On July 7, five days after she collapsed and died at her parents’ home in Pembroke Pines, Fla., 200 friends and family members gathered to say farewell to 17-year-old model Kristen Taylor, whose life had seemed so full of promise. At Markham Park, in a nearby suburb, her beloved 1994 Chevy pickup, Big Blue, was parked next to a lake for the sunset memorial service. Propped in the truck, surrounded by sunflowers, was a six-foot photograph of Taylor in a cowboy hat. Like her parents, Barbara and Ken, Taylor’s supermodel sister Niki was too distraught to speak. Sister Joelle, 24, gave a eulogy, followed by more than a dozen of Taylor’s teenage friends, and then the mourners gathered in a circle, clutching candles. “It was the loveliest ceremony I’ve ever seen. It was so quiet and peaceful,” says Donna Izzard, mother of Taylor’s close friend, Tricia.

Shortly after a joyous fireworks display, however, the mood changed. Some of the mourners headed for TGI Friday’s to remember the teenager whose greatest pleasures had been line-dancing and chattering about boys. Above the murmur of the crowd, they could hear a TV newscaster reporting the results of a preliminary autopsy. No illegal drugs, it seemed, had been found in Krissy Taylor’s body. “Yeah, right!” snapped a cynical waitress—a woman who apparently never knew Taylor.

“It made me so mad that people say drugs were involved,” says Tricia Izzard, 18, a friend of Taylor’s since the sixth grade. “Kristen was always telling me how bad drugs were. She wouldn’t even let us bring alcohol in the truck. She didn’t even drink.”

Following Taylor’s mysterious death, however—and in the absense of toxicology reports expected this week—the rumors spread quickly. In New York, fashion insiders postulated privately that, in the hours before she died, Taylor might have been using Primatene Mist, a non-prescription asthma remedy, to get an over-the-counter high. They wondered whether she had coped with stress by abusing booze or drugs, and whether Barbara, 48, and Ken, 54, had pressured her into a life before the cameras. And they whispered that Taylor, like many models, must have starved herself until her body was vulnerable to any minor shock. In short, they found it difficult to accept the simple truth: that Taylor was a clean-living kid whose loving family couldn’t protect her from a death that was almost certainly accidental.

Those who knew the 5'11", 127-lb. Taylor, though, refused to believe that she had any sinister secrets. “She was the most normal, down-to-earth person you can imagine,” says neighbor Jennifer Strom, 17, who was among the 125 mourners at a candelight vigil for Taylor at a park in Hollywood, Fla., 12 days after her death. “Her favorite thing was baking chocolate-chip cookies with her mom and watching Grease.” Adds Krissy’s best friend, Melissa Bucci: “If you had something negative to say about Kristen, you didn’t know her.”

Aware, perhaps, of the mean-spirited speculation, Kristen’s colleagues offered their support to the Taylors, who, still recovering from the “devastating blow”—as Joelle, a secretary, described it—went into seclusion in Pembroke Pines. (Joining her parents was Niki, 20, who lives nearby with husband Matt Martinez, 25, a coach of the Miami Hooters arena-football team, and their 7-month-old twins, Jake and Hunter.) Rod Stewart and Rachel Hunter, Garth Brooks, and model Liv Tyler sent flowers, and fellow models Elle Macpherson and Naomi Campbell publicly expressed their sorrow.

On the front of Krissy’s truck is the vanity plate “Redneck Girls.”

In the days before she died, there were few, if any, signs that Taylor was in distress. She had spent the evening of July 1 with her family in Miami, accompanying Niki (who drove them in her own car) and their father to a Hooters game. Back home by midnight, she had talked to her mother about a conversation that had upset her a few days earlier. “She had had a confrontation with two girls,” says George Dassinger, public relations rep for the Taylors. “A girl had said, ‘Stay away from my guy.’ And Krissy was like, ‘Hey, what did I do?’ But it bothered her a lot.”

