She's maneuvering the world of high fashion using instinct, experience and a WILD and ROWDY past!
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, all about the business, 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? I feel 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 up 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 the shoplifting?
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! 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 coolest thing I‘ve ever seen! 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!
In our very first “Throwback Thursday” episode, Winona makes the acquaintance of John F. Kennedy Jr., the closest thing to royalty this country has ever produced. Growing up in New York, she’s known him all her life. But now, with a brand new, traffic-stopping billboard of her own in Times Square, he knows her, too.
PROLOGUE: Belle and I have mad history. Meeting in a city-run summer program for under-privileged kids, we click somehow and start hanging out together downtown on the weekends. Before long we’re shoplifting. Just petty stuff at first. But then we get serious and two years later, we’re boosting from the higher-end boutiques on Fifth. Up and down Madison Avenue, too. Versace, Armani, Ungaro, Oscar de la Renta. We hit them in rotation and slide in and out every few weeks. 5 top-of-the-line pieces can get us as much as a thousand dollars from our street guy. Of course, he’s getting a lot more but what do we know? We’re sixteen and stupid, with five bills in our pocket. Each.
In the Gucci boutique, Belle and I are eyeballing fifteen hundred dollar sequined jackets and testing their stuff-ability. I look up to clock where the sales crew are positioned and that’s when I spot him at the register. John Kennedy Jr. It’s not my first sighting. I’ve been seeing him around town for years. Still at Brown University, he’s gotten really hot. Girls wanna do him, guys wanna be him.
Not surprising, the Gucci sales crew are blind to everyone else but him. That gives me and Belle the prime opportunity to clip and stuff two jackets into the Barney’s bag she’s carrying. Tiny, blond, and way cuter than Madonna, Belle is never suspect. Me? Everyone assumes I’m a model. If I could get a dollar for every time someone asks if I’m Iman…
With purchase in hand, JFK heads for the door. But before leaving the boutique, he stops, turns, and looks directly at me. His grin is sneaky, like he knows what we’re up to. My heart almost stops. Not because of the thrill. Shit. It’s the attention we don’t need. The chick at the register is still watching him. She follows his gaze. And now she’s looking at me.
That’s when Belle screams, “John-John!” Startled, he blinks, spins around and dashes out the door. Belle follows after him—with the Barney’s bag. I look at the sales lady and shrug. She shrugs too, before turning her attention to the next customer. I hang around for another minute or so and wave goodbye to her before leaving.
Six years later…my Revlon billboard in Times Square is three stories tall. I’m one of the highest paid models around but haters are everywhere. And working overtime. Stories show up about me in the NATIONAL ENQUIRER regularly. All about the drugs, the men I sleep with, my so-called temper tantrums. Some are true, most aren’t, but it doesn’t matter. I’m a favorite target for all the gossip rags. They ride me like a Harley every chance they get.
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon. We’re rollerblading near the bandshell in Central Park. It’s one of the hot spots in town, the place to be seen while getting your skate on. Lots of people are out. Somebody’s got a boombox, they’re bumping Kool Moe Dee’s Wild, Wild West and I’m doing my thing, backwards. Suddenly, someone slams into me from behind.
Before I know it, I hit the ground. Hard. With a lingerie photo shoot in four days, bruises I don’t need. Gearing up to cuss this clumsy muthafucka out—whoever it is!—I look up into a pair of dreamy brown eyes looking back at me. Good grief. It’s John Kennedy Jr. He’s leaning over me. “Are you okay?” he asks.
He helps me to my feet. Eyeballs are glued on us as we limp-roll-limp over to a bench and plop down. I examine my thigh. “You really should be more careful, John,” I say, and take a good, long look at the bare chest we see so regularly these days in PEOPLE and NEWSWEEK, before gazing up into those brown peepers again. He stares into my face and I see when the lightbulb flips on. “Winona, right?” he says. Then he grins. “But you’ve got it twisted, beautiful. YOU ran into ME.”
We blame each other for the crash. “It was you.” “No. You!” In the meantime, the electricity between us could set this bench on fire. He is, truly, one of the finest White men I’ve ever seen. The paparazzi shows up and starts snapping our picture. I admire the easy way he ignores them. What is it? Complete acceptance? He’s lived in a fishbowl all his life and acts as if they aren’t even there. But like my favorite Golden Girl, Blanche, I’m as uptight right now as a virgin at a prison rodeo. I can’t ignore the swarm and suggest we get the hell out of here.
