Note: This article appeared in Solis Magazine in late summer 2013.
At first glance, the photos that make up the modeling portfolio for Shonda Laurelee Mackey may not seem like they feature the same girl.
Each image’s style bears little resemblance to the next photo. In one, the 5’7” beauty contorts her crouching body to hide a bloody butcher knife behind her back, wearing short hair that’s colored with aqua, platinum blond, and lilac streaks and a cheeky grin. In the next, she’s a blond pinup girl wearing leopard-print leggings and gazing off-camera with bedroom eyes; in another, she’s covered in a trench coat and walking through a trail of autumn leaves as if it’s a runway. Yet as varied as these photos are, Shonda leaves her signature in each.
Besides her obvious physical traits – Shonda sports tattoos over her arms, knuckles, legs, and back – she leaves a unique imprint. In each photo she speaks to the audience with honesty, often with a sly smile, yet almost always with a meaningful vulnerability in her expression.
“I’ve done literally everything, been a chopped up zombie, I’ve [had] dreadlocks, shaved head, blue hair. I make all of it work because I’m still able to show what I see within me,” she says. For the Phoenix-based, 26-year-old model, what she sees in herself is a result of a long journey of self-discovery.
Born in Pueblo, Colorado, at a young age she learned to adapt quickly as she bounced between other Colorado cities, including Rifle, Grand Junction, and Florence, which she refers to as a “prison town.” While she was at Columbine Elementary School in Grand Junction, she says she lived the “classic Cinderella story:” she shared a home with her “evil” stepmother while her father was away working. She never knew much of anything about her mother besides her name.
By fifth grade, she moved in with her grandmother in Florence, but she says she couldn’t escape her social struggles there. “No matter what grade or what city I was in, I still got bullied and pushed away as an outcast,” says Shonda. “It didn’t help that I lived in the ‘old burned down school’ according to all my peers. I never would have any friends over to stay the night because of the ‘terrible’ things that had happened in our inherited house – they were all too scared.”
Yet she says this time wasn’t all bad. Her younger cousin Austin came to live with her and her grandmother when he was seven months old. They raised him together and Shonda calls Austin “the closest thing to a brother” she’s ever had. She even started making friends, but she says she had to leave the life she was starting to enjoy to move back to Grand Junction with her father by high school. The stress of the move took its toll on her health. Shonda says she started putting on a lot of weight at once, starting at 75 pounds to nudging a size 11 as she entered a new school.
At first, she says, she sought unhealthy ways to lose weight. She says she would starve herself and force herself to vomit. She says she constantly felt ill and frustrated that either the excess weight left behind loose, baggy skin or the weight wouldn’t come off at all. At a certain point, “I put my foot down and decided within myself that I am better than this and I can do this the right way,” she says. With the help of her father, she researched protein-based diets and workout routines and dedicated herself to being in school from 3 a.m. to 6 p.m. to use the school’s weight classes. She joined her school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and says she was inspired to start the first all-girl exhibition team, which went on to compete at the state level. Following her success, she graduated high school and, later on, dental assistant school, with steady work bartending on the side.
Nevertheless, personal setbacks began to plague her again during this time, and she calls it some of the worst years of her life. She says she suffered through several abusive relationships after high school, including one with a man who drunkenly kicked her out on the streets. She says she spent a few months homeless until a good friend kindly took her in and patiently helped her back on her feet. It didn’t take long for another personal blow to strike. Her cousin Austin, then 13 years old, was fatally hit by a vehicle while on his dirt bike.
“What I would give to trade places,” she says, reflecting on his accident. “You can go through a thousand different ‘what-ifs’ but I’ve come to realize that it does not matter the circumstances. If it’s meant to happen, it will one way or another.” Days later, her birth mother passed away due to bad health. And since then, she says she’s had two cousins pass of heart attacks this past Christmas as well as her dog only a few months ago.
These tragedies, Shonda says, have shaped her perspective. “It was then that I searched in me like never before, searching for myself strength and anything I possibly had to go on,” she says. “There is always going to be death; it’s part of life. But living each day to the fullest is the only way to succeed from such events. I hope to inspire those who know my story, those who see my work. To know that no one can tell you anything or help you in any way differently than you can find that inner strength to go on yourself.”
