Phoenix Gondi, the rookie model who closed out Brooklyn-based designer Zana Bayne’s Spring/Summer 2015 show is the freshest face by far to hit New York Fashion Week. Gondi wore a serious pout and a gold leather harness during the show’s finale—the kind of outfit Bayne might craft for her more famous clients like Lady Gaga or Beyoncé.
Phoenix is an unorthodox model; he’s chubby, he waves to the audience, and he actually has to be carried down the catwalk. Still his oddities only endeared him to the audience (who actually “awwed”) and inspired fashion journos to pen breathless reports of what might just be the youngest model to ever to “walk” the runway.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Phoenix Gondi is a baby. Retired model Mollie Gondi’s baby to be exact.
The whole idea to have an infant on the catwalk came to be after Bayne had a vision of Mollie and her baby walking her runway in a dream. As the show approached, Bayne booked a ticket, and despite some reservations—about flying with Phoenix alone, walking in those heels after so much time off of modeling, and keeping her baby up past his bedtime—Mollie was in.
And for the new mom, appearing with her babe on the runway after a few years away wasn’t just cute (though it was that); it was also a way to both remember what she loves about the job and why she’s glad to be done with it.
“I’m just a fully retired stay at home mom in Safety Harbor, Florida.” Mollie tells The Daily Beast. Gushing over Phoenix’s buzzed about performance—“I was really just his handler”—Mollie is ever the proud mama, but she’s also a modest one.
Mollie Gondi, née Steenis, was born to be a model. She grew up in a small suburban town in Florida and did some modeling, but what she thought would be her big break, an appearance on Season Six of America’s Next Top Model, turned out to be a career killer. Mollie left the show after a lackluster Cover Girl commercial challenge, but soon found her involvement with the Tyra Banks property meant she was blacklisted in New York. She wasn’t booking gigs, and a feature she did for Nylon Magazine was killed when the editors found out she had been on the show.
To hide from her reality show fame, Gondi moved to Paris, and did well there, landing big campaigns and appearing in Italian, Russian, and Japanese Vogue. But she longed for home and another New York agency was courting her. “Ford was like ‘We have to have you,’” Mollie said. “So I dropped Elite, and Ford—this agency that pined for me—is the same one that dropped me three months later.” Her agencies in Paris and London soon followed.
“It was just over. It was like a domino effect,” she said. “But even before that, I was getting older. And [the models] were constantly getting younger. After all the time I had put in, I didn’t want to be sitting somewhere away from my husband, trying to get these jobs that just weren’t coming.”
So, pushing 30, Mollie was “aged out” of the industry. She moved back to Florida to go to school, live by the beach with her husband, and figure out her next move. Phoenix came soon after.
Phoenix is now 10 months old and, according to all reports, he had a great time at the Bayne show. Mollie swears she’s not a stage mom and says, “It’s like having your little dude be part of your life. We do everything together. I’d never put him outside of his comfort zone…but it just wasn’t.”
After the show, Mollie says she was bombarded online and in real life with praise. “You have the super young fashionistas who are all, “Oh my God, that baby’s wearing leather,’” she said. “Some guy wearing a bed sheet as an outfit actually told me that my baby was ‘so chic.’ C’mon. He’s a baby.”
Mollie never considered herself as one of these people—the ones that take themselves too seriously, that take fashion too seriously.
“Yes, I lived for a fashion party and dressing up and being glamorous and going out. Of course you feed off the attention, off it all. But it’s the exact opposite of what my life is now,” she said.
Though most of the attention she’s received is as a proxy for Phoenix—a position the proud mama is happy to take, Mollie can’t resist reflecting on her own performance during her brief comeback.
“I’ve never seen me look so good on a runway,” she said. “I don’t mean ‘Oh, I look so great.’ But my face, I feel like I’m beaming in the pictures and that sums up how I felt with him. It was kind of like showing the modeling industry, screw you and what you did to me and how I felt for years because of it. This is my life now and I’m so happy and I’m walking away tomorrow.”
“It’s funny how one little thing can just make you feel so different all of the sudden.”
Despite the closure Mollie describes, she seems pretty open to future work, if not for herself, at least for Phoenix…especially now that he just started walking.
“Oh, of course. My husband says, ‘He’s got to walk it alone next year!’”