Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak withMary Alice Stephenson and Nigel Barker about their experience helping put on a full-day event for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The event, titled Make-A-Wish Photo Shoot with Mary Alice Stephenson, saw four teens with life-threatening illnesses get a day full of supermodel treatments. Between them, Stephenson and Barker have almost 20 years of involvement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Barker is a world-renowned fashion photographer whose work has appeared in GQ, Lucky, Cover, Town & Country and Seventeen but he is most famous for staring as a judge on "America’s Next Top Model." He has been involved work with several charities including The Humane Society of the United States, Edeyoand the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. He is currently a celebrity ambassador for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Many may know celebrity stylist Stephenson as a staple of the fashion industry. She is also an active member of the Make-A-Wish foundation for over 10 years and is currently their fashion ambassador.
Introduction by Jesse Strauch
Interviews conducted by Giacinta Pace, NBC News
Mary Alice Stephenson
Q. How did you get involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation?
Stephenson: Gosh, it has to be over 10 years ago. I was the fashion director of Marie Claire at the time and I was in an airport in Arizona. I was just sitting at the gate when the airport just filled up with over 200 cheerleaders, all ages. I thought, this is just an incredible moment, to put this all together. I thought, what is going on?
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So I went to go watch and they formed a tunnel from the beginning of the airport all the way to the gate and they started putting their pompoms together cheering "Karen, Karen, Karen." And through this tunnel this 7-year-old girl with not a stitch of hair and the biggest smile on her face I had ever seen. It was Make-A-Wish Foundation and her wish was to go to cheerleading camp. I knew at that moment that I had the ability to create things in my industry that could make a difference in people’s lives for Make-A-Wish. It was just like a gut response, you need to do this. So I reached out to Make-A-Wish and immediately started working together.
And now 10 years later and dozens of dozens of fashion wishes later, I’m their fashion ambassador. It has been my soul candy and to me, after these experiences, fashion doesn’t look good unless it does good. For me it makes all the materialistic, superficialness that can come with this industry vanish. I see these teenagers, both men and women, get these wishes and see how it rejuvenates them, how powerful it is for them to see how it gives them strength to battle their life-threatening illnesses. And to see how my industry rallies — when I call they come. They donate their time, their products, they are really here for support.
These are kids who battle life-threatening medical conditions and Make-A-Wish granted over 13,000 wishes this past year in the United States. That’s a wish every 40 minutes and dozens and dozens are fashion-related. Usually every fashion week I have someone sitting next to me because that’s a big wish. We really have so many requests that I usually end up doing four at a time. Many of these "wish" teens are a huge part of my life now. They’ll email me or Facebook me about wearing the dresses they receive during the wish.
Q. Do they become friends when they participate as a group?
Stephenson: Yeah, they bond together. The girls that are more comfortable with it help the girls that are a little more shy. These are my favorite days, they make it all worthwhile for me and I like fashion that is meaningful. For me, I couldn’t stay in this industry without doing this.
Q: What does this mean to you being here today?
Barker: I’ve been granting wishes for the Make-A-Wish foundation for almost eight years. Whenever I’m called I immediately do whatever I can. It’s just an amazing way to give back and help these young girls who have gone through a lot of stress, a lot of hardship in their lives. Oftentimes they spend most of their lives in hospitals recovering form operations and not have much to look forward. If you start off your life in such a difficult way it’s hard to have hope; it’s hard to think what’s life about and to feel any encouragement. So to give them a day like today is to give them hope again and to make them realize life isn’t all about pain.
It’s fabulous for the fashion industry to rally around, there are just so many people that give and donate. Today isn’t just one person here. There are so many people here and we require everyone's help to make this happen. It’s a wonderful sign of solidarity when the fashion industry comes together. On a personal level I’ve made many friends through the Make-A-Wish Foundation including the girls whom I photographed.
One of the girls, Nicole Muller, who I photographed eight years ago, is actually a contributor on my website. I photographed her for my book and I dedicated a whole chapter to the Make-A-Wish Foundation because it was working with the foundation that helped me discover what the word "beauty" really means. I work in the fashion business and I deal with models and celebrities who are potentially more conventionally pretty and it was with the Make-A-Wish Foundation that this young girl Nicole who faced me aged 14 years old with a scar on her arm from several operations. I thought to myself, she should turn around and show her other arm but she was firm and said "No, I want to stand this way." (She) just looked at me with piercing eyes as if to say, "This is who I am. This is my story. This is what makes me beautiful."Fashion veterans fulfill wishes of teens with life-threatening illnesses
The power of that girl and the power of that image and the strength it took for her to do that on my set was just one of those “hooray” moments for me where I just stood back and said, "Wow, she’s so beautiful and powerful" and I think that every time I work with Make-A-Wish Foundation. I see these little girls and the courage it takes to wish for this wish and to come up here and face the camera. It’s just incredible all around.
Q. You’re involved in a lot of different charities. What drives you to be so involved to help people? Why do you do it?
Barker: For me it’s just very personal. If I see a problem I’m the sort of person who goes head-first into it. I like to be a problem solver, help fix things, a troubleshooter of sorts even with in my own business. I have two children of my own as well and I want to be a role model for them. Even on a purely selfish level I feel more complete, whole when I give.
It’s like that classic thing. You give a present away at Christmas and you see the child opening it and you're excitedly watching them unwrap that present. That moment is much more exciting than when someone gives you a present. And I can’t ask for more than that smile.
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