Who’s That Girl?

12.12.11

Shala Monroque: On the Cover of Town & Country January 2012 (PHOTOS)

Shala Monroque, Larry Gagosian’s 32-year-old girlfriend, hails from St. Lucia and calls Miuccia Prada a close friend. Now she’s on the cover of Town & Country. Allison Samuels reports.
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Courtesy of Town & Country

She’s in the front row at almost every fashion show. She’s a fixture at every cool art-gallery opening and fashion party, and she’s best friends with Miuccia Prada, Dasha Zhukova, Margerita Missoni, and Charlotte Casiraghi. But Shala Monroque still isn’t a household name—not yet, anyway.

She’s the 32-year-old girlfriend of Larry Gagosian, 66, the white-haired art dealer who has assumed the role of demigod. On his arm, Monroque has found herself attending a host of museum galas and fashion’s exclusive CFDA Awards, and sitting front row at the Valentino show in Paris. Now Monroque is receiving a growing amount of media attention on her own as she begins to appeal to people outside the small worlds of art and fashion.

This week, Monroque graces the cover of Town & Country’s January issue. As the magazine’s editor, Jay Fielden, puts it, “She is the 'it' girl but still only known by those really in the know. We wanted to put her out there early and let our readers in Oklahoma get to see who she is.”

She is also the “it” girl who just happens to be black, still an unfamiliar sight on the cover of most mainstream publications. Add the fact that she doesn’t sing or act, and her presence is even more jarring. But Fielden (who took the job in September) says he felt Monroque deserved the cover of the high-society magazine. “I didn’t hesitate for a moment putting Shala on the cover,’’ he says. “She’s interesting, and that’s how we base our decisions for our covers. She has a story people will find fascinating, fresh, and new. We don’t want to fall victim to putting the same Hollywood starlets on the cover or shying away from people of color for fear of low sales.’’

This forward thinking should all but seal the deal for Monroque’s entrance into the national limelight. Born in St. Lucia, Monroque landed in New York straight out of high school 12 years ago. She began working as a hostess at Manhattan hotspots Nobu and Kittichai. It was at the latter that she met Gagosian, who has undoubtedly proved a powerful connector for her. Soon after they began dating, she befriended Prada. Now she’s her official muse, and wears designs straight off the runway.

At first, the question “What does Shala do?” might seem difficult to answer. Be it through luck or sharp instinct, Monroque appears constantly to be in the right place at the right time, yet her job is harder to define.

“She has the look and the style that people notice if you’re in a place where the right people can see you,” says Bethann Hardison, editor at large of Italian Vogue. “Shala has been in the right place, and now it’s happening for her. She’s perfect in that spot.”

But Monroque stays busy. She has served as an editor at Pop magazine, formerly edited by Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich’s art-collecting girlfriend, and now has a role at Zhukova’s new magazine, Garage. She’s featured in this month’s Japanese Vogue in a vibrant six-page layout, is listed as a fashion consultant for Prada, and is one of the new print-ad models for the online purveyors of high fashion Net-a-Porter.

Though Monroque is sometimes seen with Gagosian, she is largely mum when it comes to matters of their relationship. In an interview with New York magazine published in September, she only vaguely described Gagosian. “I will say that he has been a great mentor,” she said. “He’s one of the most stylish people I know, not necessarily in terms of fashion, though I think his fashion sense is interesting, but in terms of art and the way he deals with things. Hopefully a little bit of that has rubbed off.” But she was mysteriously mum in her more recent interview with Town & Country. “Discretion being an It girl prerequisite,” Kevin Conley writes, “Monroque declines the opportunity to talk about it.”

Smart move, given that not all the world has fallen in love with Shala just yet. Reaction to the New York article was fierce—and comments online were scathing. Some readers suggested she had become visible only due to her association with Gagosian, while others implied she was no more than a paid escort for the older businessman.

But those controversial sentiments don’t sit well with many in and around the fashion world. Several fashion bloggers found the comments evidence of a glaring double standard for women of color who appear to benefit from high-profile relationships. “Those comments were insulting,’’ says Alexia Hudson, who runs the blog The Black Socialite.

“Shala is a striking and beautiful woman, and those women get attention. She is with this man, but she hasn’t made a reality show out of it. How is she using him? The fact that she doesn’t talk about him much proves her loyalty to their friendship, if anything, and that shows tremendous class and savvy on her part.’’

While Monroque gains visibility in the media, some high-profile African-Americans in the arts and publishing worlds say she is barely known in minority communities—and may never be. “I’m not familiar with her at all,’’ said one editor of a major black lifestyle magazine. “She’s pretty much put herself in white arenas and in the white world. She’s not living in the black world, from what I can tell. Until that happens, as great as it is that she’s getting attention—I’m just not sure if she’ll have an impact in the black community at all.’’

But if her current media attention continues, Monroque’s rising star will soon encompass both worlds with ease. “It will be interesting to see if major black publications now follow the lead of Town & Country and feature her,” says Hudson.

“My hope is she’ll be able to parlay her incredible style into a business deal where she designs her own line of fashion or jewelry and art. Something that has her name on that can last for years to come. That will leave the imprint and have the impact that I think she wants to have.’’