Stacey McKenzie: On Fashion, Professionalism, and Self-Esteem

We talk to Canadian supermodel, Stacey Mckenzie about whether or not fashion can be feminist, professionalism, and self-esteem.

At 5’10” tall and with a résumé that boasts the catwalks of designers like Betsey Johnson, Christian Lacroix, and Jean Paul Gaultier, Toronto-based Stacey McKenzie has travelled the world as a supermodel and Canadian fashion personality. Born in Jamaica, Stacey’s early career  in Canada was punctuated with constant rejection from casting agents because of her distinct look. Despite this, Stacey persevered and has become a noted TV personality—with guest roles on shows such as Canada’s Next Top Model and CBC’s Canada Reads—as well as a public speaker and motivator on the topic of self-esteem in young people.In 2003 she created Walk This Way Workshops as a space to teach aspiring young female and male models about breaking into the fashion industry while still maintaining and growing their self-esteem. 

ROOM: In this issue of Room we are excited to explore fashion. As a high fashion insider like yourself, could you set the stage for us about the work that goes into a model’s job from casting call to show time? How do models prepare for the runway? 

SM: When you get cast for the show the designer will have a certain type of character they want. Maybe they want us to be sexy, or more serene or show no feeling whatsoever, just blank. Or sometimes it could be they want us to showcase our own personality on the runway. It depends on what the designer wants.What I do before for a show is I prepare by familiarizing myself with the runway. I look where the audience will be positioned. I like to take it to a whole other level. Most of the times there will be a walkthrough with the designer. But I always familiarize myself with the runway, where the photog-raphers will be positioned and how the lighting will be set up.

ROOM: How does the audience fit with the creative process of modeling?

SM: They don’t really fit in. It’s about selling the clothing. A lot of the audi-ence is focussed on the designs. It’s about the product models are selling. I guess it depends on what the designer wants. Someone like Betsey Johnson loves it when her models are wild and in your face, just like her clothing. Other designers may have wild and crazy clothing, but want their models to showcase the clothes down the runway like a mannequin.

ROOM: According to your bio, you got your first big break in New York. How inclusive is the Canadian fashion industry? Why did you feel you had to leave Canada to make a name for yourself?

SM: I have what you would call “an unconventional beauty” in the industry. It’s very different looking and avant-garde. The Canadian market is very con-servative and a lot more commercial than high fashion, as opposed to the British market or Parisian market. They [the Canadian market] are not as receptive to the unconventional because the unconventional won’t appeal to their mass. For me, it wasn’t anything personal. It was very business. I guess I don’t fit their niche. That’s why it’s important for a model to be like a chameleon. For me, even though I’m avant-garde looking I should be able to transform and be the commercial model as well by having my hair in softer curls, toned down, more inviting. The Canadian market is a totally different market.ROOM: If you were starting as a model today, would it still be as conserva-tive as it was when you were starting?SM: Yes, it’s still the case today, though it’s not as extreme as before. A lot of girls do leave Canada to pursue modeling, especially when it comes to high fashion. Places like The Bay or Holt Renfrew do book high fashion models, but there are such limited resources here for high fashion models due to the conservative nature of the commercial industry.

ROOM: Do you think fashion is feminist?

SM: I do believe that fashion can empower women, but at the same time there is so much negative in the industry. A girl goes on a casting, say ten castings for the day, and out of those ten castings she’s not tall enough, she’s not beautiful enough, or she’s very different looking. There are a lot negative things that come with [fashion] and it depends on the person and how they take that. How do they respond to that kind of feedback? I think fashion can be quite empowering. It was empowering for me. At 

the beginning [of my career] it wasn’t so empowering because it started to get personal. I started to feel less of myself. I told myself that this was the career that I really wanted to pursue and I strongly believed that I was meant to be in this industry. I was going to give myself a certain amount of time and if it didn’t work out I was going to walk away from it because I’m not going to continue trying and be put down and told you’re never, never, never. There’s only so much of that you can take. I was able to be strong for myself, I said this is what I look like, this is what I sound like, get over it!There are a lot of positives to the industry as well. You get to travel the world, and meet and work with all different types of people. You get to know who you are in that kind of environment. There are very many positives to being a model. You can make a good living. There is a negative side to it, but it is a business just like any other.

