Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Modeling class gives girls esteem boost

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Lauren Williams, 7, of Clinton practices her runway walk Jan. 30 during a beginner’s modeling class for girls ages 7 to 17 at the Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex in Landover.
Sporting short dreadlocks and dressed in red flats and turquoise tunic, Lauren Williams of Clinton stood beside modeling instructor Oletha Sloan on a bright, hardwood floor.

‘‘Every young lady walks different, so I want you to be yourself,” Sloan told Lauren. ‘‘So I’m going to walk with you first. Is that all right with you?”

Lauren nodded, and after Sloan pushed up her chin, Lauren strutted onto the floor, only stopping to show off her black, beaded necklace and yellow flower hair clip before returning to her mother’s lap.

At 7, Lauren was the youngest student in Sloan’s six-week beginner’s modeling class held at Landover’s Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex.

Upon moving from her Jackson, N.C. home to Upper Marlboro in September 2007, Sloan said the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation contracted her modeling company the same month Showtime Productions, to hold beginner and advanced modeling workshops for county youth. Sloan modeled for Saks Fifth Avenue and Azen Max Fashions and Furs in the early 1970s.

Sloan has held workshops at different county schools and community centers such as Lanham’s Thomas Johnson Middle School and Bowie’s Huntington Community Center, where students learn how to walk and turn on the runway, strike poses and model their clothing.

‘‘The most difficult thing to teach them is to focus,” Sloan said. ‘‘At the beginning a lot of them [are] very, very shy. I don’t really single them out. I work with them.”

Both Sloan and her assistant, Dora Joel of Hyattsville, work with the 19 girls on modeling skills and etiquette, including how to set a table, stay away from gossip and be wholesome in appearance and personality. All classes end with a fashion show, at which students model clothes from five categories: sports, casual, dress to impress, semi-formal, and formal wear.

Sloan said she can tell many of the girls watch shows such as ‘‘America’s Next Top Model” just by looking at the bounce in their step as they practice runway walking. Sloan credits the show for teaching girls how difficult and filled with criticism the modeling business can be.

‘‘What I’m teaching is reality,” Sloan said. ‘‘You don’t have to be tall to be a model. You don’t have to be a size two or three. They’re looking for people that look like real people.”

Landover resident Cynthia Neal said she was first apprehensive about letting her 14-year-old daughter Imani Neal, who suffers from cerebral palsy, participate in the class. But Imani, who walks with a slight limp, said she is determined to become the first model with cerebral palsy.

Imani has never let her disability slow her down. In addition to Sloan’s class, Neal has taken swimming classes at the Sports and Learning Complex and participated in ballet, tap and jazz through the Palmer Park Community Center.

‘‘I was always a determined baby and I wanted to do things on my own,” Neal said. ‘‘I just had an interest in modeling. I’ve been watching ‘America’s Next Top Model’ ever since it started.”

Imani said the class is similar to the show in that both Sloan and Tyra Banks, who created ‘‘America’s Next Top Model,” put emphasis on how to present yourself and the need to pay attention to body language.

Imani said if a career in modeling does not pan out, she would pursue a career as a social worker.

‘‘I love kids and I have a lot of nieces and only one nephew, and I’m around them a lot,” Neal said.

Modeling classmate Kenya Shilling, 14, said if a career in modeling does not work out, she would enjoy doing fashion editorial work. The Landover teen said she enjoys everything about modeling, from the fashion, to the photography, to the runway strut.

Kenya’s mother, Selena Shilling, said Sloan and Joel are building her daughter’s self-esteem.

‘‘I can see more confidence in her,” Shilling said.

‘‘I was always confident,” Kenya said, smiling.

‘‘Yeah,” Selena Shilling responded. ‘‘But it’s always quiet. It’s definitely coming out.”

E-mail Natalie McGill at nmcgill@gazette.net.