Fashion Saved the Life of this Male Model

A celebrity stylist remembers his big break and the pain that got him there.

 

When you grow up in a poor neighborhood, the things that make you special are the things people hate about you the most. So you have a choice: You can go crazily special and become a unicorn, or you can try to fade into the background. Once I got a job at T. Edwards, I knew which path I had to take.

The store was on the fifth floor of Water Tower Place, across from the McDonald’s and next to the Lord & Taylor. It took me an hour and a half to get there by bus from the three-flat near 79th and Jeffery where I lived with my mother and extended family. T. Edwards was the boutique in Water Tower Place. All the top local models shopped there. So did Oprah, who was already pretty famous by then. It was 1983, and the shop sold lots of WilliWear, Norma Kamali, and Vakko leather jackets.


I was a skinny 15-year-old with an Afro and a gap between my front teeth big enough to slide a Frito through. An overachiever in school, friendly to a fault, I was the neighborhood gay kid who got beat up after class but would still be your best friend even if you’d called me a fag in front of everyone on the bus the day before. I was chatty and bookish and loved to talk, except about certain things. I didn’t talk about my mother’s boyfriend, a man she’d brought into the house as an authority figure back when I was 10 to take care of her three children while she worked full time and took care of her ailing mother. I didn’t talk about how this man used to expose himself to me, about the beatings, or about how, after one of those beatings, I had cut my wrist with a razor blade in the bathroom of my grandmother’s apartment upstairs, or about how she’d kicked the door in and saved me. Those memories from five years earlier were my secret, never to be revealed to anyone.

By the time I got to high school, all I wanted was to get away from the South Side, away from the bullies, away from my family. I was always looking for the black people on TV who weren’t athletes or criminals — the black doctor, the black cop — and trying to figure out how they’d gotten away. I’d see a beautiful model in a photo spread in Ebony and ask myself, What did she do to get on that yacht?

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