Former supermodel tells story of homelessness to revival

Posted 1/22/23

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. (AP) — From selling juice at her local market in Jamaica at 11 years old to walking London Fashion Week with no modeling background, one thing has held true throughout Nadine …

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Former supermodel tells story of homelessness to revival

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DELRAY BEACH, Fla. (AP) — From selling juice at her local market in Jamaica at 11 years old to walking London Fashion Week with no modeling background, one thing has held true throughout Nadine Willis’ life. She is a people person.

Her customers today at Publix would agree. Willis, who works there as a cashier, always has one response when they ask her how she’s doing.

“I’m alive,” she tells them. “Whatever other problem I’ve got, I’ll work it out.”

It’s a mentality she’s had for decades, now. And it’s what’s helped her escape some of the troubles she’s faced, such as homelessness for months at a time.

But this past Christmas, Willis had a home of her own for the first time since 2019.

With help from local nonprofit The Lord’s Place, Willis, 44, finally could celebrate the holidays with her daughters in their own space. Previously, they’d been living at the organization’s family campus, which houses about 37 families, between a Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded program and a privately-funded one.

Willis found The Lord’s Place in January 2021. But the road that eventually led to it started some 20 years ago.

26 brothers and sisters — just on her father’s side

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Willis was one of 32. She had 26 brothers and sisters just on her father’s side.

When she was 3, her mother left her in the care of her father and stepmother, along with all of her other siblings. But her father was mentally and physically abusive, and an aunt who lived overseas in the United States agreed to adopt her, she said.

“No matter what you do, it was never enough,” Willis said, describing her upbringing under her father’s roof. “It was rough.”

The aunt, her mother’s sister, suffered a stroke halfway through the adoption process and the government deemed her unable to work or care for a child.

So, searching for an out back in Kingston, Willis began to sell juice at a nearby market when she was 11. In clothes she was unable to wash, Willis would go to the market with a cousin’s mother and try to make enough money to be able to cook for herself.

“As long as I’d eat, I was OK,” she said. Her cousin’s mother still sells there today.

Willis would sleep at the market when she couldn’t stay at friends’ houses. Then, as a young teenager, she started dancing at a local hotel.

When she was 17, Willis left Jamaica for the first time to travel to Poland. But this trip, far too similar to a James Bond story, she said, she would save for her book.

“I was adventurous,” she said, behind a smile. “Stupid, but adventurous.”

Pageants and modeling offered a glimmer of hope

Then, back in Jamaica, Willis went to support a friend at a pageant. Looking at the women on the stage, she thought to herself, “If these girls can do it, I think I can.” She introduced herself to the organizer, Kingsley Cooper.

Cooper gave her his phone number. She didn’t call him until six months later, but when she did reach out, he happened to be arranging a group of models to take to London.

About a week later and after some test shots, Cooper invited Willis to search for an agency in London with him. She promptly agreed. It took about 20 agencies, though, before she found one willing to take her.

“The next day, I was doing London Fashion Week,” Willis said.

Willis was 25 at the time. But, to get hired, she told agents she was 18. She looked so young, it worked.

“I was 18 for many years,” she said.

About a week later, on a test photoshoot, she got a call from celebrity fashion photographer Mario Testino. He’d end up shooting her for Vogue. And within less than a month of her modeling career, Willis landed a Gucci campaign after being personally selected by fashion designer Tom Ford.

“I was the first Black girl to model for Gucci,” she said. “You can’t unwrite that.”

Initially, the plan was for Cooper to train her when they returned to Jamaica from London, only she returned months later. And it didn’t stop there. Willis landed on the cover of magazines often, and had a 10-page spread in French Vogue. Today, many of those magazines sit in her new home.

Ultimately, Willis was based in London for five or six years, as she took modeling gigs between there, the United States, Paris and Milan. But the treatment she was receiving back home in Jamaica wasn’t necessarily what she’d anticipated. The government there, for one, would not properly acknowledge her, as often was done with models who came from higher status.

“Most models in Jamaica were a part of society, the upper class, the rich and the famous,” she said. “I was tainted and tainting their industry. Coming from the ghetto, I was a nobody and I didn’t belong on the same stage.”

Leaving the modeling world

She didn’t know what to do. But she knew her lack of education and inability to read or write were hindering her success. When she was about 33, after having her third and final daughter, she walked away from modeling.

“For years, I was in Delray hiding,” she said.

She married a man she’d met in Florida, but ended up leaving because of verbal and emotional abuse. Her second marriage had a similar fate, but this time, Willis found herself with nowhere to go.

“I became homeless,” Willis said. “I had to vacate the home that I was in because of circumstances that did not fit my eyes.”

So she and her two younger daughters, ages 12 and 14, sought the help of the Victims Unit of Royal Palm Beach. It was through police there that Willis was able to find temporary housing for three months at a motel, mostly covered by Adopt-A-Family, another nonprofit housing local people and eventually leading her to The Lord’s Place.

For nearly two years, Willis and her girls lived at The Lord’s Place family campus — one of the agency’s three campuses providing housing. Its other two include one for men and another for women only.

“She’s an inspiration,” Diana Stanley, CEO of The Lord’s Place, said of Willis. “She is an example of what happens with hard work, perseverance, support, that people can start dreaming again, people can start feeling purposeful again, and, most of all, people can start believing in themselves.”

But, for Willis, the inspiration often is those around her. Living at the family campus, she quickly learned she wasn’t the only one dealing with hardships. And she realized these were women who could teach her a thing or two.

“I like to meet new people from different places,” she said. “Especially people, if I can learn from them. That’s how I learn, learning from someone new, and seeing what their life, their different background is.”

It’s how she advanced back in London, too, with her limited education, by absorbing information from those around her.

Her next venture: An autobiography

With the guidance of The Lord’s Place, Willis was able to secure her full-time job at Publix. With a roof over her head, she’s been able to maintain work, contribute to her retirement fund and get health insurance. Her daughters, too, have benefited from the agency, being able to attend summer camps, earn scholarships and receive tutoring.

It’s just one of the many ways The Lord’s Place has helped her throughout the last few years. The organization’s leaders are dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness for people in Palm Beach County through housing, job training and placement, community outreach, social enterprises and re-entry services for people returning from prison, Stanley said.

“We don’t believe that one size fits all,” she said. “We really concentrate on saying, ‘What is it that they need?’”

The final step for those at The Lord’s Place is locating and securing housing of their own. For Willis, the agency guided her through the process, helping with move-in costs and her security deposit.

“For me, I’m trying to make sure my children get what I didn’t have,” Willis said.

In November 2022, Willis and her daughters moved into their two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. But her dreams don’t stop there.

Willis plans on writing an autobiography. She dreams of meeting actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry and sharing her story with him. She also envisions starting a nonprofit in honor of her grandson, who died at two months old because of a rare disease, to help others in positions similar to hers.

“Sometimes I do cry and say, ‘I wish life would be better for me,’” she said. “But, honestly, look at this. How can it be better right now?”

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