Last night, a seventeen-year-old scholarship winner from Brooklyn shared a stage with Robert DeNiro. The swanky event was the Gordon Parks Foundation Gala, and Vera Tieno was there because she scored one of their $5,000 art scholarships. She showed up in a free Ply Apparel dress she picked out with Denise Bidot. You know Denise. That distinctly beautiful, down-to-earth model who wore the Chromat body cage. She’s the one you fantasize will wait for you at the alter, if babelicious body positive women are your thing.
The dress was crucial for Vera Tieno. She never wears dresses. But what happened was this: Over the past few days, Vera got to know Denise. 1) On Sunday, they blew $500 on a shopping spree together on some new threads Tieno never thought she’d wear, and 2) last night, a hairstylist and makeup artist from Glam Squad fawned over Vera’s face. 3) Bidot even helped Tieno get ready in a hotel room and taught her how to get her swag on for the camera. 4) Tieno took a giddy group selfie with Pharrell, which got all her high school friends on Facebook excited.
In an exceptionally heart-liquefying narrative, Vera’s style makeover marathon with Bidot all happened by circumstance. Denise’s uncle David Camacho, who works with Rush Arts clued Denise into Vera’s story at an event for the organization.
“They were talking about this amazing young lady, and that she was a little plus-size, and very much into body positivity,” Bidot told me the day after the festivities. “They wanted to see how we could sprinkle in what I bring to the table with what she was going through in her life.”
Their introduction was planned and quick, as is so often the case when you meet people you admire in real life. At that time, Bidot was about to hit a fashion show, but now she’s spent time mentoring Tieno. This makeover went beyond a PR move about finding a cool outfit that fit a teenage woman with promise. Because when you hang with Denise Bidot, it’s a life-altering feather in your cap.
“It was very uplifting,” Tieno told me. “I learned that I can look beautiful, and it’s not wrong to be who I am.”
On the phone, Tieno is eloquent, but not trying to be. She’s bursting, this girl, bursting with gratitude and some brand new mojo that can only be experienced by someone who’s finally feeling swaggy for a change. This sensation is totally different from how she used to feel about how she looked. Her mom wouldn’t even try to buy her a dress because she just knew she just wouldn’t wear it. But that’s not the case now.
Throughout Vera’s academic career, she’s been a bit of an award collector. But prior to last night’s celebrity-packed affair (Alicia Keys! Usher! Swizz Beatz!) she never got up to accept her awards because she didn’t feel comfortable.
She only wore shirts and jeans. No dresses and definitely no heels. What stopped her from trying on anything like what she wore last night was fashion’s good old allergy to body diversity. “It’s that feeling that you don’t belong, that it wasn’t for me. It’s the thinking that my body does not look like the media wants me to look, and if I don’t look like a magazine, then I thought I didn’t deserve it.”
Bidot and Tieno found the new wardrobe at Fashion to Figure where Tieno got fitted for shapewear. Luckily, outfit after outfit fit her like a dream and there was a sale so their budget went a long way. The haul: skirts, dresses, and accessories like a purse that turns into a backpack. No jeans.
“She was ready to do something different,” Bidot, the model and real-life fairy godmother, said.
“I was very skeptical. I didn’t know if it would look nice, but Denise allowed me to be open-minded,” Tieno said.
Bidot said: “She came in as a shy little woman, but the more we tried on, her confidence was going up and up.”
Tieno left Fashion to Figure with shades on and her hands full of shopping bags. “She totally embodied everything a young lady should,” Bidot said. “She was confident and unapologetic. Really secure in who she was by the end of it.”
Tieno’s most memorable lesson from Denise Bidot? “That you can rock anything you want you just need to be happy feel good in what you’re wearing not for anybody else. Denise can say, ‘I look fabulous in this,’ so I got that sense from her.”
Denise felt like Tieno’s proud older sister when Tieno showed up at hotel in her Ply dress with her hair dyed aqua blue and her cateye-lined eyes. Bidot taught Tieno how to keep her knees together when she was sitting in a dress and how to cross her legs. Tieno got to singing and dancing. “I lost it,” she said, laughing.
“She was so sassy! She was wearing heels for the first time. She had her little clutch and she was showing everyone the lining inside,” Bidot said.
About the shoes: “They’re torture for your feet, but Denise said, I just need to practice,” Tieno said laughing. “I’m not going to lie, her feet hurt at the end,” Bidot admitted.
Brushing shoulders with CFDA fashion icons, feeling beautiful, looking like her natural self with great makeup, getting onstage and accepting an award — all were things Tieno thought were out of reach, she told me. And now that she’s had this experience, her relationship with clothes and herself has changed. She’s found she does deserve to wear beautiful things, and she said she’ll feel that way forever.
“I now know it doesn’t’ matter that the fashion world has certain standards of beauty that tell you what size you are,” she said. “Denise said that is changing, and it definitely is. You’re seeing beauty in different places now.”
Her red carpet moment’s over now, and tonight is her high school’s prom. “I never thought I would go. If I went, I knew I would never wear a dress.” But this never more overtly confident girl will be attending, in the last thing she expected: a dress.