Story by Dalton Higgins
Photography by James Barr
There was a time when the scope of female involvement in the fashion world was too narrow - an exclusive club for European females of a certain stock, shape and age range. It arguably still is. But in the 1980’s, when Somalian beauty Iman and Jamaican shock-diva Grace Jones became some of the highest paid models anywhere, that perception shifted. Slightly. A decade later, Alek Wek, a Sudanese refugee discovered at a London street fair, also challenged the fashion world’s orthodox notions of race and beauty.
Somewhere in between, Jamaican-born Stacey McKenzie gave this exclusive club another jolt to the system. With a striking combination of super-full lips, a high yellow complexion, and a smattering of freckles, McKenzie’s peculiar look had won her a keen following among fashionistas craving a brave, new expression of black beauty. But long before the striking 5’10” Toronto-bred beauty sashayed across the runways of French badboy Jean Paul Gaultier and Brit rebel Alexander McQueen, the attention she commanded was less than glamorous.
“As a child I was called dundus (a derogatory term used in the Jamaican language), Yellowman’s daughter, mongoose,” says McKenzie, the daughter of a Scottish-Jamaican father (who passed away when she was two) and a Chinese-Jamaican mother. “Maybe that’s why I always wanted to model, because I got that attention. I literally couldn’t walk down the street and not have ten people stare at me. When I opened my mouth and talked it was even worse.”
McKenzie’s unconventional physical make-up is only amplified - if that’s at all possible - by her thick, scratchy, baritone voice. It doesn’t quite match her innocuous schoolgirl looks. Plus, she has a tendency to race through her words like an auctioneer. And she’s brainy, which makes her not nearly as much fun to, er, objectify like other female models. Put simply, she’s more than the model of a model. Even her entry to the business itself speaks volumes about personal style.
“I was not discovered,” she explains. “When I came to Canada, no agency wanted me. I went to research agencies when I was about sixteen but they all thought I was too weird. I figured somewhere there’s gonna be someone who likes me.”
That somebody turned out to be Roger Larose, a complete stranger she met at a nightclub. Struck by McKenzie’s potential in the industry, Larose promptly drove her and four other girls to New York to visit every single major agency in hopes of securing a deal. But none of the agencies shared her patron’s vision. This is the only part of McKenzie’s tale that’s more storybook than horror flik.
“There was one last agency to see and it was Elite,” says McKenzie. “But they thought I was weird too. Karen Lee, a staff person there, really liked me and she spoke to John Casablancas, the owner. After two hours of sitting there waiting, Elite said yes.”
After completing a three month trial with Elite and living in New York on her own, Elmer Olson, the famed model agent, suggested McKenzie was too strong for the U.S. market and should go to Europe. So after completing high school at Stephen Leacock Collegiate, she embarked on a trip to Europe with her husband. Husband? Yes, it was obvious that career prospects weren’t the only things on her teenaged mind.
“My first love was my first everything, you hear me. I got married at eighteen years old. He was a sweet black Dutchman I met at a concert in Buffalo.”
First living in Holland in a tiny town called Zeist for nine months, the young couple relocated to Paris where her mettle was tested - way more so than in Canada.
“When I got to Paris, the owner of the first agency I approached said I was strange. Ugly. He said it in French, ‘etrange’. He didn’t even say ‘She is strange’. He said ‘This is strange’. So then I made a comment about him, this big man wearing a big long pink scarf. He took my portfolio and ripped it to shreds when I left the building.”
After re-assembling her portfolio within a week, McKenzie signed with an agency, went out on a casting call, and landed her first booking with Jean Paul Gaultier. Although her first noteworthy job was for Benetton, a clothing company with an affinity for enlisting the services of left-of-center models, Gaultier represented the big leagues in terms of pay and prestige. Soon after, she inked a five year print and commercial deal with Calvin Klein (CKbe) that opened up the floodgates. That season she did twelve of the big shows, a Todd Oldham jeans campaign, and got booked for Portrait Des Chinoise, a French movie in Paris that delivered her first acting role in a movie. Plus, she even enjoyed a stint as a VJ, hosting MTV Europe’s MTV Stylissimo show for a year. But the whirlwind of activity would eventually take it’s toll on her marriage.
“We lived together for years in Paris and things were okay,” she says. “He wanted to settle down, but I was trying to make moves.”
Newly single and making those moves with a series of high-profile contracts in hand, McKenzie quickly found her rhythm as Europe’s new face of black beauty. All she had to do was stand there and look good, right? Wrong. Beyond looking good on the runway, McKenzie soon discovered that, with few black models working the runways, comraderie quickly turned to cattiness.
“I’d had an experience with Naomi Campbell where I was cancelled from jobs,” she says matter-of-factly. “I was booked for two jobs to work with her and she had me cancelled from both saying that I was gonna make her look too old. It really pissed me off in a way because she’s already an icon. She opened up the doors for black girls. Now a new black girl comes on the scene and you’re going to try and take it away from her. I told her straight up, when I saw her, ‘You f*ck up my jobs again, I will kick your ass!’
