. Little (black) girls need to see Barbie can be black, and not just the sidekick."punctuated with a "do you read me?" face.

Thankfully, I have a DVR because I immediately had a "what'd she just say?" attack and had to rewind the segment. After confirming she said what I thought, I let out a "you GO girl!" and gave her a standing ovation right there in my living room. "Ms. Mattel" predictably reacted by making that "I've just been called out on my BS but I'm gonna try and maintain composure" face, and spitting out a begrudging "I agree" so fast you knew she didn't mean a word of it. Apparent gluttons for punishment, the Mattel drones then to try and tell Simmons they couldn't afford to give the doll both a full-length fur coat and a fur replica of her Pomeranian dog and stay on budget. Did the doll have both when it came out? Oh yeah.

(photo courtesy of HipHop Crunch)

Ms. Simmons taking this stand was one of the gustiest business moves I've ever seen. Remember, her brand is well, her. She is the face of Baby Phat. Her daughters are in the ads. To stand by your convictions on what is right, when it may adversely affect your livelihood, is not an easy call -- especially when you are as outnumbered as African-Americans are in corporate America. It was clear from the exchange Ms. Simmons was fully prepared to walk from the Mattel deal if this doll didn't come out as she'd requested.

So what's the branding lesson? My mantra has become "your brand is your company's online dating profile" -- who you are, and what you want. (props to the Heath brothers for this analogy) In Ms. Simmons' case, I learned some brands won't sell out to make a dollar.

Kimora, much respect. I had you all wrong. Thank you for speaking truth to power.