The Stacey effect
For over two decades, top model Stacey McKenzie has advocated for a more diverse standard of beauty. As Randi Bergman learns, the fashion industry is finally listening
I first encountered Stacey McKenzie when I was a student volunteering backstage at Toronto fashion week about a decade ago. Fresh off the runway, she returned to the room full of racks and industry rookies to report that someone had called her ugly from the front row. Met with sympathetic looks, she immediately burst into a baritone laugh before sauntering over to her dressing area to slip into her next look. If the snub had made her feel any sense of insecurity, it certainly didn't show.
Many models deal with their fair share of negativity during their careers, but McKenzie has made overcoming such adversity something of a specialty. A 5'10" top model, she has enjoyed steady work for close to 25 years. She's also a larger-than-life personality who appears regularly on TV as a-red carpet commentator and has enjoyed a multi-episode stint on this year's season of America's Next Top Model (ANTM). McKenzie's most timely title, however, is trailblazer. During a season when issues she's long advocated for – mainly catwalk diversity, unconventional beauty and fashion's power to boost self-esteem – are finally being embraced by the industry, McKenzie's influence on her field is coming into focus.
The second time I met Stacey McKenzie was at the photo shoot for this story, where she wiggled around in the type of ball pit a parent might rent for a toddler's backyard birthday party, giving her all to every shot. When in McKenzie's presence, you can only assume she's always possessed supreme self-assuredness, but growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, she was frequently bullied for her light complexion, abundant freckles, full lips and that deep boom of a voice. "I didn't go out much, which I think was my mom's way of shielding me," says McKenzie. "I was very outgoing but I would get teased a lot."
She wasn't "discovered" as many models are. Instead, she decided to become a model after coming across a picture of Madonna and the Parisian designer Jean Paul Gaultier in a magazine as a kid during the '80s. "When I saw the picture of them I figured, 'they're different looking, just like me,'" she says. "They both had the white skin and bleached blond hair and there was a bit of a connection there because I had never seen anyone that looked like me in my country."
Despite not knowing that modelling could be a career, something clicked for McKenzie, setting her on a personal quest. For years, she practiced her walk in the mirror, at the mall and at school until relocating to Toronto as a teen, with her mother, where she discovered episodes of Fashion Television and models such as Pakistani-German-Canadian Yasmeen Ghauri who were broadening the scope of beauty ideals at the time. She cold-called every agency she could find, each time receiving a polite "no." Later, she'd spend lunch money on overnight buses to New York City, where she received less polite refusals. "I kept trying to change my look to fit in and when that didn't work, I realized I should just accept it," she says. After finishing high school and working three jobs to save up for a flight, McKenzie gave modelling one last shot in Paris.
"I met Stacey through a mutual friend who called me and said, 'I'm going to send you an amazing girl, but be ready," remembers Gaspard Lukali, McKenzie's first agent in Paris. His first move was to send her to the casting for Gaultier's Fall 1994 show. Having arrived too late and sobbing in a phone booth nearby, she was approached by Gaultier's assistant who hired her on the spot.
Castings for Christian Lacroix, Alexander McQueen and Thierry Mugler soon followed, as did a spot in a 1995 Calvin Klein ad campaign, which she scored by charming legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon. In 1997, McKenzie played a now-iconic bit part as a sci-fi stewardess in Luc Besson's cult-classic film, The Fifth Element, starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich.
McKenzie's ascension was perfectly timed for the supermodel era, a high-glamour moment that saw individuality and over-the-top personality become prized in the fashion world. "The Big Five" (Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington) were as much beloved for their looks as for their personas. Meanwhile, Tyra Banks was in the early stages of spinning off her own success into the ANTM franchise. But, into the new millennium, models evolved to become blank – usually Caucasian – canvases for big labels to impose their brand identities on and celebrity models appeared much less frequently on the catwalks.
After informally mentoring younger models for years, McKenzie moved back to Toronto in the mid-2000s and launched a series of motivational workshops that used the runway as a platform for building up a strong sense of self-esteem in young people, many of them her female fans. "I know what it feels like to not have that help," she says. More recently, she started a summer camp for girls where they learn from professionals in the fashion, art, entertainment and business fields. "It's about going after your destiny," she says.
McKenzie is particularly keen on promoting diversity, an issue the fashion industry has historically been slow to embrace but has made substantial strides to address over the last couple of seasons. "I think it's about time," says McKenzie. "There are so many diverse looks in this world, people need to relate. When I was starting out, I could never relate."
She's not the only one to remark on this change. "In terms of black models, there used to be only one look. Today you see many successful black models who are also diverse within that context," says Zoomer magazine's Suzanne Boyd, a friend of McKenzie's. "Stacey started that – from the short hair with its natural texture or cornrows, and its caramel colour, to her freckles not hidden by makeup. All those Stacey-isms are now not only represented by her."
The recent embrace of models such as the Fall 2017 season's breakout star, Canadian Aleece Wilson, prove that McKenzie's career has helped the industry finally view uniqueness as an asset. "Canada has been the quiet storm giving the fashion and beauty worlds stars when those worlds needed them most," says Boyd, reflecting on the careers of similarly singular model successes such as Coco Rocha and Daria Werbowy. "I think what ties it together is that our models go out into the world personifying Brand Canada values – great beauty, individuality, character, good behaviour – and they achieve long, solid, careers." There's nothing ugly about that.
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