ROOM: In an interview in Now Toronto you say, “I never had any mentors. A lot of [models] don’t. As the unconventional beauty who wasn’t supposed to make it [in the fashion industry], I thought it was important to put my experiences out there to help others.” This, of course, is one of the catalysts behind your successful Walk this Way Workshops. How do you see the students who take your workshop develop self-esteem and confidence while working with you?

SM: The girls have a new sense of confidence when I tell them my stories and how I dealt with certain situations. What I teach these girls first is that it’s important to love and own who they are. If you don’t, it’s going to be difficult for you to go out into the world and do whatever it is you want to do with your life. Whether it’s being a fashion model, or a lawyer, doctor, nurse, janitor, whatever, if you don’t have a strong sense of self it will be an extra hard world for you. I stress this first and foremost. I have said, and I continue to say, when I first started in this industry I didn’t have a mentor. I didn’t have one guy or girl in this industry to take my hand and say “Ok, Stacey, this is what you do and this is how you do it.” I have met so many models along the way, famous ones and not-so-famous ones but were working, and I was friends with them and they would not give me any information. It was the most selfish thing I’d ever seen in my life.

ROOM: Was this because there is so much competition in the industry?

SM: The thing about my industry is when it comes to a black model there is literally, maybe, one spot for a black girl. Let’s say there is an opportunity for a black girl to get signed to an agency. We are constantly being told, oh, we already have a girl like you. And what they mean by that is a black girl. For black girls, though I’m not considered black in the industry because of my complexion, there is a token spot. So what tends to happen is if we get in that spot we have to secure it because there is just that one spot. One opportunity. 

When I learned a lot about the industry, I met a lot of girls who didn’t have a clue. I want to do well for myself, but I want nothing but good to come to others. I need to give all this knowledge back. I think it’s important for us to help one another. In turn you are helping yourself too because you are doing well.

ROOM: What do you think the role of mentorship is in the life of a creative person?

SM: A mentor plays an important role in one’s life. In terms of a career, it’s majorly important for someone to have a mentor. I wish I had a mentor starting out. There were a lot of things that I went through. It’s good to have someone there that you can vent to, ask for advice, and get constructive criticism. It’s important. There was a lot I went through that was difficult, and I thought why can’t someone be there for me and help guide me. It’s good to have someone help guide you along your path. Everyone should have a mentor. It helps you develop a strong sense of self earlier.

ROOM: What qualities make a good mentor?

SM: Somebody that’s humble, kind, and giving. Not afraid to share their experience. Someone who is transparent and lets you know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

ROOM: Do you have any mentors now?

SM: I have some friends who are mentors. My mom has been my mentor from the beginning. She would say: don’t let anyone take advantage of you. You can do whatever it is you want to do as long as you work hard at it. She’s that kind of a mentor. A motherly mentor, but maybe to the extreme, though, she’s a Jamaican motherly mentor!

ROOM: In your Walk This Way Workshops you talk about “Owning Your Craft.” Creative writers often talk about craft in terms of how they write. I wonder if you can talk a little about how someone, a model, writer, anyone, can own their chosen craft? What does it take?

SM: Owning your craft is about learning as much as you can about your craft, and treating it as a business. It’s great that you have a passion to do whatever it is you want to do, whether it is the arts, education, whatever, at the end of the day it is all about you knowing every aspect of your craft. The fun part, the not-so-fun part, the business side, all of that. It’s very impor-tant to have knowledge of your entire craft. Not only that, it’s also important to move with the times. There is always something new. Be on top of your game. Find ways to better your craft. Be aware of what is going on in the world you want to be in.The reason I did this [Owning Your Craft] workshop is because in my world it’s all about the prettiness of the business. Many guys and girls get in the modeling business because they think “oh, I get to travel the world, and I get to have fun. I get to wear expensive clothes and go to the best parties.” At the end of the day they don’t realize that it is a business. Yes, I work for the agency I am assigned to, but I am paying the agency 20 percent when I get a job so I am my own business. I am self-employed. A lot of these girls get all caught up in the prettiness of the industry and forget they are in a business. Then they turn around and say “Oh my goodness, I made $200,000 and I don’t know where it went.” That happened to me in the beginning. I was so excited to be a part of my passion. I wanted to be a model for so long. And I forgot it was a business.

