At a piano bar in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, just before night life shut down across the city, a 71-year-old former model named Shailah Edmonds performed her one-woman cabaret show to a two-drink-minimum crowd.
Ms. Edmonds, who stands 6-foot-2 in heels, wore a chiffon dress and a bejeweled head wrap as she told her life story: that of a starry-eyed girl from Portland, Ore., who came to New York in the 1970s and rose to success as a model during an era when black women were excluded from the elite runways of haute couture fashion.
Ms. Edmonds dropped zingers as her band accompanied her with jazzy tunes.
“My career started when I won the couture award at a modeling contest. I didn’t even know what ‘couture’ meant.”
“My first big campaign was for a ski catalog. They put the skis through my Afro.”
When the lights dimmed, though, Ms. Edmonds told the crowd that her modeling career didn’t take off in New York the way she’d hoped.
“The agencies would tell me, ‘We have enough black girls here,’” she said. “‘We don’t need any more of them. We can’t do anything for you.’ And my blood would boil. America wasn’t interested in black beauty, and the agencies were blatant about this. That’s the way it was and we had to accept it.”
So, as Ms. Edmonds recounts, she took what gigs she could get, selling perfume at Bloomingdale’s on the side, until one day a photographer told her she needed to get to Paris: he’d heard whispers that African-American models were starting to dominate the Parisian runways of haute couture designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Balmain and Dior.
“Something is starting to happen in Paris,” he told her. “The French are different. They will appreciate you. You need to get there.’”
Ms. Edmonds, then 25, secured a one-way airplane ticket, and in Paris, everything changed. She became one of fashion’s dazzling stars, and bore witness to a now largely forgotten chapter in its history.
‘That Was Our Moment’
Settling into a tiny apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement, Ms. Edmonds joined a scene of young black women from cities like Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles and New York who had faced adversity getting work in America but were now thriving as glamorous jet-setting models in the City of Lights.
As she tells it, these tall women had their run of the town through the late ’70s and early ’80s. They were booked constantly, they put local models out of work, they broke the hearts of Parisian men, they began their mornings on set with flutes of champagne, they partied nightly at Le Palace, and they never paid for meals at bistros they closed down by dancing on tables after midnight. After a bountiful season, Ms. Edmonds’s agent bought her a jewel-encrusted coke spoon for Christmas.
“They accepted us because we fascinated them,” she said. “We stood a little taller. We felt a little more fabulous. We had more rhythm. The white models couldn’t keep up with us, and they were livid about it.”
Ms. Edmonds was eminent during this era. She walked the runways for all the couture houses and she developed a signature double twirl. Karl Lagerfeld flew her to Rome. Issey Miyake requested her in Tokyo. Gianni Versace needed her in Austria. Guy Laroche asked her to be his muse, and Arthur Elgort photographed her in Valentino.
“She became a favorite model of mine at the time,” Mr. Elgort, 80, recalled. “She was really one of the best black girls working during that moment.”
Ms. Edmonds also became one of Yves Saint Laurent’s fitting models, spending intimate hours with the designer at his atelier at 5 Avenue Marceau. She was fired, she said, after he fainted during a fitting from a drug overdose.
“It was always just me and him, and one day he crumpled down right in front of me,” Ms. Edmonds said. “All the seamstresses ran into the room and started freaking out. ‘Monsieur! Monsieur!’ I knelt down trying to help with all these pins sticking in me. I was let go after that. He never acknowledged me again.” (Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, struggled with substance abuse.)
Ms. Edmonds is resolved to remind people of this era. Until the closure of nightlife in New York, she was performing her autobiographical cabaret show, “A Star Alone,” at Don’t Tell Mama on West 46th Street, and she plans to resume when the city starts back up. She has also self-published a memoir, “Wild Child to Couture Style.”
Isolated in her apartment on the Upper West Side, Ms. Edmonds has become only more immersed in the past. She keeps a cabinet filled with dusty copies of Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily from the Paris days and spends her nights researching them as she writes new material for her show.
As the nation roils with protests after George Floyd was killed in police custody, Ms. Edmonds has reflected intensely on racism she experienced in the fashion industry. “Right now, the fashion world isn’t talking about what is happening in the country because they don’t want people looking at them too closely,” she said. “The truth is that the fashion industry is racist. Models today have no idea what we went through and continue to go through.”
“I think black models get more play now, but I’m skeptical,” she said. “I think the industry decided inclusivity is a message the public finally wants to hear. If it was left to them, it would still be white models. Look at Zac Posen. He did that show once with all black models and he was never heard from again.”(Mr. Posen closed his business in 2019.)
At Ms. Edmonds’s cabaret, there’s usually a table filled with tall women like herself: a squad of former models from the Paris days who come out to show support.
Charissa Craig, who was part of Emilio Pucci’s “cabine” of models through the 1970s, is now a real estate agent working in Bergen County, N.J. “That was our moment, and we’ve never been able to get it back,” she said.
