Dressing celebrities has improved Zoey Washington's own body image.
"Working with celebrities — everyone thinks it's going to be so much fun, and obviously it is, but what you realize really quickly [is] that celebrities are just like us," said Washington, a 33-year-old Baltimore native who works as a contributing fashion editor for People Style Watch and Essence as well as a celebrity wardrobe stylist. She has also done stints with Elle and Vogue magazines.
"They have real body issues, real insecurities. It taught me to appreciate my own body. If someone ... has a perfect body — by most accounts — and they still have insecurities, then I'm not doing too bad."
Through Washington's work, she has seen celebrities at their most vulnerable. Take two starlets Washington dressed early in her career for a spread for a top fashion magazine.
One actress, Washington recalled, had a "whatever, I don't care" attitude.
"She loved her body and knew her worth. She was very self-possessed," Washington said.
The other actress spent most of the shoot crying.
"The one thing that stood out to me was how sad she was," Washington said. "She had all these beautiful gowns to chose from. But she was still bogged down by insecurities and fear of judgment. In my opinion, she was a regulation size 2."
Whether it be wrestling with a leading lady's insecurities or matching the right designer wear with a celebrity's sense of style, wardrobe stylists have to master a complicated juggling act.
The connections these stylists have with fashion designers — and their ability to craft a winning look for their clients — have made them hot commodities for everything from a paparazzi-swarmed event to a magazine spread.
Lupita Nyong'o owed much of her red-carpet success in 2014 to stylist Micaela Erlanger. And stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Anne Hathaway, Will Smith and Zoe Saldana have made the careers of Rachel Zoe, Brad Goreski, Phillip Bloch and June Ambrose.
"In the '90s, people didn't really know that celebrity styling existed," Washington said. "And then it evolved into stylists being big names themselves and them building a brand for themselves. Now it's seen as a close relationship between celebrities and stylists. It's a co-branding."
Publications and celebrities from the worlds of film, TV and music have sought out Washington for shoots and appearances.
Erika Perry, the former creative director at Essence, has worked with Washington since 2007.
"Zoey has exquisite taste. She's always on top of the trends, and her style is ladylike chic," Perry said. "It's sophisticated with an edge. She's really genuine and sweet and humble. She has her finger on the pulse of what's next."
As creative director, Perry brought Washington in because of her professionalism and abilities as a stylist. Essence continues to work with her.
"She's a joy to work with," said Perry, who is a consultant in New York City. "Zoey became a part of the family. You keep those relationships going. She's definitely one of those people.
"She's spunky, full of energy and a great spirit."
Pamela Edwards Christiani, beauty and style director at Essence, echoed Perry's sentiments.
"Zoey brings a very strong fashion sensibility, but there is a sense of whimsy to it," said Christiani, who has worked with Washington since 2006. "She's really good at pairing designers with the subject matter and talent. She just gets it. She goes that extra step. She has a great eye. I can always trust her market work and choices."
During a shoot, Washington said, a variety of moving parts are involved.
"It takes a whole team of people to get celebrities looking that effortless," Washington said. "There is a lot of thought that goes into every image that you see in magazines. Every image really represents hours of prep, emails, phone calls and meetings. Every image represents weeks' worth of work."
Dressing celebrities for events or photo shoots isn't as simple as telling them what to wear.
"At the end of the day, you can't force someone to wear something they don't like — especially a celebrity," Washington said. "Some celebrities do have preferences. They have personalities. Their personalities are taken into account."
As red-carpet season hits its peak — the Oscars are Sunday — we asked Washington to give some behind-the-scene wardrobe styling tips.
Washington styled the "Scream Queens" and "Grease: Live" star for Essence's cover in January 2015. Palmer wore an Oscar de la Renta organza bodice, princess cut dress adorned with black feather and beading embellishments.
"She was so funny and very energetic," Washington said. "Keke is like a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. She was running in her heels and jumping on set."
Palmer is slim, which made fitting her easy, according to Washington.
"She has a more athletic build and usually dresses in extremes. ... She either wears very body-conscious clothes or more relaxed sweats," Washington said. "The key to that shoot was putting her in runway looks that were more ladylike and demure because her natural energy made everything look youthful."
TIP: If you have an athletic build, don't be afraid to go for a more feminine look, Washington said. "I would suggest fuller skirts and more structured silhouette because they create the shape you want for your body," she said.
Zoey Washington styled the "Scandal" star for Essence's October 2015 cover. She also styled her for an Entertainment Weekly spread in September 2015. Washington wore a Marc Jacobs camo-print sequin gown for Essence and a black leather bodice top and a black A-line mini skirt for Entertainment Weekly.
"Kerry is very tiny and a total fashion plate, so it was so much fun to dress her," Washington said. "She has very strong ideas about how she wants to look, so I wanted each choice to reflect her sense of personal style as well as the creative direction of the shoot."
TIP: If you are petite like Kerry, take a more avant-garde approach to evening wear, Washington said. "Evening looks don't always have to be ball gowns and overtly sexy. Go for traditional evening details like sequins or all over beading, but do them in day-time silhouette like a T-shirt or shirtdress. Glamour is just as much about being comfortable in your skin as it is about looking red carpet ready."
Portia de Rossi
Washington styled the "Scandal" actress — and Ellen DeGeneres' wife — for the Entertainment Weekly spread in September 2015. De Rossi wore a white, sheer paneled v-neck pleated tulle and organza dress by Jason Wu.
De Rossi is tall and slender. "You can take more risks when you are long and lean like a model," Washington said. "You can have all the bells and whistles with someone with Portia's body type."
It didn't hurt that de Rossi also has her own style.
"I love her overall look and style," she said. "Her style is polished. She's very contemporary with a little bit of an edge. She's very elevated and elegant. ... It's very youthful."
Bonus: De Rossi was genuinely nice. "It was not just for show or for set or because people were watching," Washington said.
TIP: Fabric is your friend if you are built like a runway model: "Layering and draping can add body and curves to a thin frame," Washington said. "[De Rossi] would look great in Lanvin because it hits her in all the right places."
Washington styled the singer/actor for the August cover of Essence in 2008 and for an inside feature for Essence in 2009. Usher wore a cream fisherman-knit cashmere sweater and corduroy pants by Ralph Lauren. His then-infant son was also wearing head-to-toe Ralph Lauren.
"I can't even describe how good this man smelled," Washington said with a laugh. "Usher knows how he wants to look at all times, so in that regard he was one of the easiest celebs to style. He is so dapper, but he really knows how to incorporate younger street style without looking casual or silly. He just reads luxury to me."
TIP: For men, it can be difficult to find a balance between business and personal style, according to Washington.
"I would recommend that you invest in quality, timeless staples [cashmere sweaters, coats, dark denim and Alden boots] and bring the youthful flair by adding personal T's and an investment watch," she said.
Washington styled the singer/actresses at least four times from 2007 to 2009. One of these occasions was for the September 2007 cover of Essence. Scott wore a burgundy velvet off the shoulder gown by Igigi.
"She is curvy, gorgeous, and she really embraces her style," Washington said. "I love her confidence and general demeanor. I toured with her when she launched a line of plus-sized bras, and she was so caring to everyone. Her style is eclectic with a dash of glam."
TIP: "The best way to show off a curvy body is to 1,000 percent invest in great undergarments," Washington said. "Get fitted for a proper bra and spend the money on ones that fit. An ill-fitting bra can add weight and confusion to your midsection. Once you master the bra, your whole look just falls into place."