ROOM: In CBC’s Canada Reads 2012 you were one of three panelists. The book you defended was On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock by Dave Bidini. How did you feel about going to task for a book?

SM: The thing is with me, when I do something I go all in. I am passionate about everything that I do. When I was asked to do this I was hesitant at first. But when they said it was creative non-fiction I was into it because I love true stories. I was down. When they gave us options for the books, I was drawn to On a Cold Road. It was about Canadian musicians and their journey. I was able to relate to it the most. All the other books were amazing: The Tiger [by John Vaillant], Prisoner of Tehran [by Marina Nemat], all amazing. We had to read all of them, of course. But the fact that I could defend my book meant I was not playing. A lot of times I was quite quiet, but that was more of a strategy of mine. I remember the first book that was voted off, I was the one who did it. It was Prison of Tehran, and there was a huge uproar over that. She [the person defending it] was a little upset because she said the show was about all the books. I said, yes, but not really because it’s about defending the book as well. You can’t take it personal. That book was my major competition why would I keep it on? 

It was a rough experience because they really took it seriously. But I was really happy about it. I had a lot of people coming up to me in the beginning say “why are you on there, you are a model.” Oh, we don’t read?

ROOM: I was curious about that because there are certain assumptions about models and intelligence. Why do you think these assumptions exist?

SM: Because they think models are all about their looks and that’s it. We aren’t supposed to have a brain. We are supposed to be about our looks. Look at these models out there Tyra Banks, Kathy Ireland from the 1980s. These ladies are no joke.

ROOM: One of the reasons we at Room are doing a fashion issue is to break down assumptions like these about fashion and trend. A lot of issues that stem from any discussion on fashion are based on preconceived notions or assumptions like fashion models aren’t smart and don’t read.  How might Walk This Way Workshops work to change that?

SM: My workshops are preparing my girls and guys for the business. Ok, you are fabulous looking but that is only going to get you so far, and last so long. A lot of the students in my class are very smart. Their education is getting better and better. I stress to them the importance of being in school, the importance of education and the importance of having something to fall back on. Modeling is just a fantasy world for a short time. However, you could use it as a stepping stone to get to other avenues of the industry. I am preparing them. They will become some serious model warriors!I dropped out of school to pursue modeling. I only have my high school. Even though I have experience as a model, it’s been difficult because there are certain things that happen and I didn’t know how to view it due to the fact that I wasn’t educated on it. I ended up having to learn along the way. Education is very important to me, to the point that I am going to be going back to school! I am going back to school to study business management and fashion. I had to learn things the hard way.

ROOM: On your blog you keep your fans up-to-date on what you’re doing, but you have also written candidly about your journey to become the model you always dreamed of. It’s very inspiring work. Are there any plans to start creative or memoir writing in the future?

SM: You know it’s funny, I’ve been asked the same question many times. The answer now is: I am. I have already started. There is so much more to my life than most people know about or would never think I’ve been through. We all have a story. I do feel I need to put it out there. It could defi-nitely make an impact on someone, even if it’s only one person. I’ve never told anyone, but I’ve started. There’s your Room exclusive!

ROOM: And, one final question for you, writers often struggle to promote their own work for fear of rejection. Do you have any advice for them?

SM: They need to take fear out of their vocabulary. Get rid of that word “fear.” You get what you put out. If you think nothing but negatives about what you will accomplish, it will get you nowhere. It’s important for them to think positive about what they will be doing. It’s not hard to think positive. Don’t think about whether it will be rejected. And even if it does, who cares? Not everyone is going to like your work or love your work. Some people will hate it, and that’s what life is. When your work gets rejected, it’s just a little obstacle. Keep on going, and keep nothing but positives. Your work will be rejected, yes, everyone’s work gets rejected. It’s what you do with it. You let it get the best of you, or the worst of you. Me getting rejected, it’s not a good feeling but, whatever, this is what I love to do. That word “fear”? I don’t want to hear it. Think positive. Watch, it works. I kid you not. I’m a prime example.

Photo by: Jean Baptiste Mondino

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