Jamie Foster, who got her break when Hubert de Givenchy spotted her at Studio 54, now works as a store host for Tiffany & Company. “Givenchy danced over to me and asked me to come to Paris,” she said. “I didn’t even know who he was. After that, I worked for everyone.”
This era was as brief as it was bright, however, and many of these models left the industry by the late ’80s. “We were essentially a casting trend and then it all ended,” Ms. Edmonds said. “The white models all eventually married rich. Not us.”
Today, Ms. Edmonds is considered one of the top Diana Ross and Tina Turner impersonators in the New York area. She has lived in a rent-stabilized apartment on Central Park West since 1985, and her walls are lined with old Polaroids of her gallivanting in Paris. Her bedroom is filled with wigs, boas and sequin dresses.
“Every day I wake up thinking: Who am I?” Ms. Edmonds said. “Am I Tina? Am I Diana? But no, I’m Shailah Edmonds. That’s who I really am.”
What happened in Paris, and eventually across Europe, wasn’t happenstance. There was a pivotal fashion show at the Palace of Versailles in 1973 that triggered the moment. Known as the Battle of Versailles, and extensively chronicled in a book by the Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan, the competition united French and American designers in an extravagant spectacle that changed fashion history overnight.
At the time, Paris was the undisputed fashion capital of the world, and American designers were seen as purveyors of commercial clothing who lacked the sophisticated pedigree required to create haute couture. But the Americans won their legitimacy that evening with a riveting, Broadway-like fashion show that left the French looking boorish and out-of-touch. This success was attributed largely to ten black models who stole the night.
Bethann Hardison, from the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, vogued fiercely down the walkway in Stephen Burrows. Alva Chinn of Boston triumphantly exposed her right breast. And Pat Cleveland of Harlem whirled down the stage like a delirious ballerina.
It was in their wake that Ms. Edmonds and her fellow models arrived from the United States. Their fortunes, however, would differ from the Versailles supermodels.
“Those girls like Shailah probably weren’t getting paid much, and they never got the big campaigns,” Ms. Cleveland, now 69, said. “But what they had was still very powerful, because everyone wanted them. Not every black girl gets to go to Paris.”
“It’s not so much that they came after us in Versailles,” she added. “It’s that everyone came after them. And now Shailah is telling their story in song.”
A Gleam in Saint Laurent’s Eye
Born Barbara Lyons in Portland in 1949, Ms. Edmonds was raised Baptist. Her father worked in a shipyard and her mother was a homemaker. She fled her household after becoming a teenage mother. Later, she married a college basketball star, taking his last name, and moved with him to Washington, D.C. She had another son, they got divorced, and Ms. Edmonds started working as a telephone operator.
An older woman stopped Ms. Edmonds on her way to work one day, introducing herself as a former model named Ruth Turner who had worked in Fifth Avenue department stores in the 1950s, and was now running a school for aspiring black models. She wanted to teach her. Ms. Edmonds was reluctant, but soon started visiting Ms. Turner’s apartment, practicing a catwalk down her hallway.
“I just had to go up to her,” Ms. Turner, 90, recalled. “I said to her, ‘Girl, do you model? Because let me tell you something. You have it. And you need to walk like you have it.’”
When Ms. Turner heard about a modeling contest in New York, she decided it was time for her protégée’s debut. “You can’t go to New York with a name like Barbara,” she told Ms. Edmonds. “There are a zillion Barbaras out there. What about Shailah?”
In New York, Shailah Edmonds won the competition, and she started booking appointments with agencies in the city, many of which proved humiliating. Brisk, uninterested glances at her portfolio. Insistences that their “quotas” for black models were already filled. After enough rejections, Ms. Edmonds got into an argument at one agency and a receptionist called the police. Ms. Edmonds fled the building as fast as she could.
She finally got a break with Ford Models, as she recounts in her book, and when Jerry Ford, the agency’s co-founder, asked to meet her in his office, it seemed like things were looking up.
Ms. Edmonds recalled, “He said, ‘You’re so beautiful. We can do so much for you. How about we discuss it further at your apartment?’ When he finally came over, he started saying he could get me on the cover of Vogue. Then he got closer and started touching me. What was I supposed to do? I figured, ‘If this is what it takes.’ It actually happened on this very sofa we’re sitting on.” (Mr. Ford died in 2008.)
Ms. Edmonds seriously considered throwing in the towel. She was mostly getting by with her job selling perfume at Bloomingdale’s. But then the fateful day arrived when a photographer told her to get to Paris. When she arrived in 1978, she felt like she’d entered another dimension.
Agencies were eager to meet her. Her first season was fully booked within a few weeks. She began walking runways for Thierry Mugler, Pierre Balmain and Claude Montana. The next season, an invitation arrived from the atelier of Yves Saint Laurent asking Ms. Edmonds to try out as a fitting model.
