Halle Berry Was A Very Cool Chick

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Illustration by Edwina Owens Elliott

In Chicago, Marshall Field’s & Company was the preeminent luxury retailer, known as the well-dressed granddaddy of all department stores in the Midwest. It was the 80’s and I, along with seven other senior art directors, were responsible for designing and directing the store brochures as well as churning out dozens of newspaper and magazine ads daily.

We selected the models, photographers and hair and makeup stylists. That made us rockstars, wielding lots of power and sway in the retail advertising industry. Cindy Crawford, Uma Thurmond, Kelly LeBrock, Jennifer Beals, Darryl Hannah, Chris O’Donnell, Anna Chlumsky, they all modeled for Field’s before VOGUE or Hollywood came calling.

One evening, while waiting around for an ad to release, I opened an envelope from one of the lesser-known modeling agencies in town. Usually way too busy to open every packet of comp cards and head shots that was sent to us almost daily from any number of agencies, this particular group would normally go straight into the trash. But killing time, I leafed through the stack of never-gonna-be models and surprise! I came across a fresh and pretty new face.

The model’s name was Halle Berry. She was listed at 5’ 6” which meant that she was really only about 5’ 4” and too short to be considered serious fashion model material. It also explained why she wasn’t with one of the bigger agencies in town. This girl was gorge and the next day I called her agency to arrange a go-see.

When she came in, I was immediately impressed by the ripped jeans and even more, her cool and casual nature. A lot of new models would be Nervous Nellies during the meeting, all dolled up and kissing our butts relentlessly with hopes for work. Not this chick. She was very comfortable and at ease. It was a pleasant change.

She sat in my cubicle, told me her background — I don’t remember any mentioning of the beauty pageants — and we looked over her portfolio. Just starting out, there were less than ten shots. Not much to go on. But I produced many of the store’s lingerie ads then and Halle possessed dark eyes, a killer smile and a terrific body. Just what I needed in my arsenal. The next morning I phoned the agency and hired her for a half-day shoot.

In the studio several days later, we started out shooting doubles. That didn’t go over very well. The photographer, stylists, everyone loved her but Halle’s lack of modeling experience was painfully obvious next to an old pro like our second model. No matter. We shot her as a single, I let my photographer direct her, how to turn her head, angle her shoulders, tuck her pelvis, and we got several terrific images, including one for a full-page lingerie ad.

When the ad ran in both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, the store received lots of phone calls and in a few days, mail. Some readers weren’t very happy with that kind of heat while others offered to pay us for her phone number. The store seemed unsure of what to do. But not me. I hired her again.

I shot with Halle a few times after that. She was getting more work now. Others were seeing what I’d seen, in spite of her less than ideal modeling height, and she was growing more confident in front of the camera. I resigned soon afterwards to start freelancing full-time and it was maybe a year later when she popped up on some little tv show about — what else — models. Starring Alyssa Milano of WHO’S THE BOSS (who stands all of 5’ 2” at best), the show was way too far-fetched to last for more than one season. But a short while after that, Halle showed up sweaty and unkept, smoking crack with Sam Jackson in Spike Lee’s JUNGLE FEVER. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Now she’s a super duper Academy-Award winning actor and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. There’s all kinds of talk, all the time, about her career, her romances, her children. She’s had her share of drama, beautiful women usually do, and everyone seems to have a strong opinion when her name comes up in conversation. But I’m #teamhalle all the way. I remember a calm, laid-back, unpretentious young woman who beamed with that special thing, an aura that separates movie stars from the rest of us. And I hope she hasn’t changed.

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