He unties my skates, helps me out of them, and takes my rental ticket before rolling off to retrieve our things. I’m excited to meet him at last. Even more excited now that he knows who I am, too. The timing couldn’t be better. But the camera vultures are everywhere. “Just go away!” I hiss at them. “Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista are over there somewhere…skating with Prince.” It’s a lie but so what? Like the ridiculous vermin they are, they gather their gear and scurry off to find them.
John returns with our backpacks, I slip into my shoes, and we’re out of there. We stroll along the winding path towards Fifth Avenue. He’s chatty, toying with the hem of the shirt tied around my waist. I can’t stop touching him either. “I saw your billboard in Times Square just yesterday,” he said. “Crashing into you today feels a little spooky. Like it was meant to be.” I laugh at him, changing the subject. “So you admit it,” I say. “You DID crash into me!”
He leads me downstairs to a small Italian restaurant in the basement of a brownstone off Fifth. It’s late afternoon, too early for the dinner crowd, and only a handful of tables are occupied. We have our choice of seats but he plops down at a table in the middle of the place. Okay? Heads are turning. There’s chatter. But his focus is fully on me. He’s quoting lines from Uncle Buck and cracking me up. John is funny! Who knew? He marvels over my “delicate” bone structure and wraps his thumb and middle finger around my left wrist. I can feel my pulse race—so does he—while we have hot, eyeball sex.
A short, round man wearing suspenders and an apron is coming towards us. He reaches out and shakes John’s hand. “It’s good to see you, boy,” he says. “Where you been hiding?” Then he wags his finger at me. “I’m Paul. And I know you, too, young lady. I was in Times Square with my daughter last week and saw your billboard. I asked my daughter, “Who is this beautiful girl?” I look at John. “Wow. I think I like this place.”
Paul brings out small platters of breads with meats, cheeses and olive oil in dipping bowls. He’s been feeding John for years and knows what he likes. Pasta, roasted chicken breasts, grilled veggies, salads, the food keeps coming. John eats like a starving horse but I nibble and between forkfuls, we talk. A lot. We share our war stories with the press, gossip from my last Vogue photo shoot, his struggle with the bar exam. He’s taken it twice. “If I don’t pass this time,” he says, “my mother is going to kill me.” My heart skips a beat. It’s the first time he’s mentioned his mother, the fabulous Jackie.
Excusing myself for the ladies room, I lock the door and do a couple of lines from the eight ball I copped in the park earlier. Then I check my backpack for an emergency headscarf and clean undies. Stay ready. That’s my motto. There’s a knock on the door. “I’ll be out in a second,” I say. I hear John’s voice on the other side. “What’s taking you so long? Let me in.” Ooooo, you bad boy. I check myself in the mirror and unlock the door.
I’m feeling loose from the wine, wired from the coke, and my dial is turned all the way to nasty. I let his wandering hands get into my pants. Hmmm…he’ll have something to sniff during the cab ride to his place downtown.
We get to his loft on Moore Street and lock ourselves inside. For three days we drink Wild Turkey, order in, finish the eight ball of coke, dance, laugh, and fuck until we’re raw. He applies cold compresses to my bruised thigh and I make him remember me from the Gucci boutique years earlier. “You were wearing braids,” he said. “Oh my God. I do remember you!”
John leaves for Beijing four days later. The following week I jet out for Madrid. We can’t seem to get our schedules in sync and after weeks of trying, eventually our little romance fizzles out. He goes back to his on-again, off-again with Daryl Hannah and, well, the rest is history. But I have the sweet memory of a fun-filled fling with America’s finest young prince and PEOPLE Magazine’s sexiest Sexiest Man Alive. With just one tiny regret. I reee-eally wanted to meet Jackie.
Belle is getting married and the posse is thrilled! He’s got deep pockets and finally, she will get her life back on track. But then it becomes clear that Belle’s intended has no plans to share her with Winona, Desi and Lourdis. What will happen to the Fabulous Four?
From August, 2016
The public service messages are a hit! A few minutes ago a jogger ran by and shouted—“I’m voting because of you!” Can you believe that? I’m just trying to do my part. So get up, get out, and VOTE like you mean it! And Miss Kamala. I love you, Sis, but give me a call after the election. Let’s go shopping for that White House wardrobe!
Winona’s is wearing vintage LANVIN
I was asked to participate in the “GET OUT AND VOTE” campaign for the city. So I took off my hat, fluffed my coif, and pulled out a few pieces I hadn’t had a chance to wear all year. Like this dinner dress by Robert Cavalli. God, I miss dressing up and going out.