Ms. Edmonds was nervous the first time she visited his atelier, but quickly disarmed by his immaculate receptionists, who greeted her in a pealing singsong that rang, “Bonjour, Mademoiselle Shailah.” In a showroom, she was soon undressing for Mr. Saint Laurent, slipping into a crepe de Chine evening gown.
“He said very little, but I could see a gleam in his eye,” Ms. Edmonds said. “He was pleased to see me appreciating his fine work. After he left, his assistant told me I was hired.”
As word of Paris spread, more models from America, and even the Caribbean Islands, started arriving in Europe. “It became fierce,” Ms. Edmonds said. “We couldn’t be friends.” Nonetheless, camaraderie formed over their misadventures.
On set, they laughed at the work of stylists. “They used the same makeup on us that they used on white models,” Ms. Edmonds said. “We’d gather in the bathroom afterwards and redo it on each other.” They made trips to the city’s African neighborhoods to find black cosmetic brands like Fashion Fair.
And there was the time Mr. Saint Laurent sent Ms. Edmonds to the distinguished salon of Alexandre de Paris. As Ms. Edmonds relaxed in her chair, the celebrity hairdresser started spraying her hair with water. Ms. Edmonds jumped out from her seat and gave him an education on the basics of black hair care.
Before long, European models were losing work to Ms. Edmonds and her American compatriots, and bitterness spread among their ranks. According to Ms. Edmonds, some Italian models hatched a plan. “They eventually realized none of us had visas, so they started calling cops to our shows,” she said. “We’d run as fast as we could after shows ended. After a Versace show, I dashed through a door, threw my bag and heels over a fence, climbed over, and kept running.”
‘They Got Over the Novelty’
By 1980, Ms. Edmonds was a top model in Europe, and she wanted to give America another shot. This time, she was treated differently in New York.
Agents clamored to sign her. She modeled for Bill Blass, Donna Karan, Isabel Toledo and Anne Klein. She opened a restaurant called Café Shailah on the Upper West Side and became a fixture at Studio 54. “The agencies said, ‘Shailah! Where have you been all of our lives?’” Ms. Edmonds recalled. “There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I just said, ‘Well, I’m here now.’” It was the success she’d always desired in her home country, but it wouldn’t be savored for long.
Around 1985, Ms. Edmonds’s phone started to ring less. Then, it stopped ringing completely. The fashion industry was reinventing itself again, with “girl next door” models like Christie Brinkley and Cindy Crawford taking center stage (the “girl next door” was almost always white).
Ms. Edmonds’s agent dropped her, she said, and she watched her cohort take ordinary day jobs; she let go of her Paris apartment. “It just all came to an end,” she said. “They got over the novelty of using black models. I went into a dark spiral after that. What happened in Paris finished, and it never came back.”
She worked for department stores. She recorded instructional videos. And she watched the rise of new supermodels who could command multi-million-dollar contracts. When a modeling academy in Kansas City, Mo., flew out Ms. Edmonds to teach workshops and she started showing Midwestern teenagers how to vogue up and down a drab room in an office building, the bright lights of Paris felt far away. She retired in 1995.
“I felt washed up and done,” she said.
Ms. Edmonds entered a depression. She married a musician (they got divorced) and had a third son. She tried mending relationships with her two older sons, whom she sometimes hadn’t seen for months at the height of her modeling career.
Still, she craved the thrill of performance, so she started singing in jazz bands around the New York. When she joined a Diana Ross and Tina Turner tribute group, she felt more alive than she had in years.
In her diva guises Ms. Edmonds has belted out “Proud Mary” at baseball games and jumped out of birthday cakes. She has a gig at a psychiatric institution on the Upper East Side where she sings to patients in her high heels and sequin dresses. “I tell them about my own struggles with depression,” she said. “I sing motivational songs to them, like ‘Get Up, Stand Up.’”
A few years ago, though, Ms. Edmonds started hearing about changes in the fashion industry. Big talk about strides in diversity and inclusivity. When she went online to find articles about her own modeling era, she realized her story had fallen through the cracks.
At night, she began revisiting the press clips she’d kept stored away for years. She contacted models from the Paris days on Facebook. After discovering her old diaries, she started writing a memoir. Then she adapted it into a show. And then the world fell into disarray.
Ms. Edmonds is uncertain about the future of her act, and with the fashion industry now experiencing an existential crisis of its own, she despairs her efforts may never break through.
“All I can do now is put my story into the universe and hope it takes wings,” she said. “No one knows what we saw. I feel we’re about to be forgotten all over again. If my show doesn’t come back, I will stand on a street corner to shout my story if I have to.”
But at her last gig before the city shut down, Ms. Edmonds seemed glad knowing that her place in fashion history had reached a few more souls. She sat in the piano bar’s lounge and signed copies of her book. Friends from her modeling days lingered. Then a fan asked to take her picture.
Ms. Edmonds put down the book she was signing and grew serious. She shook out her hair and sat upright. Then, she snapped into a majestic pose. Finally, she smiled. The camera clicked, capturing her radiance.