It was that inner strength that helped set her modeling career in motion. Beginning at the Barbizon Modeling School during her junior year of high school under her father’s encouragement, she says she learned the basics of styling, posing techniques, and the expectations of the modeling industry. After graduating there, she proved to be a self-starter by taking her own photos with a digital camera, editing them with basic software programs, and studying other models.
Armed with the experience of a few local gigs in bridal catalogues and fashion shows, she says she mustered the courage to contact some agencies in Denver. “It ruined my hope, I tell ya,” says Shonda. “I got turned down repeatedly, told I was a joke and I would never amount to anything by one of the most respected agencies, Donna Baldwin. It was the worst feeling to be denied of your dream. “I decided, forget them, I’m going above their heads straight to the source because I know I have what it takes,” she continues.
She contacted magazines directly and shot her first editorial for 303 Magazine in Aspen, Co. Though she says she was almost overwhelmed just to be shooting in the magazine, she competed for the cover of that issue against models from Mrs. Baldwin’s agency – the agency that had rejected her and told her she had no talent – and won. Inspired by this triumph, she says she has earned every job and gig by herself, from magazine covers to dinners at the Playboy Mansion. She has appeared in over two dozen magazines so far and has been in more than three dozen runway shows, live appearances, and videos.
Shonda carried that go-getter attitude into other facets of her life, including her signature tattoos. Her first tattoo, she says, was self-administered through pin and ink. This tattoo – a trail of stars starting from her toe up her side – has faded over time, but her passion for body art has not. For her first professional tattoo, she had to be crafty because her father was strictly against it. To disguise it, she chose to have the self-designed cross done on her back when she turned 18 and timed it with winter season, so that revealing spaghetti straps wouldn’t give it away. For every tattoo after that, she says she has proudly continued to create original symbols, relying only on herself and her tattoo artist for custom designs. These include images of swans, crosses, text on her knuckles, a large Cthulu-like creature on her left shoulder, and a piece she calls “Medusa” on her left leg.
“Each one of my tattoos has a story and a meaning behind it. I don’t get tattoos for the ‘look’ or to be ‘cool.’ It’s an art form that I respect and that helps me express myself and my vision,” she says. As for what that vision is, she points to a famous quote by English photographer Cecil Beaton to describe it: “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safer, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” Shonda’s career mirrors this idea through her extreme and provocative photo shoots, alternative appearance, and perseverance through her personal struggles.
Still, she reflects on the adversity she faced to find her footing in her career. “Everything that I do has been one day, one step at a time, and has been made off of pure inspiration with no guarantee of success,” she admits. “It’s a risk, with a reward that only I can see or feel or receive.”
Since she seemed so confident in her art, Solis Magazine asked Shonda for advice for other up-and-coming models. She offers these frank tips: “I’d say figure out what it is precisely you want to do in modeling,” she says. “Study models that you admire, study their poses, practice in the mirror and take your own photos. Learn how it is you will look if you do this like that or pose like this. It’s too often I hear of an aspiring model who has to take 100% direction from the photographer. It’s not their job. Unless they have something specific in mind, a desired pose or look, then it’s really up to you to keep moving.
“But, I must also mention how many frauds are out there, there are a lot of guys who get a camera and call themselves photographers just to get nude shots of girls, with promises of getting in this or that magazine. I see so many girls who would do anything for a chance at fame … it disgusts me. You can research who you’re shooting with, ask for photos, ask for a Model Mayhem portfolio, look at the past models that they have worked with. “Also, keep a backup career in mind, you will only be able to pose for so long,” she insists.
So what’s next for the inked model? Shonda says she’s moving to the west coast, where she’ll continue to model and waitress to fund her schooling for a “backup career,” noting the brevity of modeling careers. She is also venturing into music and can be seen singing in the music video “Shining in the Dark” with Andy Bowen. This isn’t her only tie to the music industry, however; she’s currently engaged to Richie Cavalera, the frontman of the metal band Incite.
Shonda says she also plans to use her modeling career to help more than herself. “I hope to get more involved with charities and different organizations that help those in need, and use my modeling and exposure to help, to change, and to improve people’s lives, the real goal of my life,” she says.
As for the art itself, she says she’ll continue to draw on her life experiences to create provocative work. “If I can make you think or feel or bring to life your feelings, your creativity and strength, or imagination, maybe even fears, then I’ve accomplished what I came to do. My photos will always live on and will always be available even after I’m gone.”