LOUIS — Within a month, Zaria McDonald, 17, had
surgery, started chemotherapy, signed with a modeling
agency and appeared on the cover of a magazine.
teen’s diagnosis with a rare form of cancer came as a
devastating shock but also vindication.
had been complaining about an ache in her right knee
since she was 7. Last year, a curious lump developed
there, and her aches could no longer be explained as
was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of
cancer. Since then, her life has become as unpredictable
and exhilarating as a roller-coaster.
bald, McDonald recently became a social media sensation
by embracing a "no hair, don’t care"
attitude. Images of her going to prom April 23 in a St.
Louis designer’s gown went viral.
the very recent high school graduate is overwhelmed or
frustrated by the attention, the belated cancer
diagnosis or her future, she doesn’t show it.
knew it wasn’t just your typical growing pains;
growing pains shouldn’t last for years, but that’s
what they said," McDonald explained. "I didn’t
want to argue with the doctors about it and make a big
deal. I know you can’t test for everything."
pains was a plausible explanation for what she had been
feeling. She’d always been tall for her age. She
started modeling for Lillian Jones’ Laha children’s
clothing line when she was 14, but felt uncomfortable
standing head and shoulders above her counterparts.
5-foot-8 and the age of 15, she modeled adult clothing
at the first Missouri Style Week in 2013.
was something special about her," said Cillah Hall,
co-founder of Missouri Style Week. "She was so
confident and beautiful. It was something that came from
Week was where McDonald impressed Gail Lasater of West
Model and Talent Management. Lasater wanted to add her
to the agency’s model roster but needed McDonald to
grow another inch. By October 2015, McDonald was
that growing, and hours of daily dance classes at Grand
Center Arts Academy seemed like plausible explanations
for McDonald’s knee swelling. But doctors eventually
diagnosed a synovial sarcoma tumor.
concluded that it had probably been there all along. No
one knows why. The malignant soft tissue cancer affects
fewer than three people in a million.
I thought about was ‘what does it mean for cancer to
be aggressive?’ How aggressive?" McDonald
recalled. But she didn’t want to think the worst, so
she prepared for a party. The next day was her school’s
was kind of a bummer," McDonald said, but she knew
that she would feel worse if she didn’t go.
wore a dress designed by Barbara Bultman, whom she met
at Missouri Style Week. The St. Louis designer created a
minimalist gown that was sleeveless, backless and deep
burgundy. McDonald wore her hair in long cascading curls
extending to the small of her back.
a month, she’d lose all of her hair.
same month, McDonald appeared on the cover of Gazelle
STL Magazine, founded by Hall. It was an eerie
coincidence that the October issue was dedicated to
breast cancer awareness and included articles on various
types of cancer, early detection and survivors.
got chills when we found out a few weeks later that
Zaria had cancer," Hall said. "But I knew
right away that she would be impactful. And she is. She
carries herself with such dignity. There’s no way that
she’s not destined for greatness."
is already a muse to designer Nasheli Juliana Ortiz
Gonzalez. McDonald modeled her look in a St. Louis
Fashion Week art-inspired design competition for which
Gonzalez won a $5,000 grand prize.
this strong, powerful look to her. I just love
her," Gonzalez said.
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an assistant professor at Lindenwood University with the
fashion design program, discovered McDonald in 2013 at a
model audition for the school’s annual fashion show.
Gonzalez was immediately charmed by the teen’s
maturity. She had no idea McDonald was a sophomore in
had such confidence and such a great walk that I put her
in the collection (of a designer) who did a lingerie and
swimwear line," Gonzalez said. "I think her
mother almost died when she saw her (and her mother,
Kendra McDonald, confirms that she nearly did), but
Zaria was great. I didn’t find out until later her
age, and I felt so guilty."
has hired the teen to be in every runway show she’s
produced since, including the most recent Lindenwood
University student fashion show May 7.
one of the few models who can go from full hair to bald
and look fantastic. I mean she is even missing a
(ligament) in her knee, and she still has the great walk
in those high heels," Gonzalez said. "She’s
looks the picture of health. She said people often
assume she’s bald by choice.
I see people staring, and I’m like, ‘Why are they
staring?’ And then I remember, ‘Oh, yeah, I have no
hair,’" McDonald said laughing over a meal at
City Diner in Grand Center. "It’s weird, but I
guess it’s a good thing. One guy walked up and said,
‘You have the perfect bald head,’ and I was like,
didn’t lose much weight from chemotherapy and remains
naturally slim at 125 pounds and 5-foot-9. She finished
her last chemo treatment in April, just in time for
senior prom. McDonald wore a dress designed by Gonzalez.
sleeveless gown had a sheer illusion bodice nearly the
color of her skin embellished with coffee-colored pearls
and brown applique florals. The skirt was a billowing
mass of chocolate tulle. She looked like someone
transformed by a fairy godmother.
just like a typical teen, she had her friends snap a few
photos of her wearing the magical gown and promptly
posted them to Facebook and Instagram.
24 hours, tens of thousands of people shared her images
with inspired messages and praise. Someone with the
Twitter handle @blackgirlswinni said, "Cancer can’t
stop you from slaying #prom2K16" along with a trio
of smiley-faced emoticons with heart-shaped eyes. That
posting attracted 32,000 likes and 21,000 shares. There
was a seemingly endless ripple of shares, likes and
was a shock because I didn’t expect anything like
that. I mean, I was just going to prom," said
McDonald, who went with a date she described as a
friend. "But I’m really glad that some people
found it inspirational."
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McDonald said that she’s thrilled that her daughter
hasn’t missed a beat pursuing her dream to model and
has maintained a high grade point average, but she’s
still praying because they aren’t out of the woods
yet. They have to wait until December to see if doctors
clear her for surgery to replace the ligament in her
along, I found this much harder than she did," her
mom said. "But all along, Zaria handled it like a
champion, so I just followed her lead," Kendra
McDonald said. "Without her strength, I would have
been in the corner somewhere bawling."
they are celebrating. On April 25, the Monday after
prom, McDonald was declared cancer-free. She will start
college in the fall and plans to keep modeling.