So we’re putting the word out there. Understand what we’re up against. And don’t take it lightly. This is good versus evil, people. Get off your ass and vote!
So. New York Fashion Week is over. Hardly a big success. Designers got twisted up just like everyone else, not knowing how to work under covid-19 health restrictions and if presenting a collection this season was even worth the trouble. Many said fuck it, threw up their hands and went on vacation. Smaller labels like AMEN, CINQ À and OQLIQ saw an almost empty playing field and a chance, at least virtually, to get more eyes on their brand. Kudos to them. But will we, as an industry, make a come back? In time I believe so. Absolutely. It won’t be the way it was pre-pandemic, though. You can count on that. Like ZAC POSEN and his very cool, very weird Central Park Draping Session, I’m rethinking my business focus. With 27 gorgeous models on the roster, there must be more that we can do. Until next time…SMOOCHES!
Do you recognize him? He’s a popular actor with a well-documented girlfriend. All up in my face while hiding behind a mask. And if that’s not messed up enough, Fashion Week has completely fallen apart. It’s great that lots of fresh talent got their shot, but several established designers who were scheduled to present simply didn’t. TOM FORD. All we get from a two-time Oscar-nominated director are a couple of slides? Really? In the meantime, BRONX & BANCO presented a full show to a small audience on the roof of SPRING STUDIOS. A slew of beautiful bodies in sexy, slinky pieces. There were at least twenty models on hand and I’m sending up prayers that no one falls ill. That wouldn’t look good for any of us. JONATHAN SIMKAI served up moody, fringy garments, mostly black and khaki with a little plaid. He was smart. He covered his ass with a video AND a slideshow. Way to go, Jon. Lemons to lemonade, baby!
Without the after-show parties and late night dinner events that usually go on during Fashion Week, I actually looked forward to coming home last night, opening a bottle of vino and watching more collection presentations online. I’m excited for the industry! But I’m scared, too. We’re watching the live fashion show die right in front of our eyes. MARINA MOSCONE produced a lovely short film on the creative process of her collection. And while COCHENG gave us sweet little garments in a traditional catwalk presentation, BEVZA got so deep into artsy fartsy movie mode that I forgot where I was. Is this Fashion Week? Or Sundance?
Did you catch The Met’s online convo with Iman, Naomi C. and Bethann Hardison last week? How much fun did they have talking about the days when catwalks were a fucking rainbow of diversity? Things are changing though. And not a moment too soon. I joined an online conversation with Caline Hiyakawa of the New York Times along with Jeremy Fellows of the Bullseye Agency, supermodel Tessa, makeup artist Rodney Parkerson, and hairstylist Jett Reynolds. They bitched and moaned for half an hour about the demise of live fashion and how screwed up everything is. WINONA, INC. is hurting, too. We’re all in that boat. But when I confessed how much I was enjoying the new online platform, baaa-by, you could’ve heard a cat pissing on cotton. Total silence.
At the end of our conversation, Caline asked us all to stand up and show what we were wearing below the camera. Ha! Jett was in pajama bottoms, Rodney had on an interesting pair of olive green khakis, Jeremy was in his usual cargo shorts and Tessa? Gucci thongs. But I anticipated the question and slipped into pearls and a hot CUSHNIE frock beforehand. They’ll never catch me off my game. Never ever. Day Four…
Yesterday I spent a few hours online watching virtual presentations. ANNA SUI, using four models, was playful and doll-like. Just adorable. BADGLEY MISCHKA came through with just two models and a killer location. But the fashion? Meh. MONSE though. One model. One minute. But they gave it all to you in that one minute. Kudos! Leery, still, about exposing skin outdoors, I pulled a pair of leggings on under my suit and headed out to do an episode of THE TALKS with fashion journalist Tori Fremont. She grilled me, too. About everything! From my honorary degree to way-back-when bad girl moments. But those moments are so well documented. There’s no hiding from the past. Day Three…
I called for the Town Car this morning because I have not one but two live video podcasts today. It’s a 4-day Fashion Week and we’re busy! My models? They’ve been working! Several did small film and virtual fashion presentations and I’m loving the new energy. There’s an extra layer of creativity now for designers to explore and many—like Macgraw—are having fun making quirky little movies to showcase their collections. Of course there’s still a handful of live shows. Jason Wu, for instance. But you know how things get super-cozy backstage with models, makeup stylists, hair stylists, dressers, pressers, assistants? Many of my kids just aren’t ready for that yet. And I’m not pushing them. Would you? Day Two…