Just Another Girl from the South Bronx
In our second #TBT episode, we go way, way back to Winona’s teenage days. Still in high school, she and her best friend Belle have been shoplifting for over two years when, on the weekend before Memorial Day, Belle is forced to attend a family funeral out of town and Winona decides to work the Madison Avenue boutiques on her own. What could have been a one-way ticket to juvie hall instead becomes the smartest dumb move of a lifetime.
DANG! It’s the weekend before Memorial Day, the first big weekend of summer, and Belle had to go out of town. So, I’m boosting today on my own. I can’t just miss it, you know. All the fresh, new fashions of the season are on the racks, ready for the picking, and all I need are just a few more choice pieces. My under-the-mattress stash will be over five grand then, and that’s enough to get a place of my own after graduation. That is, if I can get my grandmother to go along. But look. My horoscope in the newspaper reads, “Solo endeavors will thrive”. So there you go. How more on point can it get, huh?
But hold up! Why are they all over me in every store I walk into? Armani, Calvin Klein, Charivari. They’re following me around like flies on poop and I can’t get even a second to finger a chain or stuff a scarf into my bag. See? It’s never this way with Belle. Apparently, two years without a pinch isn’t just on account of our slick shoplifting capabilities. She doesn’t want to believe it but Belle’s blondness keeps them off of us, too.
Standing in front of the Versace boutique, I get a funny feeling. I’m starting to believe in stuff like that. Hunches. Vibes. Following your gut. Could there be something special inside? A really big score maybe? These cute summer dresses on display in the window look like winners. Short and billowy, I’d like to get my hands on a couple of those. They’re perfect for the chi-chi yacht parties on Long Island or Cape Cod that show up in the society section of the Times every weekend.
Inside, the dresses are over a grand each and chained down like runaway slaves. But guess what? I’ve got the clippers to free them. My heart is jumping. Snip snip. Into the Barneys bag they go. I make my way towards the door. I’m almost there. Two dresses. Two grand. Should I split my take with Belle? Suddenly there’s a tight grip on my arm. “Young lady, what is in this bag you carry?”
He’s short, foreign, and for a moment I feel like I could take him if I have to. I try to pull away but he’s a lot stronger than he looks. And he’s not letting go. I squirm to free myself but then I feel two heavy paws clamp down on my shoulders from behind. It’s a big, off-duty cop. His grip is deadly. I can’t move.
The short guy instructs his guard to “bring her to my office”. I feel like I might pass out. But damn that. I shake it off and hold my head high as he cuffs me and we march to the rear of the store. Inside his office I’m tossed into a chair and the officer removes the dresses from the Barneys bag. I look around. Italian leather sofa. A slick glass and chrome desk. The wall facing me is loaded with framed pictures. I recognize models. Famous movie stars. The dude who grabbed me is standing behind the desk now and look. He’s in the pictures, too.
He sits down and laces his fat fingers together. “So what have you to say for yourself? Why are you stealing from my store?” That’s when it hits me! It’s him! It’s Gianni Versace himself! Oh shit. Oh shit! Getting caught shoplifting by part of the sales crew? That’s one thing. But the owner? And he’s famous?
I’m in big trouble. My eyes fill with tears. But the Bronx in me won’t give in. “Stand up,” he says. “Fuck you,” I respond. He tells me again to stand up and I tell him again to go fuck himself. Finally, the cop walks over and grabbing me from behind, he lifts me out of the seat and onto my feet like a rag doll. I pull and twist myself away from him. But only because he lets me.
“Walk to the sofa, turn around, and walk back,” Versace instructs me. I don’t move. The officer gives me a push. “Do what the man asks,” he growls. I start tripping. What if they don’t have me arrested? What if they decide on a different type of punishment for me? I’ve heard stories. Sometimes if you let them do things to you, they let you go. But I can’t. Can I? I walk to the leather sofa, spin, throw them the finger, and return to my chair.
He motions for the cop to uncuff me. “How old are you?” he asks. “Seventeen,” I rub my wrists. He looks at me. Hard. And then he stands up. “I am Signor Gianni Versace,” he says. “Have you heard of me?” My heart is still pounding. But the air in the room feels different now. I play it real cool. “Sure I’ve heard of you. This is your joint, right?” He nods. “Si. Yes. Come ti chiami? What’s your name?” I start to relax. “Winona,” I say. “Winona Warner.”
It’s after seven when Signor Versace’s limo rolls down 138th street and pulls up to the curb outside my building. Lots of people are hanging out and the whole damn block comes to a screeching halt. I feel embarrassed. Everybody’s looking! So I pretend that I’m a star. I’m Diana Ross, okay? I reach for the door handle but Versace’s personal assistant, Manuel, is in the back seat with me and he stops me. “Hold it, young lady. Reggie will get the door for us.”
