Fashion

07.19.12

Meet Lanvin’s Unlikely New Face, Jacquie Tajah Murdock

Jacquie Tajah Murdock, 82, grew up in Harlem and danced onstage at the Apollo Theatre at 17. Now, she’s the unlikely face of the luxury house’s fall campaign. She talks to Isabel Wilkinson about her experience.

Fashion houses usually release ad campaigns featuring ambiguously young pin-thin models or shining starlets set to open a big upcoming movie.

But not Lanvin. The luxury brand’s fall 2012 campaign, released in part on Wednesday, features several “real” men and women, stylish people plucked from the streets. Among them is Jacquie Tajah Murdock, an 82-year-old African-American woman who was born in Harlem and has a long career as a dancer. She currently is retired and living on a fixed income in New York University faculty housing in Greenwich Village.

For as long as she can remember, Murdock says, it has been her dream to go to Paris—but she still has never been. “I wanted to become another Josephine Baker or a high-fashion model on the runway—but the opportunity was not there for women of color,” she told The Daily Beast when reached by phone Wednesday.

At 17, Murdock appeared onstage at the legendary Apollo Theatre for the first time, in a troupe called Norma Miller’s Jazz Dancers, and has been dancing ever since. She is an expert in Russian ballet, was a belly dancer at Manhattan’s Istanbul Club in the 1960s, which brought her to Egypt, and was one of the first black typists at Universal Films in 1948. She has earned three degrees, including a master’s in “Media Ecology” at NYU, where she was an administrative assistant to a research professor for 30 years.  She currently is a lecturer and performer at the Jazz Museum in Harlem, has been honored at the Apollo Theatre, and has performed at Frederick Douglass Academy and the Harlem School of the Arts. She is now working on a book about her life.

Murdock  was walking through her neighborhood last year when she was spotted by Ari Seth Cohen, who runs the popular blog Advanced Style, for older men and women with distinguished personal style. He photographed her and put her on the blog and in his book, Advanced Style, which was published last May. She appeared on the Today show following publication to speak about it, and has received a lot of attention for her style ever since. 

Cohen, who helped Lanvin cast its campaign, called to ask Murdock if she would be interested in interviewing. She immediately met with Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz and famed photographer Steven Meisel, and told them about her dancing. She explained that she once had portrayed Dora Dean—“the toast of Paris”—onstage at the Apollo.

Though she has never owned anything by Lanvin, Murdock explains that she has always loved fashion. “You will never see me in jeans,” she says. “Unless they’re white jeans—because it’s too common. I wear mostly dresses, anyway. I like to be different. I have the eye, and I don’t care if it’s cheap or expensive.”

Murdock says she has always wanted to meet Naomi Campbell, whom she admires and whom she believes might be a distant relative (Murdock’s maiden name is Campbell, and her parents are from Jamaica, where the British supermodel’s mother was born).

Murdock was selected for the campaign, and was shot by Meisel in a Chelsea studio in April. “I’m still attractive, I still perform and lecture,” she says. “So why not?” In the ad unveiled Wednesday, Murdock portrays an elegant woman, inside a lavish apartment overflowing with python bags and trinkets. She wears a green peplum dress, long dangling earrings and a giant brooch. She holds a green fur, and stands barefoot, as discarded platform sandals sit nearby.

“It was interesting,” she says of the shoot. “Except for one thing: the lady put my hair up in a French chignon with lots of hairspray, and it affected my allergies. My eye was tearing the whole time.”

(She is also set to appear in a video for the campaign, which is due out next month.)

Elbaz, she said, kissed her repeatedly during the shoot and said, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” “I want to thank him,” she says now. “But my computer is broken.” Murdock recalls that Elbaz asked her “What’s next?” and she said “Paris—that’s what’s next.”