I’ve got a soft spot for the Harlem Hospital. It’s where my mother, a fifteen year old junkie, squeezed me out prematurely at seven months. Pretty much owing them my life, I volunteer for the institution’s gala fund raiser every year. The fashion show is the major highlight in a week full of events. Not only does it pull in high society from all over—uptown, downtown, midtown—but at sixteen-hundred a pop, some nice ducats too. It becomes a real brawl-fest working with their personal event planner, Gigi Samuel, though. But we manage to get through it somehow. Every year. I check my calendar again. The fundraiser kicks off in less than three weeks. And Gigi is not returning my calls.
So that’s how Gigi wants to play it? Okay. With Belle in tow, I arrive at the Plaza on the evening of the fashion show as a guest. Lots of familiar faces are in attendance. We schmooze with actress Cicely Tyson and socialite Iris Apfel. I adore these old dames. Miss Iris tells great stories. Long, but loaded with wisdom and juicy tidbits. And The Lady Tyson. She’s just the grandest of all for me. Whenever, wherever I see her, I feel the urge to drop into a curtsy and kiss her tiny hand.
Winona is wearing Dior
Venus—as in Miss Venus Williams—enters the lobby. Stately and graceful, when she stops to say hello I just can’t help myself. I have to pitch to her once again about signing with WINONA, INC. Our celebrity roster boasts quite a few athletes who hit the charity show catwalks during their off-season, raising loads of money for every cause you can name. “Who’s your favorite charity?” I ask her. Venus giggles and blushes. “I would love to model in this show,” she says.
Venus is wearing Valentino
Mrs. Boris Claptrap corners Belle like a possessive old cat. Belle is the realtor who found the Claptrap’s magnificent 13-room penthouse on East 71st. AND a small condo several floors below for Boris’ little girlfriend. I eavesdrop on their convo as Mrs. Claptrap asks Belle about the real estate market. Belle starts to stammer. It’s been a few years now since kissing her A-list real estate days goodbye, but the brutal shift from the high society club to the strip club still rattles her. Thankfully, the lights begin to flicker. It’s time to take our seats for the fashion show.
Mrs. Claptrap is wearing Chanel
What’s this? Bleacher seating? Seriously? Where are the tables? The plushy chairs? The waiters? Who wants to get all dolled up in fashion show finery just to climb over some funky-ass stadium bleachers? I’m still reeling when Gigi’s assistant appears in front of me. Sweating, he falls to his knees.“Ms. Warner,” he says, “Mr. Gigi needs you backstage right away. He’ll kill me if I come back without you. Please come with me. Pleeeeeeze!” Belle giggles. “MISTER Gigi?” I guess I never mentioned to her that Gigi is a man. We stand and follow him backstage.
Gigi nabs me at the backstage entrance. His Count Dracula meets the Chi-Lites en-som makes me want to laugh out loud, but the old fool is in full panic mode! Wide-eyed and wheezing into a paper bag. “Oh Winona. Please don’t hate me, dear. I hired another agency. I don’t know what I was thinking. But several of the models have yet to show up. I’ve never had such a mess on my hands. Not in 40 years. Please walk for me. Please. I’ll give you anything you want.” Is he asking me to model? I can’t believe his balls. I haven’t been on a runway— working—in six years! But Belle is excited. She thinks it would be fun. “Do it,” she says.“The audience will go wild!”
I’m still not convinced. Technically I’d be coming out of retirement and stop the presses! That’s just way too hot for some local charity event. But it’s the Harlem Hospital, my hospital, and glancing around backstage, I can’t believe my eyes. Every girl Gigi has booked today is Caucasian! It’s the Harlem hospital charity show. Not Mount Sinai. But when I ask him what’s up with that he hands me the same drag I hear from designers and mindless merchandisers all day long. “It’s not my fault. I didn’t book the show.” I could poke his blubbering little eyes out. But instead…
I agree to model in the show. And in return Gigi will sign a contract—written on a Bounty paper towel and witnessed by Belle—stating that for the next five years ALL fashion shows handled by Gigi Samuel Events, including the annual Harlem Hospital gala show, will be cast exclusively by the Winona, Inc. agency. And twelve out of twenty models will be women and men of color. Gigi is so relieved, I can smell it on him.“Is that all?” he asks. He wipes the tears and sweat from his face and signs our paper towel contract without a moments’ hesitation. You see what I mean about some people? It’s not that Gigi is a bigot. Striving for diversity simply isn’t on his radar.
But we’re still in desperate need for more cocoa on today’s runway and I inform Gigi that Venus Willams is in the audience. She said she’d love to do this event. Remember? Maybe she could be coaxed? His boy runs out, prepared to grovel is necessary. And guess what? Venus is game! But Miss Thing wants to close the show and I’m so sorry. This is my court, doll. And nobody—NO body—is closing this show but me.
Winona is wearing b michael america