Deepak Chopra tells us, “There’s always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
For Iris Olivia, the door led to a catwalk – and she’s still ripping runways, from North Carolina to New York.
Her mom, Renee McCoy, formerly of WRAL-TV, remembers the moment well. It was the mid-’90s, before she exited television news, and she had modestly accepted an invitation to walk the runway in a Celebrity Mother/Daughter fashion show at that year’s Women’s Empowerment Conference.
“Despite my career, I’m shy,” McCoy said. “I don’t like the spotlight.”
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Holding hands with Iris, then 5, McCoy made it down the runway and back. Just as she exhaled relief, though, “Iris breaks from my hand and makes a solo walk,” McCoy said. “I’m like, ‘Who are you?’
“I knew then she enjoyed the stage. She enjoyed the energy she gets from the audience.”
Now 21, Iris Olivia is reaching celebrity status herself.
She recently graduated from The Art Institute of New York City with a degree in fashion merchandising and marketing. Later this month, she begins classes at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, where business meets fashion, off New York’s Fifth Avenue.
And, she’ll work.
In October, Iris Olivia landed Lancôme’s Get the Look Holiday Package 2012, a tutorial that went online at lancomeusa.com at Christmas. “I felt so excited to be there,” she said. “I’m a Lancôme Girl!”
Now, she’s expecting her face to show up in stores in the next few months on a package for Model Model Hair Company.
“The industry, so far, is much different than I thought it was when I was in North Carolina,” Iris said. “It’s a serious reality check.
“But I’ve learned so much being down here,” she said. “I could not have gone to New York to start my career without getting my feet wet here. All the years it took for me to get to where I am now, were necessary.
“I love New York, but my heart is always going to be in North Carolina.”
As a teen, Iris modeled in shows such as the Mable Dunn Silk Fashion Show and with N.C. State’s collegiate models.
“By the time she was 16,” McCoy said, “she started walking the walk and talking the talk. She did what she thought would get her on that runway.”
Her senior year at Enloe High, she got a big break: Iris Olivia was invited to walk in BET’s 2010 Rip the Runway. She was handpicked by Tracy Reese, who counts first lady Michelle Obama as a client, for BET’s 2012 Rip the Runway.
It isn’t all fun and fame, though. Iris recalls one audition where she stood in line for four hours with about 2,000 girls. She was one of 30 final-calls.
“To actually be in the room with people I knew were going to make it is exciting and hyped,” Iris said. “You feel the energy of everybody else’s emotions within your own emotions. It boosts you up.”
After high school graduation, Iris went to Florida A&M University, a family alma mater. Before long, though, she left school for another big break: the final round of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model.
When she wasn’t selected for ANTM, Iris finished the school year at The Art Institute of Raleigh/Durham, answering called to model in a Guess Fashion Show in Charlotte and at the Southern Women’s Conference at the State Fairgrounds.
Since she’s been in New York, Iris Olivia has modeled in Mercedes Benz Fashion Week showcasing the Whitney Houston Dream Collection by Michael B and in an Emerge fashion show honoring Vogue magazine and ANTM contributor Andre Leon Talley. She has also walked in fashion weeks for designers from Africa, Baltimore and Charlotte; modeled a bridal collection of Project Runway’s Season 5 winner Leanne Marshall; and posed for top model Selita Ebanks’ swimsuit catalogue.
While McCoy rejects any notion she’s a “stage mom,” she readily wears the “helicopter mom” jacket, attending auditions, asking questions, setting guidelines and standing by.
“It’s been mostly about just supporting her desires,” said McCoy, who is single. “But, even now, I’m really concerned about her missing class for a shoot or for a casting.”
No worries, mom, Iris notes. Her high school GPA: 3.7. In college: the Dean’s List and 3.8, with honors.
With it all – and the grits and Texas Pete that McCoy sends to New York – Iris’ decision to spend her 21st birthday at Brookland Tabernacle Church, friends in tow, proves to McCoy her commitment to stay grounded as she navigates a new city, school and an industry as notorious for its ugliness as it is for its beauty.
“I’ve really honed in on who I am and what I believe,” Iris said. “The industry can get really twisted really quickly.
“I’ve kept headstrong about what I need to do to get what I want,” she said. “I know it’s going to happen.”