Words by Kaci Hamilton
Photos by Martei Korley
Stacey McKenzie and I met in 1999. She doesn’t remember the meeting. I do. It was backstage at a Sashi concert, the now-defunct reggae and R&B series that used to descend annually on Ocho Rios. I was a contestant in the Miss Jamaica World pageant. Stacey was the international star I wanted to be — all legs and sinew and exoticism. And success. She was one of the most accomplished Jamaican models I knew. She’d worked with Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier and Tommy Hilfiger, and appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and on the cover of Le Monde. She’d brought a distinct, new look to the runway and print — and she was Jamaican, too. I was mesmerized by her swagger. In the time it took to pose for a press shot, I could see she was a force majeure.
Seventeen years later, we meet again. I am now chasing stardom, fresh out of acting school and on the audition track. For Stacey, workshops and camps are replacing the cameras. Though you can still see her on TV shows like America’s Next Top Model (she appears in the show’s new season premiering this Monday, Dec. 12), these days the Kingston native imparts her experience and wisdom — modeling and then some — to a new generation of models, through her Walk this Way Workshops. While our journeys have been filled with setbacks, as well as breakthroughs, we both agree that everything happens according to plan, and nothing before its time.
LargeUp: You know, based on where I am in life, I feel like I was supposed to talk to you.
Stacey McKenzie: Yeah man, thanks be to the Most High. It could be 30 years from now, but nothing before its time.
LU: You talk about the Most High. Is that coming from your family, or you getting conscious over the years?
SM: It’s coming from being raised in a very strict Christian home. It was pretty much school and church. I couldn’t even go to the beach. But I didn’t realize when I was younger that I was spiritually in tune with the world around me. So, at some point, I started paying attention. Like really paying attention. To things I wanted, things the Most High was denying me, EVERYTHING. And then I realized it was more than just being raised in the church. I was actually a chosen one. So I started owning that.
LU: Damn, that’s a profound realization to have so young…
SM: I believe if I make it in this industry, it’s not because of my looks, it’s because there’s a bigger picture. We’re all given opportunities for a reason. We just need to be conscious of that, and do right with them. I always knew there was something special about me. [Laughs]
LU: Is that where Walk This Way Workshops came from?
SM: Yep, I always said that if I made a name for myself this industry, I would give back. This is not for me to keep for myself.
LU: You mentioned things happening for a reason, and nothing before its time. Tell me about New York and that whole scene. What made you decide to move back to Toronto?
SM: I was very young when I moved to New York. About 16. A child in a world with nothing but madness. You’re thrown to the wolves. I was living in this lavish penthouse in the heart of Manhattan with about four other girls. The oldest was maybe 18. It was pure partying. Not me personally, but we were on our own to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. And that freaked me out. I was raised to have manners and, if my mom hadn’t raised me the way she did, who knows what would have happened. There was just a lot to entice us. But that wasn’t even the issue. One of my roommates, a white girl, used to belittle me and tell me that I was there to be the maid.
SM: Yes! That I wasn’t a model. She used to purposefully leave her dishes and tell me to clean it up. One day she left one of her dirty plates for about a week, and I told her she needed to clean up. She didn’t, and instead came over to me, poking me, saying, “You are supposed to clean up because you’re my maid.” So I just deal with her the Jamaican way, which was wrong, because I beat her up bad. Seriously. I realized then that I needed to leave, go back to school, and make sure I was able to handle things like this in the future. Because, let me tell you, I beat her bad.
LU: Wow, I’m laughing, but that’s an insane story. Good for you, though, for realizing you had to bounce…
SM: I was too immature to be out there on my own. I knew I was going to get into fights if that bullshit continued. So I was like, lemme just ‘tek weh myself’. That’s why I decided to leave New York and come back to Canada.
LU: How long were you in Canada before you went to Paris?
SM: Maybe about two years. It took me a while because I didn’t have any money. I dropped out of school and then I was too embarrassed, so I went to night classes. I got myself to Europe, to Holland, and then I took the bus to Paris.
LU: Where was your mother in all of this? She was a single parent, right?
SM: She was a single parent, my dad passed when I was a baby. I have two siblings, but they’re older, so it was only me and my mom. She was always very strict with me. When I was a baby, people used to think she was mad when they saw her carrying me around, because they thought I was a doll. If you see us on the street, you would never know she’s my mom. She’s a short, black woman. So they didn’t think I was real.
LU: So, I guess it goes without saying that you look like your father?
SM: Haha, yeah. When I was really young, I was unnaturally white. I didn’t have freckles yet, and I had white blond hair, and it was fuzzy and crazy-looking. I could have passed for an albino. And I was always very still, I never moved…
LU: So people thought you were a doll…?
