When you grow up in a poor neighborhood, the things that make you special are the things people hate about you the most. So you have a choice: You can go crazily special and become a unicorn, or you can try to fade into the background. Once I got a job at T. Edwards, I knew which path I had to take.
The store was on the fifth floor of Water Tower Place, across from the McDonald’s and next to the Lord & Taylor. It took me an hour and a half to get there by bus from the three-flat near 79th and Jeffery where I lived with my mother and extended family. T. Edwards was the boutique in Water Tower Place. All the top local models shopped there. So did Oprah, who was already pretty famous by then. It was 1983, and the shop sold lots of WilliWear, Norma Kamali, and Vakko leather jackets.
I was a skinny 15-year-old with an Afro and a gap between my front teeth big enough to slide a Frito through. An overachiever in school, friendly to a fault, I was the neighborhood gay kid who got beat up after class but would still be your best friend even if you’d called me a fag in front of everyone on the bus the day before. I was chatty and bookish and loved to talk, except about certain things. I didn’t talk about my mother’s boyfriend, a man she’d brought into the house as an authority figure back when I was 10 to take care of her three children while she worked full time and took care of her ailing mother. I didn’t talk about how this man used to expose himself to me, about the beatings, or about how, after one of those beatings, I had cut my wrist with a razor blade in the bathroom of my grandmother’s apartment upstairs, or about how she’d kicked the door in and saved me. Those memories from five years earlier were my secret, never to be revealed to anyone.
By the time I got to high school, all I wanted was to get away from the South Side, away from the bullies, away from my family. I was always looking for the black people on TV who weren’t athletes or criminals — the black doctor, the black cop — and trying to figure out how they’d gotten away. I’d see a beautiful model in a photo spread in Ebony and ask myself, What did she do to get on that yacht?
The older sister of one of my friends had tipped me off about the job, and I’d lied about my age to get it. I was just a stock boy, but the job was a crash course in sophistication. I’d watch the salesgirls work, listen to their pitch. These were the most glamorous women I’d ever seen, and they treated me like their little brother.
Off-hours, I’d visit my friend at a store called City, and she introduced me to hot designer names like Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons. The girls at work bought me clothes sometimes, and pretty soon I had cut my hair to a close crop and was walking around in Marithé + François Girbaud. The thing is, I still had to take the bus home to the South Side every night, and my new look got me terrorized worse than before.
Work quickly became my sanctuary. Sometimes the assistant manager at T. Edwards would call me over in her Russian accent and use me to close a sale. It was an accepted truth that women dressed for men, and so the endorsement of the nearest available male, offered at just the right moment, was considered gold. It turned out that I was a born closer. Soon regular customers were walking straight over to me from the dressing rooms and asking my opinion. I’d finish screwing in a light bulb, gaze down from the ladder, and say things like, “That is fire on you!” or “You could go a size down, girl!” or “The pink on you would be amazing!”
Soon the manager promoted me to sales and had me selling jackets and coats. If a customer was floundering, I’d swoop in and say, “Why not try layaway?” I could sell leather and furs like nobody’s business. By the end of that year, I was the No. 2 salesperson in the entire company and was making more money than my mother, who was a nurse.
The girls at T. Edwards taught me about more than just clothes. They took me out to restaurants like Gordon and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, showed me which fork to use for salad, and how to hold it. They snuck me into clubs like Medusa’s and Park West, where I had my very first cocktail, an amaretto stone sour. They taught me that there was more to Chicago than the South Side. They showed me that I didn’t have to hide who I was. I learned that the parts of myself I’d always been told were bad or wrong were actually the best things about me. I learned that my opinion mattered. Most important, I learned what it felt like to be successful. Suddenly I had a confidence I’d never known before.
Once, Oprah came into the store with one of her producers. While the producer was trying on clothes, Oprah, who still had her short Afro back then, sat outside the dressing room eating McDonald’s fries. I went straight up to her and said, “I want to be on your show.”
She looked me up and down, taking the measure of this ungainly black kid who hadn’t even graduated from high school or had sex yet, and asked, “What’s your talent?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said.
She just laughed and shook her head.
I wasn’t fazed. I told myself at that moment, with complete certainty, Forget the girl on the yacht. I’m gonna be on TV one day.
Soon, I’d saved enough money to rent a tiny studio on Sheridan in Lake View — mattress on the floor, books stacked everywhere — and I left the South Side. I tended bar at Shelter, one of the hottest places in town, and waited tables at Marché, where two agents from Aria Model & Talent Management discovered me and helped me launch a modeling career, which got me into the world of couture and fashion styling. I started styling shoots for magazines like InStyle, British Vogue, and GQ and working with entertainers like Justin Timberlake and actors like Sharon Stone and David Schwimmer. And before long, I’d fulfilled my prediction of being on TV, doing a stint on Big Brother, hosting for E! and the Style Network, and reporting for CNN and the broadcast networks. I’ve since crossed paths with Oprah many times, though I’ve never asked her if she remembers how we first met.
It’d be too easy to say I never looked back. I carried the memory of abuse everywhere I went. It’s not the kind of pain that goes away, and it wasn’t the kind of secret you let go of easily. It’s part of who I am. And the man who abused me, my mother’s boyfriend? After a while, my mom sent him packing and we never saw him again. I’ve since learned that predators like him are everywhere, always looking for a way into the lives of kids they see as weak. I don’t blame my mom for what happened to me. In trying to protect me by bringing a so-called father figure into our home, she’d done the opposite, but she also taught me the most important lesson I ever learned: The only person who could really help me in life was me.