Today Lanvin unveiled their fall campaign featuring real people as models, ranging in age from 18 to 80. We were quite taken by the campaign image featuring the most senior model--a beautiful women with her hair pulled back tight, a severe look on her face, wearing an emerald green peplum number. She looked familiar, but we couldn't place her at first. After some scrounging we realized that, duh, she's one of Ari Seth Cohen's Advanced Style icons, Jacquie "Tajah" Murdock (she's featured on Ari's site, his book, and in his upcoming doc) and she'll be 82 next week. "Tajah" is her dance name. We tracked her down at home and hopped on the phone to chat with this most fascinating and inspiring woman about her background as an Apollo Theater dancer and how she wound up as the face of Lanvin. Fashionista: So how did this campaign come about? Jacquie "Tajah" Murdock: I was a dancer at the Apollo theater at the age of 17. [A few years ago] I was walking down by Union Square, because I live in the Village, and a young man stopped me by the name of Ari Cohen and said 'Miss, can I take your picture?' This happens to me quite often, and I said, 'For what?' He said he had this website called Advanced Style for elders who are stylish. The jacket I had on was from Paris, and I threw my hands in the air and said 'Ta-da!' Then he called me and told me that [Lanvin] was interviewing people for a campaign. They saw that I went on the Today Show with a few of the ladies [from Advanced Style]. So I went to the interview. The next day I had a call from Ari Cohen that they accepted me. [They said] I would be on a photo shoot for the campaign, which I know very little about.
Have you seen it? Not yet.
Oh. Well, you look fantastic. It was supposed to come out in the fall as far as I knew, and once I signed a release they could do whatever they wanted to do with it. I am pretty active at my age. I make sure that I perform sometimes still.
You still dance? Yeah, I was honored at the Apollo with the original dancers. Of course, there were only three or four of them left because they were in their 90s. They were a generation ahead of me. They had to fill it out, so they brought in the next generation of dancers.
How did you get started as a dancer? Both my parents came to this country in 1920 and settled in Harlem. My parents did not want me to dance because there were more opportunities to make a living as a secretary. But there were no secretaries of color at that time--in the 1940s. I didn't have guidance. A young man taught me how to dance in his mother's living room. We would dance at all the ballrooms, the Audobon, the Savoy. Harlem had a lot of ballrooms and a lot of theaters at that time. [But then] he let me down when he said he was going to go to Europe on tour. Here I was left with no one. [...] I was young and innocent with no direction and no one to guide me. I didn't know what to do. I wasn't going to run away from home. I wanted to leave and go to Paris, but I was the youngest of three girls and I was daddy's little girl. So, I just continued [with dance].
What did you do after dance? When my marriage broke up and I had two children, I went to work at NYU in the mathematics building and they had tuition remission. I worked from 9-5 and went to school from 6-10 and I earned three degrees from NYU and I made the Dean's List.
Did you ever model? From a very young age, I wanted to model [and] to go to Paris. The opportunity was not there at my time for women of color. I've always loved style and fashion. I used to go to the movies and see these movie stars in the 30s and 40s. They were so elegant. You know, I'm strictly high fashion. I think a person should dress according to their lifestyle. If I had gone to law school, then I would probably dress more conservative, but I mostly dress very glamorous. Like Saturday, I was walking down 3rd street and two young ladies stopped me. They said 'We loved you on the blog!' I said, 'All I did was take a bath and then I threw on a dress.' It was very plain, but it was elegant. Spaghetti straps and that was it--with a pair of flip flops. I have my own style.
How would you describe your style? I would say it's more high fashion. People stop me all the time asking if they can take my picture. My grandson says I should make a t-shirt that says, 'Don't ask, just take the picture.' Anyway, they did not divulge to much about the campaign, but to me, it was a great honor because I had always wanted to go to Paris when I was 18 years old.
What was the process like of making the campaign? Did you meet the designer, Alber Elbaz? [The crew] said, 'Oh, you kept your figure didn't you!' I've always been slim. I've never weighed more than 120. I'm 5'9. I thought I was 5'10--but I'm 5'9. [...] Alber Elbaz kept kissing me and saying 'I love you, I love you, I love you!' He came to say goodbye to me and said, 'Imagine if I never met you.' He said, 'what's next?' I said, 'Paris, that's what's next!' We'll see.
How was the shoot? Did you like the dress you wore? Well at first, they brought a short dress--strapless with a big great white bow. I looked at it and thought it would have been more appropriate for a younger woman--a 19 or 20-year-old girl. The two ladies that were helping me step into it said 'This is too small. We can't pull up the zipper.' It must have been a size zero, and I was so happy. Then they brought the original dress, and it was just me. It had a neck. The green long sleeves, skirt below the knee, with a peplum in the front. It's so unusual because I spoke to them when they interviewed me about a peplum, and I didn't event know that a peplum was in this year! My mother sent me a Singer sewing machine when I was 9 or 10 and I made my first little dress at 10. But then when I was 13, she had this material from Haiti, this white eyelet, and my mother had her friend, a dressmaker, make a two-piece. The top part had a sweetheart neckline with lace, and in the back was a peplum! My mother used to starch and iron it, and it would shoot out. I thought I was the cat's meow. I was 13 years old. I never forgot that dress. I was thinking of copying it and having it done all over again. When [Elbaz] brought this dress I said, 'My, chercher la femme!' He laughed because it was perfect for me. Just perfect.
Did you get to keep it? No.
I think they should send you one. You're very serious in the photo... You know why? I asked them, 'Should I smile?' And they didn't tell me what to do. The young lady that put my hair up in a French knot, she took some spray and started spraying it all around me, and I had allergies. Every time they took a photo, we had to get tissues because my eyes were running. I don't even use hair spray. It affected my sinuses. In fact, I had lost my voice that night. That was an embarrassment for me. I didn't know, I figured, when you see top models they aren't grinning and smiling unless they are on the runway, so I just kept a serious look. They said, 'You look like you're mad,' but I wasn't, I was just serious. They didn't instruct me to smile or turn left or turn right. That was it.
So how does it feel to have landed a major high fashion campaign? Long time coming.
Indeed. Click through to watch Jacquie in action on Advanced Style.