Then there was The Gig From Hell. After being booked to a do a cover shoot for the leading African-American women’s magazine, Essence, a personal source of cultural pride, she was given the jerk chicken treatment - minus the chicken. Things appeared wonky from the moment the shoot began.
“First I was greeted by a white photographer and crew which I found odd considering it was Essence. When I got to Puerto Rico things really got out of hand. They treated me like crap. And when I came back to New York after the shoot they had the audacity to tell my agency that they weren’t gonna give me the cover because I was too light-skinned.”
If this tale sounds as inane as BET’s firing of Tavis Smiley, it’s because it is. Essence has built it’s rep on representing the full range of black beauty, from high yellow to purple black. The only reason McKenzie eventually landed the cover was because the photographer, Cleo Sullivan, threatened to never work for them again and because McKenzie exerted her own pressure.
“I literally had to threaten that I was gonna go to the newspapers about the mistreatment that Essence was giving me being a black woman. They talk all of this crap about how they look out for their own. Bullsh*t. That’s what made this a bad experience, because it was my own people. I wasn’t dark enough for the cover? It was really messed up. That made me cry.”
Rather than get overly cynical, McKenzie fuelled that rage into more aggressive work pursuits around the globe. New York's N.Y. Models, Italy's Why Not Models, and London's most exclusive Storm Model Agency all signed her because she got on planes, did the work, and hooked herself up. But that’s Stacey McKenzie for you - always hustled, never gift-wrapped, she works it for herself and usually by herself. And while that foward movement has paid off with a MAC cosmetics contract, European shows, and North American gigs for Rocawear, Lady Enyce, Phat Farm, and Tommy Hillfiger, it's also seriously cramped her single life. Men are just not taking the bait.
“They’re so intimidated by me," says McKenzie who at one time was linked to Chris Tucker in the tabloids but will only come clean to dating Parisian rapper MC Solaar. "They assume that I’m going to be this stuck up snooty chick. Or really busy. Or gay. I don’t know. I’m fun, I’m down to earth, I’m not high maintenance.”
Perhaps prospective gentlemen callers just assume that their pedestrian nine-to-five occupation and annual incomes couldn’t possibly measure up. Although she won’t reveal what her ‘standard rates’ are McKenzie does say that make-up contracts with biggies like Revlon can command as much as $450,000 U.S. per year or up to $45,000 U.S. for a single day’s work. After the agencies take their twenty per cent cut, models can still be in Master P country. From a fiscal stanpoint, chances are she's doing reasonably well. But if you consider her current pursuits it becomes clear that Stacey McKenzie is chasing projects over paper.
Like most models hoping to translate their sashay/shante into acting careers, McKenzie's not that different. In addition to an appearance in the Fifth Element and a few indy flicks that don't register on the Google search engine, she's done cameos in music videos by Foxy Brown featuring Baby Cham, a Todd Oldham-directed US3 tune, and De La Soul’s “Oooh”, where she played the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz. And her portfolio is becoming even more diverse with excursions into recording music that she loosely describes as a 'dancehall rock fusion'. It's a new career trajectory, one spurned on by a chance meeting with trip hop oddball-genius Tricky at Manhattan's Negril Restaurant in August 2002. That meeting continued as a session at Kool Keith's studio in L.A. with his partner Hawk Man (who wrote one of McKenzie's songs), and the results are due any time now. She’s even recorded a number with Naughty By Nature’s Treach.
Dancehall-rocker-actor dreams notwithstanding, McKenzie still gets most amped up by the fashion world and her latest brainchild - a lingerie line called Tush that's supposed to accompany an accessory line called Stush (which loosely means 'stuck up' in Jamaican).
"Lingerie is my favourite piece of clothing," she says boldly. "Words cannot even describe how much I love lingerie. Like back in the day, when I was in high school, I used to wear track suits and underneath those track suits I'd be wearing garter belts."
Red-blooded male fantasies aside, in the end McKenzie's legacy to the fashion world will be her challenge to the industry’s orthodox standards of beauty. Like fellow catwalker Eve Salvail, the gawky French-Canadian of bald, tattoo-headed fame who’s currently dismantling the blue-eyed and blond-haired stereotype for white models, McKenzie’s success speaks to the fact that straight noses, perky lips, and curly hair do not define beauty for black women. Shocking and unconventional? For some, maybe. But that’s not news for Stacey McKenzie. She’s heard it all - dundus, Yellowman’s daughter, mongoose, and then some. But that was the childhood then and this is the supermodel now. Back home in Toronto after a two-year stint in the surgically-enhanced city of cloned angels, Stacey McKenzie’s singular style is a testament to bona fide beauty.
“In L.A. folks looked at me like I was a real weirdo because I didn’t have the big tits and long blonde hair. I’d be asked, ‘Where’d you get your cheeks?’ And I’d be like, ‘My mom and dad’. The amount of times Iíve been asked about my lips? Ridiculous! I’d respond, ‘Baby these lips are real. Real Jamaican’.”
Emily Hale (stylist), Sheleen Sankar (make-up), and Mellisa Anthony (hair) for GreenHill Productions