Her voice is gentler than you’d expect for a woman that has dominated the catwalk for nearly 25 years. Melodic and feminine, measured and wise. It’s easy to imagine Pierre McCleary as a 1940’s blues singer in a another life with her soft, commanding presence and disarming charm. It’s been raining all afternoon, and she’s traveled here to a small office in Webster Groves, Missouri to tell her story.
She never dreamt of local celebrity or pioneering a movement. Of mentoring young models or organizing her own fashion shows. As she prepares for her next McCleary production, The Fur & Leather Centre's "An Evening of Elegance," this Thursday, October 26th, 2017 at The Polish Heritage Center she reflects on how it all started.
Pierre found modeling like many great discoveries of legend, by accident. It started as a way to keep her daughters out of trouble and provide them with a creative outlet in which flourish. Ah'Sharrie and Brittany were at an impressionable age, somewhere between barbies and boys, and Pierre was determined to keep them productive.
However after fashion show number two, they were at a cross-roads. When Ah'Sharrie confessed she hated heels and Brittany let it be known she felt the same way about make-up, Pierre decided to get creative.
"If I do it with you guys, would you do it?"
And that was how she took her first steps on the runway, joined by the daughters that had given her a reason to walk. Ah'Sharrie and Brittany hung up their heels, but a fire was ignited that has not since dimmed within Pierre McCleary. Shortly after she began walking for Shi Salon, once located in downtown St. Louis.
"They were doing lots of hair things [back then]. That's when I had hair." she smiles.
Pierre is bald, the only hair appearing sporadically in small, delicate wisps. She wears jeans and a white t-shirt that reads "I Make Bald Look Good", her make-up modest but expertly applied. She has an aura of strength and vulnerability.
"I [started modeling], but then I got discouraged when people weren't picking me", she shares.
"I would do a few shows and get get discouraged all over again. It felt like I was in competition with younger girls, me always being the older model. So I started questioning myself, "Is this the place for you?" "Do you really want to do this?" "Are you sure this is what you want to do?" So I stepped back for awhile, and started to reinvent myself. And in doing so, crazy thing is, my hair started falling out."
Pierre thought she was dying. She imagined the worst: chemotherapy and hospital visits, crippling pain and cancer support groups. But when she finally made herself walk into the doctor's office on a cold day in January, she found out she wasn't dying at all.
"You have Alopecia." the doctor said.
"Well... what is that?" she remembers asking, "I had never heard of it."
He explained it that Alopecia is an auto-immune deficiency disorder wherein a person's immune system attacks their hair follicles. While not life-threatening, it was likely Pierre was going to lose a lot more hair. She was horrified, returning home with a pit in her stomach.
"What is a girl without hair?" she says.
Pierre had a full-blown identity crisis on her hands. Her eyebrows started falling out, and after waking up without eyelashes one morning she decided it was time to really figure out what Alopecia was. She went back to the doctor and explored treatment options, however the conversation quickly turned sour.
While there was no known cure for Alopecia, some had seen success with expensive steroid injections administered directly into the scalp. Even then, there was no guarantee her hair would ever come back. There were no medications or treatments that would solve her problems. Pierre would probably never again have a full head of hair.
It was then that she decided to have a "meeting with self" as she puts it. Alopecia was not life-threatening.
"It is not going to affect my everyday lifestyle. It's not internal. I would just never have hair, but I could live a normal life. I started asking myself, "What is your problem?" "Why are you covering up?" "Why do you need to wear wigs? And the answer was always involving other people."
She worried, like most people do, what people would think of her.
"Once I got past that, I told myself: 'Every day when you look in the mirror, you have to find something about yourself that is better than what you saw yesterday.' So that's what I started to do."
She decided to forego covering her baldness, figuring that she'd save money on unnecessary wigs that would only "cover up a blessing" as she puts it. Now, years later, she's known for her signature look.
"How can you be a blessing to somebody else when you're covering it up?" she says with matter-of-factness.
The rest is history. Pierre has continued to enjoy a major presence in the St. Louis fashion community, both on the runway and behind the scenes. She founded "Hats off Alopecia" in 2016, an organization and runway show dedicated to raising awareness of the disorder and celebrating those who have been diagnosed.
And now she prepares to premiere her next undertaking, The Fur & Leather Centre's "An Evening of Elegance" this Thursday October 26th 2017 at The Polish Heritage Center (1413 North 20th Street, St Louis MO 63106) in downtown St. Louis. The doors open at 6:30pm with the runway coming to life at 7:00pm. She excitedly shares that the project has been so successful that they decided to expand from the 30 originally-planned looks to 60 after such an overwhelmingly positive reception.
FUN FACT: Pierre's birthday is this Thursday, falling on the same evening as "Evening of Elegance!" She insists it wasn't planned, but it understandably gives us one more reason toast to her accomplishments. Come celebrate with her this Thursday at the Polish Heritage Center!
Rhoda G. will open the show, a female local saxophone-prodigy who recently took first prize at The Apollo competition, with Blues commentator, Pascal, live-streaming from start to finish. Also showcasing that evening, local designers: Dana Stein, Mary McFadden, and Nevris Nobel Furs & Omerinos.
Tickets for the show range from $25-$50, depending on whether or not you'd like to enjoy a VIP experience. However, I can tell you this VIP package is one of the best I've seen yet. VIP ticket holders enjoy an exclusive VIP reception from 5:30-6:30pm, light bites, cocktails and a hefty swag bag. Why not go VIP?
If there's one thing I know for certain: Pierre McCleary puts her all into every project. The Fur & Leather Centre's "An Evening of Elegance" is sure not to disappoint.
The Fur & Leather Centre Presents:
"An Evening of Elegance"
Thursday, October 26th, 2017
The Polish Heritage Center
1413 North 20th Street
St Louis MO 63103
Click here for tickets!