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. It becomes a real brawlfest working with their personal event planner, Gigi Samuel. But somehow we manage to get through it. Every year. Our fashion show is the major highlight in a week full of events and not only does it pull in high society from all over—uptown, downtown, midtown—but nice ducats too, at sixteen-hundred a pop. I check my calendar again. The fundraiser kicks off in less than three weeks. And Gigi is not returning my calls.
So that’s the way 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. So stately and graceful, when she stops to say hello I just can’t help myself. I have to pitch 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, Park Avenue socialite, 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’ young girlfriend. I eavesdrop on their convo as Mrs. Claptrap asks Belle about the market. My girlfriend 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? Not this crowd. Let someone’s dress or shoes get stepped on and the lawsuits will fly. Suddenly 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?” That’s right. Gigi is a man.
Gigi nabs me at the entrance backstage. 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 haven’t shown 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? He can’t be. 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 eat it up!”
I’m still not convinced. Technically I’d be coming out of retirement and stop the presses! That news is way too hot for some local gala. 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! I ask him what’s up with that? It’s the Harlem hospital charity show. Not Mount Sinai. But 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 eyes out. But instead…
I agree to model. 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 by the Winona, Inc. agency exclusively. 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. He’s just not woke. Striving for balance simply isn’t on his radar.
But we’re still in desperate need for more cocoa today on this 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 goes to get her. And she’s game! But Miss Thing wants to close the show. I’m so sorry. This is my court, sugar. And nobody—NO body—is closing this show but me.
Winona is wearing b michael america