Reggie opens the door and Manuel steps out of the limo. I follow him. My grandmother Sylvia, along with a few of our nosy-ass neighbors, are sitting outside on the stoop. I can feel her deathstare as she drops her lit ciggie into an opened can of Budweiser. She stands up and slowly comes down the stairs. She looks at Manuel. Then at me. She thinks I’m in trouble. It’s all over her face.
“Sylvia, this is Manuel. He’s an assistant to the fashion designer, Gianni Versace.” Manuel reaches for Sylvia’s hand and shakes it. “Miss Sylvia, Signor Versace met Winona today in his store. He would very much like to introduce himself to you. He thinks that your beautiful granddaughter has great potential as a fashion model and he’s asked me to invite you to dinner next Wednesday evening to discuss it. Are you free?”
Wednesday night, Sylvia’s nervous about our meeting with Versace. I can tell. She probably thinks it’s all some sort of scam. But she steps out of her bedroom in a new dress and her best Diahann Carroll wig so she’s taking it a little seriously, at least. She doesn’t want to talk about it yet. “I need to know what he’s got in mind first,” she says. But wait. What if she says no? She just might, you know. Does that cancel our deal? Will he tell her about me shoplifting from his store?
His driver picks us up at seven o’clock and by seven-forty, we’re at the boutique having our hands kissed by Signore Versace. I lean over and whisper in his ear. “You’re not gonna rat me out, are you?” He doesn’t even know what ratting me out means. But look at Sylvia. She’s cha-cha-ing around, ooohing and aaaaahing over the flashy sunglasses and shiny necklaces on display in the showcases. Flashy and shiny. That’s Sylvia.
He leads us to a fully-dressed dining table—china, glassware, the whole nine—and three plushy chairs set up in a hidden room in the rear of the store. The walls are gorgeous in here, with fancy-ass paneling, and the chandelier’s a total knockout. There’s a waiter, in uniform, waiting to pull out our chairs. Everything’s just so classy, like watching some old Hollywood movie. Except the star isn’t Doris Day. It’s not Audrey Hepburn. It’s me!
Dinner is pasta and veal. Sylvia nudges me hard under the table. Ooops. I must’ve been smacking. Versace turns his attention to her. “Have you always lived in New York?” he asks. She tells him about growing up in Virginia. Getting married. Moving to the Bronx. Becoming a widow. Please don’t let her get too talky. Please don’t let her bring up my father. Her junkie-ass son. Well. She does. But surprise-surprise. All she says is that he passed away. I never realized it before but that’s an option, too. Who says we have to explain everything?
After dinner the table is cleared and huge hunks of cheesecake come out for dessert. They sip cognac from fancy snifters and he lays out his plans for me. In Milan, I’ll work in his studio as a fit model, standing like a statue while they pin fabric on me. Modeling classes start next week at Ford, and eventually, when he thinks I’m ready, he’ll use me in his shows. “She’s going to be lovely,” he says, looking at me. “All of the agencies will want to sign her.” I’m squirming with excitement. But Sylvia’s got her poker face on. I can’t even guess at what she’s thinking.
The next day, a special delivery arrives. It’s a Versace shopping bag. Sylvia reaches inside and pulls out a flat box covered in silky, golden fabric and tied with a wide black ribbon. I swear I’ve never seen a box so pretty. Inside, tucked into black, satin-lined, custom cubbies, is a pair of those flashy sunglasses she was drooling over last night! The heavy, silver necklace, too! AND a matching set of door-knocker earrings. Finally, finally, Sylvia breaks. She loses her cool and falls against me squealing, “Oooooweeeee baby! They want you BAD!”
There’s an envelope. Inside is a contract, an airline ticket, and a check for fifteen thousand dollars. I’m jumping around like a loony bird while Sylvia skims the papers. “He’s providing room and board, a small salary, and you’ll work for him exclusively for one year.” Catching me by the shoulders, she plops me down in the chair. “Italy is far across the water, Lil’ Girl. Are you absolutely sure you want this?” Oh! Hell! Yeah! I absolutely want this! Just look. I’ve been riding around in a limo, had the fanciest meal of my entire life last night, and this gift is about the classiest thing I‘ve ever seen that I didn’t have to steal! Who wouldn’t want this??
The month flies by. In between modeling classes and planning the move, we manage to squeeze in my high school graduation. I’m way too excited about Milan to care about some stinkin’ piece of paper, but Sylvia makes me finish. “You’re not going to Milan or anywhere else until you get me that diploma.” Oh alright! Do you know that I’ve never even been on an airplane before? Belle keeps asking, “Are you nervous yet?” Maybe I should be. But Sylvia says that I’m going to be great so that’s my plan. To be great!