SM: Yeah! So they made fun of her, and when they realized I was an actual kid, they still made fun of her. They used to call me “dundus,” “Yellowman daughter,” “mongoose.” “See the woman with the likkle dundus baby there!” So she was always… heightened, and she just wanted me to go to school and church. She was trying to protect me, by hiding me. Now, she’s in shock at what I’ve accomplished, ‘cause everyone, even family members, used to put me down.
LU: Where in Jamaica are you from, your family?
SM: Kingston. I was born in Allman Town, and I was raised by Slipe Road. My mother is from St. Mary and my father is from Clarendon.
LU: Damn, from Slipe Road to the catwalks of Paris…who would have thought? Speaking of Paris, when you went, it seemed like you were in the right place at the right time, all the time?
SM: Everything happens thanks to the Most High, man. He has plans for all of us. And nobody can stop that. Only you can stop it. There are times when I’ve had an intuition and I know that’s the Most High talking to me. Have you ever had an intuition and you do the opposite and it ends up being bad?
LU: Of course, all the time…
SM: Cause after I beat up the girl, everything in my being was telling me to go back to Canada. I went straight to the payphone and called the agent. I figured they would kick me out anyway, but she was like, “Don’t worry, just don’t make it happen again, but you don’t have to leave.” I told her, “No, I need to go home. I should not be here right now, I need to go home.” I just remember repeating it. So I went home, even though it was a struggle, and then got myself to Paris. When I got to Paris, I had no idea where I was going. I just knew I needed to get to the centre of the city.
LU: That’s kind of incredible, that you were just going blind…
SM: I knew nothing when I stepped off the bus. On the train I was sitting there, and something told me, “Turn around.” I see this bald-headed black girl, and I could only see the back of her head. And my spirit told me to talk to her. She ended up being a model, and her boyfriend at the time was a photographer. We’re still friends to this day. She took me to this tiny motel, and that’s where I stayed until I found my own place.
LU: Haha, just like that. Speaking of photographers, I saw something you posted about an agent who destroyed all the photos from your first portfolio?
SM: Yeah, in Paris, at one of the first agencies I signed with. They were from a shoot I did in Toronto, and the one I posted is one of the only ones left. It’s actually a photocopy. But yeah, I found out he ripped up everyone of them in a rage.
LU: What exactly happened? And did that give you more fire, like, watch me?
SM: He ended up confessing to me in an elevator, years later. It still hurts. He was insulting me at an agency dinner, saying, “Why did you guys choose her without me? She’s so ugly.” And he was just going on. At first I just sat there, and then I couldn’t anymore, so I started to cuss him! He didn’t like that, cause everybody started laughing at him. And I knew his ego wouldn’t let that go. So I went to the agency the next day for my portfolio, I already knew, and they said they couldn’t find it. I was devastated. I had scraped together to pay for that photoshoot. As I’m talking about it, there’s tears in my eyes. If he did that to me, imagine what he had done to other kids?
LU: Did you ever think about getting him back?
SM: That never crossed my mind. I never had that attitude of…
SM: Yeah, I wasn’t doing this because I want people to eat their words. I loved it, period. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Anyway, it was like something from a movie. He stopped the elevator and I was already in it. He just about lost his marbles. I almost fainted, but I just put on my screwface [Laughs]. Eventually he turned and said hello. I dropped the screwface but my head was held high, and he just confessed everything, that he’s been wanting to talk to me, that he ripped up the pictures because I embarrassed him, and then he started crying and asking me to forgive him.
LU: It wouldn’t bring back the pictures, but you were meant to run into him that day.
SM: Yeah man, it was meant to be. I told him how much it hurt, how hard I worked to take those pictures, but that I appreciated his honesty. I think we even hugged too.
LU: It seems almost fated that your path should take a 180 after that, and in Paris nonetheless. You had a casting with Jean-Paul Gaultier, who you had seen all those years before posing in a magazine with Madonna, in the picture that essentially made you want to become a model, and he called you beautiful? What was that like?
SM: First of all, nobody had ever told me I was beautiful. So I was like, “Really? Somebody just told me I’m beautiful!” Growing up, from family, from friends, I never heard that. Ever.
LU: I can imagine, and especially from somebody who doesn’t even know you…
SM: I was just shook. I even said, “Really? You think so?” But my heart just melted. And the way he said it… it’s been so many years but I still get emotional. It was like the Most High talking to me through this man.
LU: And to think, out of everyone, he was the first to say it. You saw him, and he was waiting to see you.
SM: Yeah man, when something is meant for you, man. I did his show, and Madonna was even in it!