After kissing her mother goodnight, Taylor completed a ritual shared by her circle of friends—teenagers who, like Taylor, loved country music and dubbed themselves the Redneck Girls. Making calls to all their beepers, Taylor used a numerical code to send an affectionate message to each. And though Taylor had seen Bucci earlier that evening, she called to say goodnight to her. “That last thing we said,” Bucci remembers, “is, ‘I love you, talk to you tomorrow.’”

A 911 tape provided a chilling sense of the panicked moments after Niki, who had gone out after the game with husband Matt and returned to her parents’ house just before 4:30 a.m. to pick up her car keys, discovered Krissy lying facedown near the front door. After failing to revive her, Niki saw that her eyes were open, ran for her parents and then dialed 911. “She’s not breathing...she has bruises on her face, and she’s cold,” Taylor frantically told the operator. With her parents screaming in the background, she shouted the operator’s CPR instructions to Ken, who was trying desperately to revive his daughter. Said Niki to the operator: “Her chest is not rising. Nothing is happening. We need somebody here now!” The police finally arrived and continued CPR until an ambulance crew took over. Rushed to Memorial Hospital West, Taylor was pronounced dead at 5:39 a.m.

Police ruled out foul play, and a July 3 autopsy report (which found that the bruises resulted from Taylor’s fall) said there was “no evidence of natural disease or significant injury.” According to Taylor’s physician, Dr. William Bruno, “[Kristen] was not a sick person.” Late last year a gastroenterologist had prescribed the muscle relaxant Donnatal for a minor stress-related intestinal problem. And on May 24, she had consulted Bruno for an upper-respiratory infection. He prescribed an antibiotic, a steroid and an autoinhaler that, he says, she later abandoned for Primatene Mist. “[Primatene] was something we knew she used, but she did not overuse it,” explained Bruno, who said that Taylor, an occasional smoker, had suffered from reactive airway disease—a wheezing condition not unlike asthma.

Later, news reports would focus on the Primatene, a medication containing an adrenaline-like drug that stimulates the heart as well as the lungs. According to manufacturer Whitehall-Robins Healthcare (which tested inhalers from the same batch as Taylor’s and found no contaminants), Primatene has been suspected as a factor in only three deaths since the 1970s. “One of those was a cocaine user, and the exact cause of the other two could not be determined,” says company spokeswoman, Carol Dernbush.

While he stipulates that he is not familiar with Taylor’s case, Dr. Richard Conti, chief of cardiology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, notes that bronchodilators may be risky for patients with undiagnosed heart problems. “A person could have a little viral infection, a cold, that could also affect the heart. In a few instances, [they develop] what’s known as viral myocarditis. Under those circumstances, a heart can be irritable on its own. But if you give it a drug that’s known to make the heart a little more irritable, it could do something fatal. Who knows?”

“Krissy was more reserved than Niki,” says an editor who knew both of them.

The idea that she may have used the drug as an intoxicant, doctors say, is absurd. “People who use it may get a little tremulous, but I don’t think most like that sensation,” says Jeffrey Wolkowicz, a pulmonary critical-care specialist at Cleveland Clinic Florida.

In any case, the toxicology report is unlikely to confirm that Taylor (who was seen using Primatene that night) used the drug before she died. Broward County chief medical examiner Joshua Perper notes that, since adrenaline is a substance that occurs naturally and was used in the resuscitation process, its presense will prove little. Says Dr. Bruno: “It’s going to be very difficult to put a real reason for her death.”

And as friends tell it, Taylor had every reason to want to live. She was the baby in a family held together by love and loyalty. When Kristen, their third, was born in Miami on May 15, 1978, Barbara Taylor was a homemaker and her husband, Ken, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper. In 1987 they moved to a comfortable ranch house with a pool in Pembroke Pines. Neighbors were always on hand, and friends remember the Taylors and their daughters sitting in the kitchen, talking over a pan of brownies. “They were the Cleavers,” says Bucci.

Preserving their family life became a challenge, though, when second daughter Niki began to model at 13. By the time she was 16, she had signed a multimillion-dollar contract with L'Oréal and become a Vogue cover girl. Determined not to let her disappear into the fashion demimonde, the Taylors quit their jobs, hired a team to manage Niki and took turns accompanying her around the world. “My mom’s always on top of things,” Niki told People in 1991. “She’s always calling [editors] asking who’s the photographer, what are the clothes?”

Worried that Krissy and Joelle would feel left out, the Taylors arranged to bring them to a local photo shoot. “We had them go through makeup and have [their photos taken] to give them a feeling for what Niki was doing,” Barbara told People. Though Joelle “hated it,” she said, “Krissy thought it was fun.”

Unlike Niki, Krissy, then 10, was quite shy. After taking a few modeling jobs, she quit for three years. Then, inspired perhaps by the success of the sister she admired, she agreed in 1990 to appear with Niki on the cover of Seventeen. “She was a sweet little girl who would come to Niki’s shoots. They were practically like twins,” the magazine’s model editor, Donna Rubinstein, recalls.

Suddenly Krissy’s career took off nearly as fast as her sister’s. By the time she was 16, she had done runway modeling and appeared in Elle, Vogue, Italian Glamour and YM, as well as Seventeen. In 1993 she chose not to return to Cooper City High School for her sophomore year and entered a home-schooling program that allowed more time for work. (She was a senior when she died.) Even so, she went to the last prom with then-boyfriend Joey Charles, and she spent her free time rollerskating, jet-skiing or line-dancing with the Redneck Girls. She turned down jobs overseas, and after assignments in Manhattan, says Tricia Izzard, “she’d stay at the hotel and call me up, and we’d talk for hours.”

Both Taylors kept a close eye on Krissy. She never traveled without a chaperone, and Barbara or Ken accompanied her on shoots. “I know Barbara has been criticized for being a stage mom,” says Rubinstein, “but to me, this was the way the family showed they loved and cared about the girls.”

The notion that Kristen was pushed by Barbara, says IMG Models vide-president Jan Planit, who signed her in 1993, “is absurd. She only did the assignments she liked.” Adds George Dassinger, the Taylors’ publicist: “If an assignment wasn’t to her liking, she’d just laugh and say, ‘I’ve got plans with my friends.’”

Acording to Michael Gross, author of this year’s Models: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, the Taylors were the exceptions to the rule that girls lose their sense of self, at the very least, when they go into modeling. “Barbara is the best kind of parent in modeling,” he says. “Krissy and Niki don’t live in that world. They visit—they clock in, they clock out.”

Despite her professionalism on the job, Taylor wasn’t committed to a career in modeling, says Rubinstein. “She thought it was fun and exciting, but it wasn’t as important to her as it was to Niki.” Unlike her competitors, she never fretted about what she ate. Friends say the theory that Taylor used an inhaler to speed up her metabolism and, perhaps, lose weight, is ludicrous. Comfortable with her curvaceous body, she sometimes seemed to live on fatty fast foods. “She always ordered chicken fingers, cheese fries and hash browns,” says friend Bobbie Geist, 18. As for her plans for the future, “she didn’t know who she was going to marry,” laughs Bucci, “but she was going to get married. She wanted to be a housewife.”

“I know she’d be mad at me for crying over her,” says friend Melissa Bucci (right, with Krissy’s pals T.J. Frasor, left, and Joey Charles).

Although she wasn’t romantically involved when she died, Taylor was, in fact, surrounded by love. Three weeks after her death, messages from the Redneck Girls are still coming in on her beeper: In code, they say “Thinking of you” and “Goodnight, I love you.” Says close friend T.J. Fraser, 20: “I still beep her every morning and every night.”

For Taylor’s family, the pain—and the memories—are still fresh, but they take comfort in knowing that Krissy brought joy to so many lives. It is Barbara Taylor who carries her beeper now, and who picks up the affectionate messages. Says Barbara: “Her physical beauty captured everyone’s eye, but her inner beauty is what we will remember.”

Written by Michelle Green, with contributions from Cindy Dampier, Marisa Salcines, Don Sider and Mary Buzinec.
Article photos by C. J. Walker and C. Gerber