I Grew Up in the Projects—Here’s How Determination Started My Modeling Career

I was a poor, white girl from the projects of Alabama. I didn't belong in a beauty competition, but I still got a contract.

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I grew up in a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Anniston, Alabama. Much of the town worked at the cotton mill, the Fort McClellan Army base, or the Monsanto chemical plant. The town stank like rotten eggs.

It was a poor town where girls got married at 14. They were usually pregnant by 15. My mama had five kids by the age of 22, and six of her eight husbands came from Fort McClellan.

My siblings and I grew up in a housing project. At school, we had to eat last because we were the welfare kids. By the time I was eight years old, I was cleaning houses and babysitting. But you know, I didn’t mind. I felt safer working than being at home with Mama and all those strange men coming and going all the time.

When I turned 12 years old, I got my dream job, working the concession at the movie theater. I got a chance to see how people outside the projects behaved and how they dressed.

One day, the tallest woman I’d ever seen walked in. She had on a big pink hat. She was wearing a pink dress. She was carrying a pink pocketbook and wearing white gloves. She walked up to the counter and said, “I’ll have a large popcorn, a large RC Cola, and a large Hershey bar with almonds.” I thought, She must be rich. Nobody orders large.

So she looked at me and said, “What’s your name?” And I said, “Trisha Mitchell.” She said, “How old are you?” And I’m thinking, Why is she asking me all these questions? I answered, “Twelve.” She said, “How tall are ya, honey?” I said, “I don’t know, ma’am.” And she said, “Well, stand against that RC Cola machine. I’m gonna measure your height.”

She pulls out a pink measuring tape. She said, “My, you are tall for your age.” And she opens up her bag and gives me a pink card. She said, “I am Olma Macy Harwell. I run Miss Macy’s Charm School down on Tenth and Noble. Have your mama call me.”

Well, after work I’m clutching that pink card, and I run home. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, ­paintin’ her fingernails red and drinkin’ a glass of gin. I go, “Look, Mama! Miss Macy wants me to come to her charm school.” Mama looks at the school and says, “You ain’t goin’ down there. It’s a whorehouse!” She throws the card down on the floor.

Now I’m really confused, but I knew I had to do something. So when Mama wasn’t looking, I picked up that card and I went to a neighbor’s and I called Miss Macy and told her Mama won’t let me come to her school. Miss Macy said, “Don’t you worry about that, honey. I’ll handle it.”

Now, Miss Macy knew a little bit about my family because her husband was the town judge, and he had sentenced one of my stepfathers to prison a couple of times. So Miss Macy told Mama I could come to her school free and I might even be in the newspaper one day and that could make Mama look real important. Mama let me go. After work, Miss Macy would teach me how to walk up and down stairs like a lady. She taught me how to sit properly in a chair and even how to exit a room.

And she encouraged me to enter every beauty contest that came to Alabama, like Miss Talladega 500 Raceway. Some of them I won, including Miss Cotton Crop and Miss Escalator. It was the first escalator the town had ever seen. (Watch out for these secrets the beauty industry doesn’t want you to know.)

One day at the charm school, she’s waving this Glamour magazine above her head. She said, “We are going to a modeling competition at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City!” Now, I didn’t know whether to start crying or get excited. I’d never thought in a million years I’d go to New York City. The trip was expensive, but I had a year, so I started working three jobs.

One day, I’m walking down the street and this little old lady comes up to me, and she says, “Honey, I just got my welfare check, but I’m gonna give you $5 to help you leave to go up north.” I said, “Ma’am, how’d you know I need any money?” She said, “Well, Miss Macy went on the radio this morning and told the whole town that we gotta help you leave.”

And the town did help. JCPenney gave me a madras miniskirt with a matching jacket. The shoe department gave me a pair of white patent leather go-go boots. The jewelry store gave me an alarm clock. And the beauty parlor frosted my hair. I walked in a brunette, and I walked out a striped platinum blonde. They even peroxided my eyebrows.

A few days before leaving to go to New York, an envelope arrived at the charm school with my name on it. Inside was $2,000 and a note that read, “I want to help you leave to become successful.” I still don’t know who sent it.

In May of 1971, I was 18 years old. Miss Macy and I boarded the train for New York City with a bottle of Drambuie and a brown paper bag filled with southern fried chicken. Thirty hours later, we walked into the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

When the competition started, I was immediately intimidated. I thought for sure I did not belong there, with my striped hair and my white go-go boots. And I didn’t see one girl walk on the runway the way Miss Macy had taught me, by tiltin’ and tuckin’ and keeping her chin up. They’re walking all fancified and flippin’ their hair over their shoulder. I pretended to be confident, but I was really scared people were gonna find out who I really was, this poor white girl from the projects. But Miss Macy, she never stopped encouraging me. When it was my turn to walk the runway, she said, “You get on out there. Those judges need to know how we show clothes in Alabama.”

The competition was judged by two top model agents, Wilhelmina and Ford, and by the editors of Glamour and Mademoiselle. And when it was over, I didn’t win anything, and Miss Macy, oh, she was just fit to be tied.

It’s a Sunday afternoon. We were going back to Alabama the next day. Miss Macy’s frantically pacing our hotel room, drinking Drambuie. She said, “I am not prepared to take you back to Alabama tomorrow. There is nothing there for you.” She picked up the telephone and called the Birmingham newspaper. She told them I had just been signed with the world’s most famous model agency.

When she hung up, I couldn’t believe it. I said, “Miss Macy, that ain’t true.” When I look back on that, I realize that Miss Macy had a far better understanding of how destitute my life was in Alabama. And she just kind of ignored my protesting and ordered me to get dressed. We were gonna go down to the bar in the hotel lobby.

So I put on my madras miniskirt and my go-go boots, and she puts on her big hat and her white gloves. Right when I’m reaching for the door, she picks up the telephone and calls Governor George Wallace. “George? This is Olma Macy Harwell calling you from the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Our Alabaman girl, she just got signed with the world’s most famous model agency. That’s right, Governor. We’re putting Alabama on the map.”

Well, at that point, I just grabbed that bottle of Drambuie and I am chugging it. Miss Macy grabbed my arm and we head down to the Palm Bar. We walk in, and there sat Wilhelmina in an entourage of people and a swirl of cigarette smoke. Miss Macy walks right up to her. I hide behind a palm tree.

Miss Macy says, “Wilhelmina, I am Olma Macy Harwell from Anniston, Alabama, and I have a young lady with me that I am not prepared to take back to Alabama tomorrow. She is staying in New York City and becoming a model with your agency.”

I didn’t know whether Wilhelmina was gonna burst out laughing or, you know, applaud Miss Macy. So Wilhelmina said, “Well, where is she?” Miss Macy snapped her fingers. I am sweating so much behind that palm tree that my white patent leather go-go boots are all stuck together.

When I manage to unstick them, I go stand next to Miss Macy, and Wilhelmina says, “Well, do you have a name?” I go, “Yes, ma’am. My name’s Trisha Mitchell.” She says, “So tell me, Trisha Mitchell, what’s so special about you? Why would I wanna hire you as one of my models?”

God, my heart was pounding at that moment. I didn’t know the right thing to say, but this one word popped into my head. It was the word that Miss Macy had always told me about myself. And I said, “Determination, ma’am.” She said, “Well, why don’t you and Miss Macy come to my office tomorrow morning?”

The next day, Wilhelmina handed me a contract. She said, “I’d like to see what you can do with that determination. But first, we have to do something about your hair.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest