On Jan. 8, 2018, photographer Janis Wilkins returned home from an afternoon yoga class to find her Washington Heights apartment building engulfed in flames.
The seven-alarm fire — caused by a faulty toaster in a neighboring unit — destroyed her rented home of 15 years. It also displaced the 63-year-old photographer for more than a year, which she spent at Hotel 17 near Union Square.
Though the fire took away so much — and she unfortunately did not have renter’s insurance — in a Big Apple twist of fate, it sparked a glamorous new modeling career for Wilkins.
“The fire was stimulating. I was activated [by being] in a completely different part of the city. It was freeing,” she said.
A few months later, she was walking near 15th Street and Third Avenue wearing yoga clothes and — in a change — not trying to hide the white roots invading her long honey-blond mane.
“I was dying my hair [at the time],” she recalled. “But it was a hot day, and I said, ‘I am going to let my white hair fly.’ ”
Suddenly, she felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Daniel Peddle, a well-respected casting director who discovered Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence.
“He said, ‘I’m casting [an advertising campaign for lingerie company] ThirdLove and we want women with different ages and different bodies,’” said Wilkins, who had never modeled before. “I wasn’t looking for it, but I said, ‘Sure!’ ”
At the casting, potential models were asked just one question: Why do you like your body?
“I said that I love my body because I am healthy,” Wilkins remembered. She landed the gig, appearing in both the brand’s commercial and in its campaign.
Almost two months later, “I was driving down Broadway at night, right by the [Ed Sullivan Theater at 53rd Street] and we hit a traffic light. My friend goes, ‘Look!’ — and there was a five-story billboard on the theater. And there was my image.”
This past January, she walked in her first-ever New York Fashion Week show, for the edgy brand Deveaux.
“The music is blasting, and you feel like Madonna on stage,” the late bloomer said of the runway.
Not bad for an ex-hippie from Flushing, Queens, as she describes herself.
Wilkins, who’s not married and has no kids, briefly attended art school, lived on a commune in California, spent a year in Brazil and then programmed computers on Wall Street in the early 1990s before becoming a photographer.
Now, she’s signed to Muse, a major modeling agency.
Wilkins said that when she was offered the deal, “Daniel called and said, ‘This is the first time I have had a mature model sign so quickly.’ I thought it was an April Fool’s joke.”
She has since posed for the clothing brand Universal Standard, walked in a Studio 189 show and modeled for the November issue of Allure magazine. And she was happy to show off glitzy holidaywear in a photo shoot for The Post, at Butterfly bar and lounge in Soho.
“Wearing that maroon velvet suit, I felt just like Catherine Deneuve,” Wilkins said.
She chalks up her outer beauty to a mainly vegetarian diet, yoga, argan oil on her face and a little bit of mascara and lipstick. She doesn’t wear foundation or facial makeup.
As for her inner well-being, Wilkins meditates and said she’s healthier after learning to not take anything personally. She also speaks Spanish and Portuguese, regularly working on her grammar to keep sharp: “Speaking other languages helps when you are older because it keeps the neurons developing,” she explained.
And then there’s her hair — which she is finally letting go its natural color.
“I now love celebrating white hair,” said Wilkins of her new look and new life. “It’s so liberating to not have to deal with hair dye.”
Last month she moved back into her renovated uptown apartment. She is now unpacking and rearranging her favorite old belongings to fit her new life.
“For me, the fire wasn’t terrible. It was shocking, but it’s not cancer,” said Wilkins. “I am grateful that now I have this new career after it.
“This whole thing has reminded me to trust the universe.”
Photos: Annie Wermiel/NY Post; Stylist: Johannah Masters; Hair/Makeup: T. Cooper; Stylist Assistant: Tayler Bradford; Location: Butterfly at SIXTY SoHo, 60 Thompson St., New York.