Camerone Parker: Turning Lemons into Limoncello and Champagne

Image courtesy of Robert Kazandijan

Lights, Camera, Action!! You have heard and seen it before, and it all seems so glamorous. And for the most part, a fashion model’s life can be glamorous. But not everything that glistens is gold. And there is always a backstory.

Supermodel Camerone Parker’s backstory was her health challenges. After many years of being a go-to model for iconic fashion brands, Camerone Parker’s fork in the road was a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis.

What initially seemed like a death sentence, Camerone Parker has turned into an opportunity to inspire, give back, and change the face of MS. And she’s never stopped working as a fashion model.

Camerone talks about her incredible journey and how she has triumphed against the odds in this Fashion Reverie interview. Can anyone say feature film, or at the very least, Lifetime Movie? Enjoy!!

Images courtesy of Anderson Group PR

Fashion Reverie: Let’s start with how you started modeling?

Camerone Parker: I started modeling by accident. I had just returned from Paris where I had completed getting my master’s degree at the Sorbonne. I happened to be shopping with my mother in Century City, Los Angeles and I kept noticing this man spying me. The guy approached me and asked me if I had ever thought about modeling. I took his business card, but I really didn’t take him seriously because modeling and fashion were not on my radar.

I finally called the guy a week later and found out that the guy who scouted me was John Casablanca of Elite Models. All this was a shock to me because I didn’t think that I looked like a model. I was a very edgy-looking kind of girl and my concentration at that time had been on academics, not my looks.

John Casablanca later sat down with me and my parents and explained everything to them. And mother really thought that John Casablanca was a pimp and was recruiting me to me a high-end call girl.

FR: Now, this was before the big phenomenon of the supermodels. So, you and your parents were not educated about fashion.

Camerone Parker: Correct. I was product of the 1980s and loved clothes. I was very trendy, but never saw myself as a model type. I think that was because I sprouted in height late in life, I grew 4.5 inches in college which put me at about 5`8.5, still on the short side for a model. But I had long legs and looked taller.

Anyway, John Casablanca had text shots done for me and sent me immediately to Europe. While I was in Europe I really immersed myself in the fashion industry. I learned the craft of modeling and began to learn and understand fabrics and how certain fabrics moved when you walked on the runway.

If I was on a set, I would learn everyone’s name so I could address them directly. I would send out thank you notes to everyone on a shoot or at a runway show. I was never late, always at least 15 minutes early. And I left any emotional drama at the door. I keep my ears and eyes opened and was always learning. All these things served me well.

When I left Elite Models and moved over to Ford Models, my bookers really pushed me over to the Asian and Middle East markets. At the time, I was a commodity because I have very fair skin and big blue eyes and became quite successful in those markets. I made a mark for myself as one of Ford Agency’s first classic models.

Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

FR: Could you explain what the classic model category is?

Camerone Parker: Classic model refers to an age demographic. It is not about a look or certain features. Classic models are usually 40 and up.

The Ford Agency, Wilhelmina, and a few other modeling agencies in Europe were noticing in the mid-90s that there was a market for more seasoned, older models. Now, you couldn’t talk about your age at that time, but designers and fashion industry professionals knew that you were using an older model.

FR: Why did you leave Elite and go to the Ford Agency?

Camerone Parker: Toward the end of my time at Elite, I was the oldest model on the roster and John Casablanca didn’t have any work for me. So, I left and there were no hard feelings. My intention when I left was to use my education—I did have a master’s degree from the Sorbonne. I had had a successful modeling career in my 20s; I had just aged out. However, Katie Ford contacted me and wanted me to sign on to the classic division at the Ford Agency, and so I moved over to the Ford Agency.

In the beginning there were just a few classic models at the Ford Agency, and at that time when a classic model was put in a runway show, they were always in the middle of the line-up. Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic helped expand classic models’ opportunities by being some of the first fashion brands to use us in national and global campaigns.

FR: Could you talk about some of the iconic brands you worked for?

Camerone Parker: I had a big billboard for Ralph Lauren Polo. I also worked with Giorgio Armani a lot. My work with Armani was pushing the boundaries of gender fluidity because I was in a man’s suit for this black and white sepia ad campaign. I have also walked for Badgley Mischka, Vera Wang, Armani, and so many other brands.

Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

FR: Who were some of your favorite fashion designers/brands to work for, and why?

Camerone Parker: If a model is chosen as a muse for a designer that is the highlight of one’s career. And I have been lucky enough to be a muse to three designers.

When you are muse to a designer/brand, you are the inspiration for the collections. The designer could design an entire collection with you in mind. There is no greater honor than inspiring a designer’s collection. All three designers where I have worked as their muse are so different in point of view and aesthetic.

I have served as muse to Johnsun Silks. They created beautiful hand-painted silks and a design line for Crystal Cruises. I have also been a muse for Bert Keeterhe designed for Halston and he appeared on “Project Runway.” And lastly, there is Peach Carr who was also on “Project Runway.” I closed her show on “Project Runway.”

FR: Now, you were diagnosed with relapse-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS) in 1998. Could you talk a little about that?

