Last year Katrell Mendenhall was selected MVP in track and field at University of Maryland. This year she's running in a different kind of event, most of it in stiletto heels.
Katrell is one of 13 models who tour with the Ebony Fashion Fair, the world's oldest traveling designer show. Athleticism and fitness give her an edge in the nine-month fashion marathon of the Ebony tour. The company, which includes managers, stage hands, musicians and stylists, travels the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, averaging one show a day in 177 cities.
"I wear about 13 different outfits in the show," she says. When we do the arithmetic and multiply outfits-times-cities we come up with 2,301 costume changes. That should give anyone who has ever spent an hour in a dressing room wriggling in and out of jeans a sense of the physical demands of the job.
"I'm pretty tired most of the time, but that's to be expected with any traveling job," says Katrell. "We don't have a lot of time to see the sights. We check into a hotel, relax for a few hours and then start preparing for the show."
The Fashion Fair forte is a non-stop whirl of over-the-top clothes with credits that read like a who's who in fashion -- Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, Vivienne Westwood -- more than 80 star names.
Putting on a face to do justice to this much glamour takes serious concentration. "When we started out, getting into full makeup and hair took about two hours. With repetition we've cut about half an hour off that time," says Katrell.
There are also community obligations. The fashion show is presented as a fund-raiser for sponsoring organizations in each city. In Baltimore, it is the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which was one of the original 10 sponsors 40 years ago.
"After the show we always go out and meet the people. In many cities the sponsoring organizations will have a reception and we're expected to attend," she says.
In smaller cities and venues that have little exposure to couture, Fashion Fair participants are treated like visiting royalty. In the real world, Katrell just happens to be a lovely young woman who was dealt model height -- 5-foot-10.
"I'm definitely a fashionette, but I shop in real stores like Nordstrom and Bebe," she says. High fashion glamour tricks she had to learn. "Most of the girls couldn't walk in the stiletto heels they're showing now, so we had to practice for hours. It didn't come naturally," she says. Once learned, however, she says she likes the feel of a runway because there's a sense of movement and freedom.
She has been on the road since Sept. 19 and won't be back to her home in Rockville until May. "It's been great so far, but unless another major modeling project comes up, I'll be back at the University of Maryland for the fall semester." Although the Fashion Fair stint does not pay the megabucks made by the megamodels, she will earn enough to cover the costs of finishing her college education. "It will be a struggle for me to get back to classes in child psychology, but I wouldn't have missed this chance for the world."
The Ebony Fashion Fair comes here Sunday, Oct. 5, starting 7 p.m. at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Tickets cost $20 to $35. For more information call 410-563-8524 between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Pub Date: 10/02/97