Sunshine King sat at the end of a Baltimore runway Saturday evening, directing group of models as if she was Tim Gunn of "Project Runway."
"Stay in the middle, you're walking on people's feet!" she yelled as techno music throbbed and the models strutted a little too close to audience chairs.
Unlike Gunn, King sat in a wheelchair. And unlike the reality television show, King's "Notice Me Tour" fashion show wasn't about torturing designers; rather, it was about offering designers and models — many of whom have spinal cord injuries — a sense of normalcy.
It was the ninth such show King, 36, has organized in as many years, she said, out of "pure joy to see people have a vision and to support it." King produces this show and similar talent showcases to bring awareness about disabilities to the community, and also to promote a message against violence and domestic abuse.
As makeup artists worked on the models and designers sorted through outfits, King said she started Sunshine Project HELP — Healing, Educating, Loving, People — after suffering gunshot wounds a decade ago in a domestic incident.
"One bullet entered my spine, paralyzing me from here down," she said, motioning to her waist and down. After the incident, King, a dancer and model, moved to New Orleans to be with family and began using her performing arts background to mentor others with disabilities. But within months, Hurricane Katrina pushed her back to Maryland.
Now she works as a wellness practitioner and entertainment coach at the League for People with Disabilities, where the fashion show was conducted Saturday. She still dances and teaches aerobics and modern ballet – classes that help attendees prepare for the fashion show.
Sitting in a hot pink wheelchair, one of King's models, Kuyisha Thomas, 22, said, "Sunshine motivates me. She's fun. Awesome role model."
Thomas, who has cerebral palsy, had her hair and makeup done and was looking radiant with long black wavy locks and blue eye shadow. She would be modeling black and white leggings from a local boutique, Tasia's Underground Fashion.
As Thomas brought her chair down the runway during practice, King shouted "Bring it, Kuyisha!"
Thomas, who had modeled before, said, "It's all about the eyes" after she completed her practice run, earning high praise from King.
In the dressing room just before the show, Brian Bordley, a designer of TB7 boutique in Towson, readied a collection of lime-green crocodile shoes and chinchilla furs for a model. Helpers dressed some of the models and artists touched up their faces.
King gathered the group for a last meeting before the big show.
"I need face, I need presence," she said. "Pace yourself with the music. Y'all understand?" The group responded, "Yes," a bit meekly. "Y'all understand?" she asked louder.
"Yes!" they shouted back.
King's show Saturday was a volunteer effort, with proceeds going toward the next annual fashion show. She also organizes a Sports Fest and a separate open house — scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18 at the League for People with Disabilities — to showcase "wheel power" dance and fitness classes.