AFTER A MULTI DECADE CAREER IN THE FASHION AND BEAUTY INDUSTRIES, THIS GLOBAL SUPERMODEL IS USING HER VOICE TO INSPIRE OTHERS IN A NEW WAY THOUGH SHE CAN STILL TEAR UP A RUNWAY!
BY AMANDA McCOY
On June 29, international fashion model Camerone Parker took the stage in front of a boisterous crowd as the closing model of the first ever All Stars of Project Runway Show in Chicago. While it certainly wasn’t the first time the style authority had lit up a runway her multi decade resume includes strutting the catwalk for such heavyweight designers as Vera Wang and Giorgio Armani this event held special significance. Parker has been living with multiple sclerosis for 21 years, and last fall, her health took a sudden hit due to complications from her medication.
“Walking the runway in Chicago is enormous because I haven’t been on a runway since I got sick last fall,” explained Parker the day before she was slated to take the stage at the sold out charity show. “I plan to leave it all out there. I’m going to continue walking. Plus, I have the most bad ass gown.”
Parker hit the fashion scene in the late 1980s and has appeared in more than 350 magazines worldwide, on hundreds of runways for major designers, on billboard campaigns, and as a guest on talk shows like The View and Good Morning America. Her career, however, began by chance, as the California born bombshell had planned to pursue a path as an international translator. Fluent in French, her mind was set on relocating to Paris to work in the U.S. Embassy. As luck would have it, her career would take her to France one day, but not for the reasons the young woman had originally imagined.
“My fashion career was truly by accident,” she said. “It was not on my radar at all and was never a big dream of mine.”
It might not have been Parker’s plan, but her commanding stature (according to IMDB.com, she’s 5′ 8½”) and porcelain complexion soon caught the eye of fashion scouts. She was discovered at age 23. O
“When that happened,” she recalled with a laugh, “I remember having this discussion with my parents, and they were looking at me, thinking, ‘This isn’t what we spent six years of college education on.’”
During the early days of her career, Parker was determined to build a brand that would endure any fads or shifts in the industry. Looking beyond the glamour and designer gowns, she immersed herself in learning the business side of the fashion world and worked hard to lay a unique foundation.
“I kept my eyes and ears open, and absorbed so much,” she said. “I learned this wasn’t about me, me, me. I’m a salesperson. I’m selling what I have on, I’m selling a look, and I need to be comfortable with that unique look. This was eye opening. Beautiful people are everywhere. In this industry, you have to be an evolving chameleon. You have to have on a hundred different looks every single day.”
Parker’s career quickly took off. She became the muse for John Johnson of John Sun Silks, landed a collection for Crystal Cruise line, and became several stories tall in a high profile Ralph Lauren billboard campaign. While on set for shoots, she built a reputation for professionalism and dependability, which spread throughout the industry. Her personal brand was exploding, and all the pieces seemed to be falling into place. Then, in January 1998, she received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, or MS, an incurable disease of the central nervous system that she will battle for the rest of her life. As an independent contractor, there was no health insurance in the workplace. She looked into private options, but since the illness was categorized as a pre existing condition, she could not nd a plan that would cover treatment.
“When I got diagnosed with MS, we had to keep it a secret,” she said. “ ere were a lot of reasons why, but I knew I would never work again [if people knew]. is is not a cheap disease. Just one of my medications was $65,000 per year, and wasn’t the only drug I needed. You also have to have an MRI and a spinal tap every year. It’s daunting. at’s why I had to keep it a secret. I had to hustle for that money. It was a lesson in life. You are going to manage this. You are your own brand. You have to take care of you first.”
For 11 years, Parker kept her battle with MS a secret from everyone outside of a few family members and close friends. She went on to become the face of Olay, walked the runway for A list designers, appeared on the cover of numerous magazines, and was determined not to let illness plunge her into debt.
“I did it on my own. I know my parents would have helped, but they raised their daughter to be independent, and I was,” she said. “I’m proud of that fact.”
Although Parker knew that keeping her condition private was the right business decision for her at the time, in 2009, a close friend convinced her to share her journey with the world.
“A good friend of mine told me that my story is amazing,” she said, “and she had a friend who was a journalist the right person to document my journey.”
Parker was hesitant at first, since she had hidden her condition for more than a decade, but after thinking it over, agreed to meet with the journalist. “She spent a week with me and was there through a round of treatment,” she said. “I had a heart to heart with her, because I didn’t want this story to be pity. No ‘Woe is me.’ I wanted it to inspire…wanted my talk to be as authentic as my walk. It was. I’m so grateful for that piece.”
In the six months following the release of the article, she received thousands of cards, letters, emails, and texts, all offering encouragement, support, and gratitude.
Fellow MS patients thanked her for sharing her story. Overwhelmed with the response, Parker felt compelled to do more to help raise awareness of the disease; she wanted to support the hunt for a cure.
“Part of the fashion and beauty industry is secrets,” she said, “and I held the biggest one for years and nobody knew. Since [sharing my story], I do a lot of speaking engagements, and I never charge a speaker’s fee.
I want all proceeds to go to charity to help find a cure.” Today, she is an in demand speaker at events and fundraisers across the country.
“I’ve learned that whether it’s disease, other problems, or whatever someone is facing, you either give up or you get up,” she said. “It’s a choice. You can get up a hundred or a thousand times the chance will always be there. It’s when you stop that the chance is gone. You have to do something you’ve never done before. If it means sitting up in bed and blinking your eyes, and if that’s a good day, start with that. I’m not saying every single day is sunny. Sometimes there are stormy weeks, but it can’t rain every day.”
Parker still leaves it all on the runway every chance she gets. She wore a gown designed by Peach Carr (Project Runway Season 8 and All Stars Season 2) at the All Stars charity show in Chicago, where she received a standing ovation from the audience. This September, she will walk in New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week.
Camerone Parker about.me/camerone.parker