Tuesday, January 03, 2006

From The Vaults: An interview with model, Debra Shaw

(This interview was first featured on cocoalounge.com in 2002)

Born in South Philly, Debra Shaw was destined for greatness. If she hadn't discovered her passion for fashion, Debra could very well be draped in medals instead of designer garments. As a teen in New Jersey, this six-foot beauty aspired to become a track-and-field athlete and was coached by the father of the legendary Olympic gold-medalist Carl Lewis. After being approached to model, Debra packed her things and headed to New York to pursue a career in the fashion industry. Since then, she has moved to Paris, appeared in several high-fashion magazines (including American and Italian Vogue), been featured in international ad campaigns and modeled in shows for some of the most recognized designers in the world. Aside from her duties as model and wife (her 1997 wedding was covered in U.S. Vogue) Debra Shaw is a humanitarian whose benefit shows have included Nelson Mandela's Children's Foundation (with Naomi Campbell) and the World Vision Hunger Campaign. The Cocoa Lounge cordially invites you to meet Debra Shaw.

Cocoa Lounge: As a child, did you ever imagine that you'd become a high-fashion model?

Debra Shaw: Not at all. People always told me that I should model. But the most impressive person was this beautiful and very eccentric sister who told me to go to Paris. I was working in the mall at the time and she just passed by the shop I was working in. She was mysterious with an unusual style. At first I was scared of her presence cause she was very intense when she spoke (somewhat like a messenger from above). She told me that she was a model and that I should go to Paris where it would be the best for me. I wanted to be a designer or do something in fashion...

CL: Was there any particular model that inspired you to enter the fashion industry?

DS: There were quite a few models from Philly that inspired me like Ziggy, Debbie Cobb, Yvette Prescott, Tammy Echols (personal stylist to Camille Cosby). Tammy went to the same church as I. She would walk with grace and would elegantly put her money in the collection plate. Then once I got into modeling more, I started discovering Iman, Katoucha, Roshumba, Rosalind Johnson and Karen Alexander.

CL: What was your "big break?"

DS: I've had several big breaks. I can't really say it was just one. But the first was when I won a modeling competition in Newark, NJ. The prize was a trip to Paris. The second was winning another competition in NY. Then later on, my other big breaks were: working for John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, photographer Tyen, Xuly Bet, Thierry Mugler, Versace. And the most incredible break, is discovering that I am on a collectors stamp in Christian Dior Masai outfit. I still have this in a frame today.

CL: How has the industry changed for black women since you began (if at all)?

DS: In the industry today, there can only be one black model on top--and always a similar looking one waiting to replace you, whereas in the 80's there were several top black models to look up too. I would like to see the industry change back to this. There are so many beautiful black models, different shades and shapes. It's important to see variety and quantity.

CL: Who are some of the designers that you have modeled for?

DS: I worked for Versace. His very last show. Chanel, Dior, Gianofranco Ferre, Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Thierry Mugler, John Galliano, Xuly Bet, Valentino, Armani , Paco Rabanne, YSL and so many more known and unknown.

CL: Here's the burning question on every woman's mind: When the show is over do you get to keep the clothes?

DS: Sometimes. But usually not! It depends on the relationship you have with the designer. They will normally give away the shoes from the show.

CL: We've read somewhere that you live in Paris. How did you come to live abroad?

DS: I was told by several agencies and former models that Paris would be the best place for me. When I arrived, I fell in love with the city right away. I never really planned on living here, it just sort of happened, the way things were happening for me here. So I never left.

CL: How is living in France different from the U.S?

DS: France is a slower lifestyle. Three hour lunches. Dinner starts at 9-10pm. You can have a cafe for 2 bucks and stay there all day with no pressure to order anything else. Being from the U. S. you are some what interesting for the French, so they like to get to know you for that alone. Customer service does NOT exist here at all. There are alot of good underground artists that may never be heard in the states. I find that the French people are more accepting/open minded as far as beauty lifestyle. Beauty for them is being natural.

CL: Back on the homefront, Philadelphia has become the home of a soul/hip-hop Renaissance (Jill Scott, Roots, Bilal, Jaguar, etc). Are any of these artists in your CD player? What's on your current play list?

DS: All of the above accept for Jaguar. I never heard of her before but I will check it out. N'dambi, Unwrapped vol. 1 by Hidden Beach, Kelis' new CD, Neptunes new CD and Jill Scotts new CD.

CL: We hear you're a singer, as well. How would you describe your style?

DS: How did you find that out! I never really talk about that! Good work. I really do not know what my style is because I am influenced by so many types of artist. I love gospel, jazz, neo soul, underground artist like Sandra St. Victor, Carleen Anderson, N'dambi, Mica Paris, Maysa, and Soul singer Ledisi. My friends have told me that my style is similiar to Jill Scott.

CL: Have you had any funny/interesting runway experiences?

DS: Hmm.... I'm sure I have. Let me think of a good one for you. Okay, this did not happen on the runway but at a fitting for a runway show for Gianofranco Ferre when he was designing for Dior. It was my first Haute Couture show ever! My agency was so excited for me to get this job. They prepped me before going to the fitting. They told me to eat because you may get nauseous because fittings can be tiring and you stand alot. So I was too excited to eat so I just grabbed a milkshake. When I got to the fitting, the assistants and the designer tried several outfits on me for the show the next day. When they fit me for the very last outfit, which was \a long red fitted gown, they kept pinning it tighter and tighter on me so that it will fit perfectly on me. All of a sudden I got a little nauseous. I started looking at all the composite cards on the wall of all the top models booked for the show, like Katoucha and others. I started to get really nervous cause I could not believe I would be doing a show with models I looked up too. Meanwhile, they are pinning that dress tighter and tighter on me. I started focusing on the trash can across the room. Telling myself if I can just make it there I will be fine. Well, I did not make it to the trash can. I made it halfway and ended up throwing up on the designer's expensive shoes Mr. Ferre.

All of a sudden I hear the assistants saying "Save the dress,! Save the dress"! They immediately took the dress off and I ran to the toilet. I stayed in the toilet for about 15 minutes, thinking how I made such a fool out of myself. When I came back to the fitting room they told me that my fitting was over, Thank you, that's it. I went home so sad inside because I knew that they did not want me any longer for the show. I called my agency and told them to send the designer flowers for me but I did not tell them why because they warned me that this could happen. I did end up doing the show. But for several seasons after when I would go the casting for Gianfranco Ferre, he would not book me, he would just look at me and smile and that was it. Finally we end up working together just recently. And now he books me every season, but we never discuss what happen in the past.

CL: What are some misconceptions about models that you'd like to clear up?

DS: That it's an easy paid job. It's not true! You travel a lot, go on castings daily and have people judging/criticizing you daily. It can really be a very stressful job (mentally) sometimes.

CL: What's a typical working day like?

DS: Wake up. Call my agency for my agenda. Then dress the part for the job if required. If there aren't any castings for the day, I then try to create some with my agency by suggesting ideals.

CL: If you weren't a model, what could you see yourself doing professionally?

DS: What I am presently doing now along with modeling. Being a fashion editor/stylist for Spoon magazine. I love the ideal of being behind the scenes and creating a story and image for a person or for photos.

CL: Is there any advice you'd like to give to aspiring models?

DS: Being a model is not based on looks to me. It's based on determination. If you know that is what you want then by all means necessary, go for it! You really need to be strong in your mind. Confident about yourself. Because you will be criticized alot. That is how you get the job. So if you do not get it because the client does not like something about you then fine, move on-- its their loss. But you should not believe that something is wrong with you because alot of times the clients do not really know what they are looking for, so don't take it personally. Go out and create work for yourself as well. Try to meet the photographers you would like to work with. Study the magazines' runway shows to see what is the lastest style. The agency will help you but you must help them as well. Sometimes agencies loose confidence in you and you must show them that you still have something to offer. Most of all, if you can help it, don't put a time limit on your goal. If you want it and you know within that this is for you, and people believe in you, then stick with it. It's all about timing. Being in the right place at the right time so to speak. So you really can't put a time [limit] on that!

Learn more about Debra Shaw at Debrashaw.com