Camerone Parker: MY RRMS diagnosis happened in an interesting way. I was on an assignment in Los Angeles and within the first hours of the shoot everything was shut down because everyone got profoundly sick. We had all contracted some form of meningitis.

I was in the hospital for a few weeks, and I had to have injections in my spinal cord, which is extremely painful. The neurologist that was assigned to my case noticed some strange things showing up and after a range of test, my doctor informed me that I had multiple sclerosis (MS). I had been experiencing lots of symptoms in the past, but I ignored the symptoms of fatigue, numbness in my feet, and other symptoms which I contributed to all the hard work of being an in-demand model.

My doctor informed me that MS is a chronic condition and that the cost of the drugs that he was prescribing was going to run about $65,000 a year. I was devastated because like most fashion models, I had no health insurance. For the most part, fashion models are independent contractors.

At the time, I felt I had been given a death sentence. I knew that if the fashion industry knew I had MS, no one would hire me because with MS I was a huge health risk.

I told my family all that was going on and they were incredibly supportive. I met with my neurologist again and he came up with a plan for me. Since I had RRMS, the goal was to keep me as in a remission state as much as possible. And I knew I was going to have keep modeling so I could afford my treatment.

Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

FR: Could you explain RRMS and how it is different from some other forms of MS?

Camerone Parker: There are three primary forms of MS which are relapsed remitting, secondary progressive, and primary progressive. RRMS waxes and wanes and you don’t know when you are going to come out of remission or relapse. One day I am able to walk in heels and feel and the next day I can hardly move. There is no explanation why that happens with RRMS.

When people look at me, they don’t think I have MS because I am not walking with a cane or look disabled. But tell me, what does MS look like? However, I have had four surgeries on my eyes because I have MS-related cataract. Most people don’t know that after a red-carpet event it could take me four hours to get out of my gown or I need assistance to do that.

FR: How did this affect your modeling career?

Camerone Parker: All in all, I had to keep my MS diagnosis a big secret. I think I had one of the biggest secrets in the fashion industry. My doctor had arranged for me to have my intravenous MS treatment in the US cities that I was working in. I had to sneak out of hotels late at night and go to hospitals and get this infusion treatment without anyone seeing me. I got good at this clandestine lifestyle. A few times I almost got caught by the crew I was working with. (They thought I was sneaking out for a sexual rendezvous.)

And remember, I had to keep working to be able to afford treatment. I had to be very careful about the kinds of modeling jobs I accepted. And this is where having a good education came into play. I had to negotiate fees so that I got top dollar for the work I was doing. My Ralph Lauren ad and Armani ad paid for a lot of my treatment because the residual payback was very good. Both of those campaigns ran for over two years.

I learned to brand myself so that I could garner better jobs and make more money. The good thing is that I was very fortunate and didn’t have borrow any money from my parents to pay for my lifestyle or my medical expenses. My medical care comes to over six figures.

Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

FR: Right after NYFW spring 2020 season, you became critically ill. Could you talk about that?

Camerone Parker: I had come to New York City and made appearances at some fashion shows and very soon had a widow maker’s heart attack. That first heart attack was followed four weeks later with another heart attack. Two out of five women in the US with MS will die from a heart attack.

FR: How is your health now?

Camerone Parker: I was well enough to go the Screen Actors Guild Awards this season. However, I have been in quarantine since March 4 because of the COVID-19 virus. My doctors have been in contact with me 24/7 and I am sequestered in my Sedona, CA home with my husband. My husband is a surgeon and he is not seeing patients for fear of bringing the COVID-19 virus home to me.

Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

I have these terrific masks that have an urban street vibe from fashion designer Victor Herrera. I do have a sense of gratitude and I make gratitude notes every day and that keeps me sane. I will never stop researching and working for others. My team is still getting paid in spite of the COVID-19 lockdown.

FR: Let’s talk about your philanthropy and fundraising.

My faith has seen me through this, and I promised God that if he would help me get through this disease I would give back to others in need. I do a lot of public speaking and I donate all speaker fees to MS organizations. If there is an MS fundraiser, I don’t charge a fee and I pay for my own travel and team’s expenses. That way, the charity gets all the money. In the last seven events that I was involved in, I have raised 1.1 million dollars.

I want to change the way that people look at MS. When I was first diagnosed with RRMS there were only four drug treatments, now there are 17. I have been talking with my manager and PR team about changing what MS looks like. I believe that you, “give up or get up.” And I am up every day.

FR: You are a fighter and a triumphant survivor, what would you want readers to learn from your experiences?

Camerone Parker: My advice is to never, ever give up. You may be having the hardest crawl of your life; however, you must crawl before you get up. Everybody experiences rainclouds, but behind the rainclouds are sunbeams.

I would also advise to surround yourself with positive people. Remember, as long as you try, there is a big possibility that your circumstances will change. When you don’t try, there is no opportunity.

All image courtesy of Robert Kazandijan

FR: What’s next for you?  

Camerone Parker: What’s next for anyone now? I do have a couple of exciting, unique projects coming up. I have several speaking engagements this fall, if they are not cancelled. I am being presented with the Richard Pryor Humanitarian Award at Walk Against MS in the fall. And I am working on my book. The working title is “The Model Patient.”

—William S. Gooch

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