Model, activist, musician, writer, stylist, casting director, set designer and runway coach—Debra Shaw is a woman who wears many hats, quite literally, having worked first and foremost as a model for more than 25 years. Her dramatic catwalk performances for labels such as Dior, Alexander McQueen, Versace, Givenchy, Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler catapulted her into a league of her own. Currently living between Paris and New York City, Shaw recently touched down in Los Angeles to pose for our cover story. Just before jetting off to Paris Fashion Week, she spoke to us about her illustrious career, causes that she holds dear and what’s in her makeup bag.
Are there any key moments you would say propelled you to the top of the industry?
I was encouraged by the designers to freely express myself. This opportunity to be a part of a huge production—and to express my interpretation of the designer’s theme—felt incredible. Whenever I perform a character, I imagine myself being in a Broadway play production. I cherish these precious moments.
What advice would you give to aspiring models?
Keep your mind and body healthy. It helps enormously in any business that can sometimes be unpredictable. Most of all, always do your best, and don’t take anything personally—quoting two of the agreements I love and practice from Don Miguel Ruiz’s book “The Four Agreements.”
You’ve spoken out about the lack of diversity in the industry, on and off the runway. What more can be done to help progress long- term change?
We need to see people of color in positions such as creative directors leading huge brands, producers, set designers, camera assistants, photographers, casting directors, glam teams, editors, managers and press officers. I have been following #intheblk for a while, and I am now familiar with the #ChangeFashion mission.
Has anything improved in terms of the need for Black hair stylists, which you’ve also mentioned in the past?
Improvement is needed. On the jobs I’ve done over the last 25 years, I have seen a few Black hair stylists. The first time I worked with a leading Black hair stylist, Jawara, was in 2018. My eyes lit up when I saw him. He was gentle, kind, in control, elegant and powerful. It was so emotional to me—I internally cried. Thereafter, I started seeing a few more leading stylists. I still get emotional about it, because I am literally witnessing these changes happening within the industry.
How do you stay in top shape for your job?
Currently I take Pure Barre classes, I ride a bike in the park and I consciously try to walk 10,000 steps each day.
I hear that you also sing; you have mentioned Billie Holiday as an inspiration. Any musical aspirations?
Yes, I enjoy singing, and I grew up in a musical family. Many incredible people have inspired me with my singing, including my mother and my eldest sister—both choir directors. When our family gathers, we often sing together, and I cherish these moments. While in Paris, I have studied vocal techniques with two exceptional voice coaches: Karen Nimereala and Michele Hendricks. I also had the opportunity to work with a brilliant pianist, composer and musical director Alessandro Sgobbio. We co-created a band and were special guests at the famous Jazz Cafe in London. We have also performed for the blind and visually impaired patients at the Paris hospital—such an awesome experience.
You are an activist for many causes. What issues are close to your heart?
I have supported several HIV/AIDS charities in bringing awareness for more than 20 years. I believe that these charities have helped and contributed to new achievements in treatment and prevention.
What’s always in your cosmetic bag?
My bag of tricks includes Pat McGrath powders, mascara and brushes; Bobbi Brown foundations and concealers; lipsticks from Shiseido, Gucci, Chanel, NARS and Dior; Armani blush and Sephora brushes.
I hear that you like to write. Are you working on a book about your experiences?
Yes, I am writing a book and working on a script. I am excited to share my personal journey and many incredible experiences with the world. Stay tuned.
Photographer: Thomas Whiteside/ Eiger Agency
Photo Assistants: Reto Sterchi, Steve Yang
Stylist: Tess Herbert/ Jones Management
Styling Assistant: Josephine Chumley
Producer: Helena Martel Seward
Hair: Rob Talty/ Forward Artists
Makeup: Sandy Ganzer/ Forward Artists
Nail Technician: Naoko Saita/ Opus Beauty
Model: Debra Shaw/ Marilyn NY