After making the rounds for seven years now, one might assume the runway routine is no sweat for Sessilee Lopez. Not quite. “My heart is in my throat before I go out,” says the 22-year-old. “When there’s only one girl in front of me, I’m like, ‘Don’t have a crazy face, Sessilee! No tension in the neck, please!’” She’s apparently worked out those kinks: The Philadelphia native continues to walk in shows season after season, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Dries van Noten, Hermès, Fendi and Alexander Wang, not to mention Victoria’s Secret in 2008 and 2009. But even after breaking into the uber-elite circle of established girls, Lopez is disarmingly humble. “I still can’t believe I’m in this world,” she says. We chatted with her about being homeschooled, posing on icebergs and close encounters in her apartment building.

You got signed when you were 14. How did it happen?
I went to a convention in Florida. I was so cocky. I was convinced that I was going to get picked up by everyone. But no one showed any interest in me so I was devastated and didn’t want to try again. But my mom was like, ‘No, scratch that. You’re not giving up.’ So we went up to New York and I went to all the open calls and got signed [by IMG. She’s with Supreme now.]

How did you balance school and modeling?
I was homeschooled for all of high school. My mother was a teacher so it wasn’t really that much of a stretch. She was always traveling with me so it was a lot of studying on planes and in hotels after work.

That must have been nice having your mom with you all the time.
Yeah, she kind of adopted everyone in my little model clique. She was the den mother. She has kids all over the world.

You grew up with three sisters. What was that like?
I’m the youngest and the skinniest one so I was like a circus freak. Not to mention how freakishly tall I was; my sisters are all under 5’5’’, and I’ve been 5’10’’ since I was like seven. So they teased me. They still do!

Do you look like your parents?
It’s weird. From like the nose up, I’m my dad and from the nose down, I’m my mom. My personality is split too: I have my mother’s temper, and my father’s logic, which is like a deadly combination.

Is there something you wish you knew when you started modeling that you know now?

The politics. In order to stay sane, I now look at it as a game. If I knew that back then, I probably would have done better. When I first started out, I viewed it as more of a hobby than a job so I was like, ‘Why is this so hard?’ But then I realized that it’s an actual career and you can make a lot of money from it and change your life.

At what point did you realize you had made it?
It took me a long time to realize it. I still hadn’t even after the Vogue Italia cover [in 2008] and working with Steven Meisel all the time. But then one day, I got recognized when I was back home by some, like, thugged-out, gangster dude. And I was like, ‘Wait, how does this guy know about me? He’s not in fashion.’ But he said, ‘You’re the girl from here who made it. You made it! Know that! Own that!’ He took a picture on his phone and said, ‘I’m going to put this on Facebook.’