LU: That’s incredible. Everything just came full circle…
SM: That’s why you really have to follow your intuition. I’ve always had a passion for it. When I look at pictures of me from about 9 and 10 years old, I’m fully posing. It’s like I was born to do this. Seriously. But it wasn’t untilI I saw that picture, with Jean-Paul and Madonna. Something sparked, and from then I started telling everybody I wanted to be a model.
LU: As you say that, did you ever consider plastic surgery?
SM: I never really had boobs, and when I was younger, I thought, “Oh, maybe I should get a lift.” And then I was like, “No sah, I’ll keep it natural.” And funny enough, as I got older, I got the boobs I wanted! [laughs] But to be honest, because of the risk, I just never considered it. I’m a naturalist. I like my natural hair, my natural looks. When I go home and everybody else is bringing back food, I’m bringing bush.
SM: I don’t even know the names, I have to ask somebody to come with me up in the hills. I’m naturalist to the point that people think I’m Rasta.
LU: I could see that. Tell me more about Walk This Way Workshops, and how it came about?
SM: My career as a model segued into WTW. When I first went to Paris. and was looking for an agency, I met other models doing the same thing. But they didn’t know the business like I did. I had studied. So I started teaching them tricks, like how to get seen without an appointment. Half the time, I would be running game, acting like I’m supposed to be there, and when they were like, “We don’t have you down,” I would tell them, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you but I came all the way from Jamaica, so you have to make something happen.”
LU: Oh my god, that is hysterical. I love the story you mentioned of calling the agencies pretending to be your own agent.
SM: I was about to tell you! I was my own agent. I would say I’m calling from Jamaica on behalf of Stacey McKenzie. Meanwhile I’m in Toronto. I even taught them how to walk. Everybody was always blown away by my walk, so other models started asking me to teach them.
LU: Wow, and you were doing all of this while being a model?
SM: Yeah, but not as a business. It was just to help them. So when I was coming back to Canada to live for the first time, I decided to do a workshop. I didn’t even want the media to know, but there was a producer from E! Canada. She attended undercover and that’s how word got out. So you see, when something is meant to be, sometimes you can’t even stop it.
LU: Exactly, you were trying to hide and she still found you.
SM: Yeah, and it just so happens I had this tiny white girl, she was about 10 years old at the time. She was a beast…she didn’t walk like no little white girl by the time I was done with her. [Laughs] So they did a big story and they used her for the interview. So at that point I decided to turn it into a business.
LU: How are the workshops now? You work with private clients and then you have public workshops for anybody?
SM: Yes. Then I have my camps, the Walk Camp, which I’m bringing to Jamaica next year.
LU: Is it a modeling camp?
SM: There’s are two sides. I teach aspiring models in the workshops. And then there’s the camp. Every summer, I choose 30 girls, from ages 12-17, and give them a free two-week camp. It’s about building self-esteem and exposing them to a different industry mentor every day. This July will be the fourth year. For me, it’s important to have it back home. These yutes, they’re not going to have these kinds of opportunities.
LU: Who are some past mentors?
SM: I had designer Sunny Fong, his brand is called Vawk. Caitlin Cronenberg, she’s a famous photographer. Last year, the editor-in-chief of Elle Magazine Canada, Noreen Flanagan. Oh yeah, there’s a kid I used to mentor when he was in high school, Zuberi. He really wanted to get into politics, and he figured out how to get grants to get his education for nothing. So he came and taught my girls the same thing.
LU: That’s so incredible, half the battle is finding the money. That’s an invaluable skill!
SM: Yeah, it’s so awesome. So I wanted to establish it here in Toronto and then bring it to Jamaica, cause they need it even more.
LU: Yeah, we have to lift it up. So, what does Jamaica mean to you, then and now?
SM: Oh man, my country. No matter how long I live in Canada, I’m always going to say I was born and raised in Jamaica. When we moved, I was heartbroken. Even though I was getting teased and ridiculed in Jamaica, it didn’t matter. We have a spirit unlike anywhere else. Maybe Africa comes close, but we have this energy, as soon as you touch the land. I get so inspired when I go home, and even when I don’t, and I look at pictures of friends and my family, I’m inspired again.
LU: You seem drawn to energy. Is that why you love graffiti? I was looking at your Instagram and every other picture is you by a mural.
SM: [Cackles] I never saw graffiti in Jamaica but I love art. And my dad was an artist. He actually used to do drawings for Hallmark cards in Jamaica. When I saw graffiti for the first time in New York, I was like, “Whoa, I love this.” And then my favorite artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat. My love of art was embedded in me at birth.
LU: After all this talk about image, I’m curious, what makes you feel beautiful? And it could be anything — a feeling, a place, clothing, a song, whatever.
SM: When I think about how the Most High wakes me up every day, blessing me with life. To have life is beautiful, and to be able to do what I love and make a living on top of it? That makes me feel real beautiful, man.