By Carrie Rowlands Johnson
For Saratoga TODAY
SARATOGA SPRINGS – “Next up, we have Carrie Rowlands Johnson from Saratoga TODAY Newspaper, modeling a gorgeous hunter green strapless evening gown from THEIA by Don O’Neill. Its daring neckline is complimented by a stunning, one-of-a-kind necklace designed by Peter Ciesla.”
The words coming out of Natalie Sillery’s mouth seem to echo inside my head. I am aware of the fact that she is in front of the microphone, on the same stage just a few feet away from me, but I don’t dare shift my gaze sideways. I am completely focused on my mission: make it across the stage, down the stairs, and up the aisle without tripping over and possibly tearing my amazing THEIA couture gown.
In spite of the fact that I am by nature a genuine clutz, right now I feel like a princess. The gown I am modeling is a strapless, curve-hugging, world-class masterpiece. It’s a shade of dark hunter green reminiscent of fairies and pixie dust. Around my neck is what designer Peter Ciesla calls “Wearable art,” and it certainly is. It is hand-embroidered, lined with silk and crafted of tiny glass seed beads and Golden Sheen Obsidian.
My hair is coiffed and pulled away from my face, thanks to the skillful hands of master stylist Julie Potter, who spent the three hours before the show readying almost all of the nearly fifty girls modeling. Seriously, I’ve never seen anyone’s hands perform such miracles in such small bits of time. Her hands work on hair the way mine do on a computer keyboard, as if they have a mind of their own.
This isn’t my first time modeling, but I am such an amateur. The last time I walked a runway was about thirteen years ago, at this same event. I remember it being much smaller in scale, with fewer girls, fewer gowns, fewer attendees. Leave it to Natalie Sillery of Saratoga Trunk to keep it alive all of these years and help grow it to the grand event it is today, a staple of pre- Travers weekend festivities at The Saratoga Race Track and a fashionable, flirty, and fun way to raise money for The Ronald McDonald House.
As I walk across the stage in front of about five hundred ticket holders inside the “At the Rail Pavilion,” I try to remember the tips I gleaned from a few of the other models before the show. Many of these women have been what Natalie affectionately calls “Trunkettes" since the show made its debut sixteen years ago. They are an eclectic bunch, hand-picked from the community by Natalie herself. Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen, artist Joni Sarah White, The Stadium Restaurant Proprietress Chris Harmon, and local graphic designer Christianne Smith are just a few of the fascinating women I meet.
Katie Rodriguez owns the new and wildly popular downtown restaurant Javier’s with her husband and the restaurant’s namesake, Javier. A former ballerina, she is a newbie this year, but was an absolute natural in a strapless ball gown painted a stunning shade of baby blue. “I’d rather dance my way down the runway,” she laughed before the start.
For me, this event is about more than just fashion and fun. The Ronald McDonald House holds a special place in my heart. One of my 8-year old boys, Jordan, was in the NICU at Albany Medical center for twelve days after birth. While his twin brother, Cameron, and I were up in the Saratoga Hospital, Jordan’s dad spent a few overnights by his side, crashing for a few hours here and there at The Ronald McDonald’s Family Room, located inside Albany Medical Center’s Children Hospital. A few hours of my time today remind me of that special, stressful time in my life more than eight years ago.
I make it across the stage and up the aisle without even a slight stumble before rushing backstage to change into my second and final gown. I have mere minutes to carefully disrobe and pull on a breathtaking black gown reminiscent of a bridal piece, with fluffy tulle on the skirt and a delicate, intricately detailed lacy top. I can barely breathe as two of the trunkettes tighten the corset and zip me in. “I don’t care if you can breathe, as long as you can walk down the runway,” Natalie laughs good-naturedly.
While I wait in line for my second turn on stage, THEIA’s Designer/Creative Director Don O’Neill himself kneels down and straightens the train on this world-class gown. This man is a legend in the fashion world. He is a globally-renowned designer and has dressed celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Taylor Swift. I feel as though I am living a dream, realizing he is now dressing me! After Don O’Neill’s final approval, I take my second walk onstage. I am ecstatic as I near the end of the runway and daringly steal a glance sideways for a smile at my friend, Matt Kieley, who purchased a ticket to support me and this worthy cause. I gather with the rest of the models at the back of the room, then step in line to file across the stage for the grand finale.
As we say our final goodbyes, I am honored to realize every little girl’s dream has become my own reality. At least for “TODAY.”
With tickets and the silent auction at the end of the show, the event raised a lot of money for The Ronald McDonald House.