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Creating a Life of Beauty: Deborah Mayberry Mandrell

By Leslie Moore

With her signature eclectic and stunning style, Deborah Mayberry Mandrell makes a dramatic entrance wherever she goes. From her closely cropped hair to her signature jewelry designs to her fabulous outfits, Deborah is a woman who gets attention when she enters a room. A professional model for many years, an artist and personal stylist, Deborah has spent her life creating beauty – and having lots of fun along the way.

“I became a professional model at age 13,” Deborah began. “I always wanted to model, and started work with an agency in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I grew up.” After several years, the young model’s agency sent her photos to Eileen Ford, who asked her to come to New York for a fashion show. “My dream was to model for the Fords,” Deborah remembered. After the fashion show at the Waldorf Astoria, Eileen and Jerry Ford approached her, asking young Deborah to call them the next day. If this wasn’t enough, when Deborah arrived at her hotel, Wilhelmina Cooper, and her husband Bruce, were waiting to talk to her about modeling for them as well. It looked like Deborah’s career was about to take off.

“After I thought about leaving my family, my high school – and my boyfriend, I decided I couldn’t move to New York,” Deborah told me laughing. “I was 17, and even though it was my dream to model for the Fords, I said no!”Back in Charlotte, Deborah continued modeling. “In the 1970s, Charlotte was starting to boom,” she remembered, while telling me about her career. “I became a popular model, and worked in New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Europe, but I was able to still live at home.” At the time, Vogue Magazine did traveling shows, featuring some of the world’s top designers, and Deborah had the opportunity to work with Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene, and others. One of her favorite designers was Donna Karan. “I remember one morning she had all the models meet at 7 am to be fitted for her big segment in a fashion show. She had us strip down to undergarments, line up by weight and height, and then gave us outfits to try on from a rack, switching them back and forth, and changing them around until she was satisfied. That’s how she figured out what looked the best on each of us.”

“Because of my modeling career, I was often invited to meet famous people when they came to Charlotte. In the ‘70s, the Rolling Stones were doing a world tour and came to the Charlotte Coliseum.” With a far-away smile, Deborah recounted being invited to meet the band in their dressing room before the show. Arriving early, she was waiting, alone, for their arrival. “I was dressed to the nines, as you can imagine,” Deborah laughed. The band was running late, so someone from Stevie Wonder’s entourage (Stevie was opening for the Stones) invited her to hang out with them while she waited. Finally, the Rolling Stones arrived, and Deborah was ready to meet them when they came through the dressing room door. “The first person to come in was Keith Richards, and he fell flat on his face! He got up cursing and shouting, not realizing I was even there. The rest of the band came in and went right to their dressing areas, but Mick Jagger came straight over to me and introduced himself, like I wouldn’t know who he was!” Deborah and Mick talked for nearly an hour, and she remembers him as a gentleman, a “solid kind of person.” During those years, Deborah met many of the day’s most famous rock stars including Alice Cooper, and even ‘70s heartthrob, David Cassidy.

When she traveled to New York for modeling jobs, Deborah was often invited to parties. “I met Truman Capote, Andy Warhol…that whole group of people.” Only once did she get in over her head and was saved by two male models she had befriended. “I was young and didn’t know how to drink, I had too much, too fast, but luckily my friends took me back to my hotel. I was so innocent – I didn’t realize what could’ve happened to me until later.”

“I had a lot of fun during those years,” Deborah said as she reminisced. “I always felt lucky to get the work – runway was my favorite, it puts you on the spot, and it’s never boring.”

Deborah always loved everything about the fashion business, and in addition to her talent as a model, became known for her ability to coordinate clothing – both for fashion shows and personal clients. “I love menswear and had men call me to redo their wardrobes. I helped coordinate outfits for fashion shows featuring Geoffrey Beene and Alexander Julian at different times in my career. Geoffrey offered me a job in New York, but I was married to Carl Peverall by then and didn’t take it.”

The day of our interview, Deborah had on a fabulous outfit, soft pants with a top and vest, along with menswear inspired lace-up boots, all in patterns and colors that coordinated perfectly even though everything was a little different. She topped it off with a gorgeous scarf and, of course, jewelry she designed and created herself. I was surprised when she told me that much of her wardrobe comes from consignment and thrift stores. “It’s like treasure hunting!” Deborah laughed. “My boyfriend of ten years, Tommy Nicholas, teases me about wearing so many menswear pieces. But I wear both and see myself as androgynous. We all have male and female tendencies.”

“I’m very fortunate that I was always around a lot of creative people. Betsy Johnson probably influenced my personal style more than any other designer. She started doing crazy things like mixing stripes with flowers or prints and had such an eclectic style. I met her when I was working as a buyer for a clothing store.”

After traveling around the country, and the world, Deborah eventually made her way back home. She lived in Taos, New Mexico, for ten years, an artist’s enclave that was perfect for this creative fashionista. “Taos is where I met and married, Michael Mandrell,” Deborah said, telling me that she is still close friends with her former husbands and learned something from each one.Deborah’s deep love for her parents helped her make the decision to live and work in our area. “I never had children, even though I wanted them,” she said, expressing the only regret I heard from this upbeat, positive woman. “So, when my parents’ health began to fail, I came home to help them.” Her mother and father had moved from Charlotte to the family beach house in Surfside Beach, where Deborah still lives since her mother’s passing in 2015. “They were very blessed to be able to retire and live in their beach house for 30 years before they passed.”

Deborah refuses to let the negatives in life get her down, not even her successful battle with cancer 20 years ago or her diabetes diagnosis that she manages with diet and exercise. “I try to be positive, no matter how sad or bad life gets. I try to look at what good might come out of it. Embrace your situation. Take it on. Once you embrace it, figure out what you’re going to do about it.”

Today, Deborah works at Christopher’s Fine Jewelry in sales, designs her own jewelry, does fashion consulting and is a local star of the cat rescue community. She has recently expanded her fashion consulting business and is taking new clients. “If someone wants to learn how to put their current wardrobe together in new, creative ways, I can come in and help them. Or I can help them create a new wardrobe, putting together outfits from shoes to jewelry. I work with both men and women.”

To work with Borah Designs or to see Deborah’s jewelry, call 843-814-4553.

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