Stacey McKenzie – Role Model

Stacey McKenzie was ugly from the day she was born. She was too tall, too thin, too fair and too freckly — a poster girl of peculiarity shielded by a pretense of plastic and glass eyes. “They used to make fun of me as a baby, so my mother used to pretend she was carrying a doll and act like she was crazy,” she reveals emotionally. “That was her way of having people not say anything about me. It was more so her protecting me. I didn’t have a happy childhood; I was always teased, constantly teased.” But the harder she fell the higher she would bounce.

At half past 10 on a stifling summer morning, a flurry of excitement rings through a nondescript corridor of Ryerson University’s South Kerr Hall. It’s Day 3 of McKenzie’s first annual Walk This Way Workshops Camp — a free, two-week motivational program aimed at empowering inner city girls through specialized seminars and celebrity mentors. “I’ve been preparing for this role my whole life,” beams the Canadian fashion model, hair braided and gathered in her typifying topknot, freckled complexion a nimbus glow. She hovers over the fracas in the classroom, her rapturous laughter catching in a sea of absorbent minds.

Anyone who knows McKenzie — or has witnessed her life-of-the-party personality as a judge on Canada’s Next Top Model — is privy to her hyperactive, arms-akimbo style, making the Jamaican native’s trajectory an antithetical one. It’s in her smile and spunk that you begin to ponder the cruelty of humanity, and how one can find the strength to heal. “I realized that I have the one vessel that I’m working with — this is what I look like, this is who I am. Once I accepted me, once I loved me, I just kept on moving. In the beginning I wasn’t owning who I was,” says McKenzie, who would chop her hair, conceal her freckles and minimize her lip size in a desperate attempt to be accepted. “I thought, I’m still the same person. What am I trying to do? It’s either I’m going to make the best of it or the worst of it. Once I stopped doing that, I owned Stacey McKenzie. I decided to love me and own me,” says McKenzie, who is currently penning her life experience in a no-holds-barred memoir.

Her perseverance eventually gave way to fashion campaigns and landed her on runways and in magazines around the world. A rather unlikely occurrence for McKenzie came at a casting call in Paris, when none other than the exalted Jean Paul Gaultier exclaimed her beauty. “Nobody else really saw me, it was always about what their perception of beauty was, and you know, I was never accepted. So when he saw me — and he really saw me …” she trails emotionally, “when you come across that one person who, you know, just off the bat sees you and just accepts you for who you are … it helped me to accept myself.”

The image of beauty and all of its lofty, unattainable heights of perfect proportions is an ideal often dictated by who’s trending on the runway or gracing the front cover of Vogue. Yet we all play a role — insert your drool over Kate Upton’s curves here — in perpetuating the latest symbol of sexy girl standards. McKenzie’s summer camp, an extension of her company Walk This Way Workshops, makes for a timely addition to the mounting attention on low self-esteem in adolescents. “Real beauty, for me, is when you have a good heart, when you have a great personality and you’re humble, you’re kind and you’re confident in yourself,” says McKenzie, who in 2012 received the Success, Engagement and Empowerment Award from the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa for her support of youth.

Rather than advocate the status quo, McKenzie is pushing everyone to embrace his or her individuality and develop an unshakeable confidence. It’s a mission so dear to her heart she broke the first rule of her camp: a class list of only 20 girls aged 14 to 18. But she couldn’t turn away a few more, one of whom is as young as nine. “I met her mom and she told me that I’m an idol to her [daughter] because she gets bullied a lot at school and it’s really affecting her. She was telling her mom, ‘I want to be like Stacey.’ Then I just said, ‘you know what, I want her to come.’”

Recalling the difficult days of when she was 16, navigating solo through the process of landing an agent only to be shunned over her quirky features, McKenzie is determined to educate youth on how to confront the cutthroat industries of fashion, entertainment and the arts, empowering them with the tools to challenge the naysayers. In her own way, just like her mother, McKenzie is preparing them for our how wicked, how fiendish a world ruled by pre-defined beauty can be. The difference here is that she isn’t blanketing them in make-believe, cradling them in her arms as you would playthings. She’s teaching them that once the game is over, the king and pawn go back into the same box.

Stacey’s Top 10 List

1 My 75-year-old mother. I’m so blessed to have her in my life
2 My siblings, aunt, nieces and nephews. I love my family even when we have our moments — which can sometimes last a while
3 My best friends Andrea and Chris, whom I’ve known since first arriving in Canada. They’ve been with me through the good, bad and ugly of my life
4 My gold bangles. I’ve bought a pair every birthday, a tradition I’ve continued from my mother. Over the years, I’ve sadly lost a large portion of my collection. I have a few left that I cherish very much, as they’re a reminder of where I came from and what it took for me to be where I’m at today
5 Walk This Way Workshops. I’m fortunate and grateful to have created an avenue for youths/people to be empowered and inspired through my experiences and expertise
6 My little bungalow with a river that runs through it, hidden high in the mountains of my beloved country Jamaica. It’s a piece of heaven
7 I looove food! Anything from Caribbean, Asian to Italian. My new fave restaurant in Toronto is Buonanotte. OMG: the food, staff and ambience are to die for! I can’t wait to drop by to have my regular Crudo pizza or try something new!
8 I’m a big-time dancer. The best club for me to let loose (plus eat some delish food while on a break) is Muzik in Toronto. It’s very very beautiful — not to mention the staff and owner Zlatko!
9 My collection of Jean Paul Gaultier, Todd Oldham and Christian Lacroix gowns and clothes. Sometimes I look at them and cry thinking about how blessed I am to have been a little Jamaican girl with dreams of becoming a model
10 My HUGE collection of pictures from all my travels and experiences since I was 14 years old. Growing up, I didn’t have a camera or any pictures of my childhood.  So, when I was able to get one, I took pictures of EVERYTHING!

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