Debra Shaw: ‘No one knows my real age and I like that’

Soldiers in full military uniform found me and took me to the Capitol after I got lost in the White House. I was four years old, on a crowded public tour with my family and I let go of my sister’s hand. A nice lady gave me ice-cream to eat until my mum arrived.

Music is in my family. I’m the youngest and the tallest of five sisters who grew up singing in the church. I taught myself the piano, my dad played bass and my mother was the choir director. In rehearsals she wanted the most from her daughters, so we got the hard lessons more than anyone else.

My mother didn’t approve of me modelling in Paris until I took her to a Chanel show. Backstage, she saw them dressing me and cried. When she went home, everywhere she went, I was no longer “Debbie”, I was her “daughter who lives in Paris, the model”.

“A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.” I don’t know where I heard this, but I apply it to my life whenever I feel shy. If you want something, you have to say so, or else no one will ever know it.

Fashion designers have ways of helping models understand what they’re wearing. John Galliano has a mood board with photos of references that he goes through with you, explaining where the characters came from, who’s married, who’s sleeping with their chauffeur.

Alexander McQueen asked me to wear a square metal frame in his 1997 La Poupée show. I had to walk down some stairs and through water. I arrived 15 minutes before it started, got ready and then I was, like: “How do I get down the stairs in this?” I improvised.

This girl I become on the runway, I don’t know who she is. It’s an out-of-body experience. Remembering people jumping up and shouting “Amen” in church is something I tap into.

When I’m not working, I’m introverted. People want me to be the couture girl in heels, but I do like my Birkenstocks.

I’m passionate about nature. I like dinner parties with my amazingly supportive group of friends. Private moments away from social media are precious to me.

Watching Grace Jones and Tina Turner perform together at a Cartier show in Paris was special. The photographer Peter Beard introduced me to Tina, and when I told her Grace was performing in the next room we bolted. Grace called her onstage and I was fanning out!

I posted a picture of a Valentino show from the 90s and someone was shocked I was the only Black model. They didn’t know the struggles. When I work now, there are several people who look like me. It makes me emotional because I was often alone. Behind the scenes it’s still scarce, but it’s getting better.

No one knows my real age and I like that. I’m somewhere over 50 and I believe I’m a catalyst for women my age. We understand and embrace our bodies and wear clothes well. I’m happy there’s more flexibility in fashion now. Full-figure, transgender, everyone… I love that.