Name: Deshawna Bowman
Agency: Seeking Representation
Claim To Fame: Bowman earned trophies with her HBCU modeling troupe.
Deshawna Bowman began modeling as a child but it was her commitment to learning at an HBCU that inspired her to take it seriously.
“I originally started modeling when I was around 12 years old. I was still in elementary school,” she told HelloBeautiful. “Starting out, I was just so excited,” she said.
Bowman rose quickly and began booking gigs for big-named companies. She even did a commercial for Smuckers before taking an unexpected break due to financial hardships.
She and her twin sister had each been attending auditions, resulting in double the gas, airfare, and costuming fees for their mother. They were auditioning for huge corporations and working with successful agencies but none of these companies had policies in place to provide financial assistance for the children or parents they were working with. Families looking to help their kids achieve a leg up were forced to bear the cost on their own. Rather than decide to prioritize one child over another Bowman’s mother opted to temporarily shut down their pursuit of the spotlight.
“It kind of was more so up to my mom,” she said. “My mom just didn’t have the money to support both of us. So instead of, you know, choosing one of the other, she just said, maybe we can just take a break now and just come back later.”
“So after she said that, you know, I understood and then I kind of guess put it in the back of my mind,” said Bowman.
She quickly adapted to the change of plans and leapt into her studies headfirst. “I was 13,
I stopped and I just solely focused on going to school. When I got into high school, they had a couture modeling group in my high school. I actually wasn’t really interested in it for some reason. I don’t even know why.”
Couture modeling, commonly referred to as troupe modeling, is a time honored tradition in the Black community. Modeling troupes at HBCUs, have staged dramatized runway shows and large scale battles for generations. “Every year, it’s a new idea and concept, a new competition,” said Bowman. “It’s just like, you know, sororities, the divine nine,” she continued. “We’re like a thing.”
The intense choreography, avant garde styling, and dazzling costumes has also been seen in Black neighborhoods across America everywhere from the ballroom at Newark’s Robert Treat Hotel to the stage at Dothan Convention Center.
It was her studies that brought her to the runway. “I went to college, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. That’s where I began to model again.”
Her interest was restarted by her friends. “Once I got into college, all my friends pushed me to join the couture team at my college my second semester of freshman year,” she said.
“It was very, very intimidating when I first started, when I got to college, when I first stepped on campus, they had interest meetings for, you know, all the clubs and all the associations. And the team for my college, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore was called Bazaar Models. They had showcased their models one day, you know, everybody was sitting around and watching and I’m like, ‘Whoa, they’re in like seven and a half inch heels, stilettos.’ And I’m like ‘Oh, like, this is not like regular high fashion, modeling. This is like something totally different.’ This is like mega sized modeling.”
Just as the LGBTQ+ Ballroom scene that influenced it makes room for people from all walks of life, couture modeling troupes focus on the talent of the model and not the looks. Troupes don’t adhere to the tired Eurocentric standards of beauty the fashion industry has clung to.
Bowman was tall, beautiful and slender, but none of that would help her at practice. The rules with the Bazaar Models were simple-show up fierce or stay in your dorm suite.
“I kind of got very intimidated because I’m like these girls and guys, are just walking so poised and they just have so much offense and I’m just like ‘Yo, can I do that?’ You know?”
Bowman would find out she could during lengthy practice sessions in between classes and late-night cram sessions but not before she actually made the team.
“I actually had to try out, even the people who were already on the team had to try out, it was just a full blown try out. I was so nervous.”
She was filled with so much anxiety that she actually stumbled.
“I actually fell on my first tryout when I was walking out on stage. But you know, somebody who was already in said for me to get back up and to keep walking. And that’s what I did.”
She walked right onto the team roster. “They saw potential in me and chose me to be on the scene.”
But being a team member was no guarantee that she would have the opportunity to slay the runway. “You’re on the team, but that doesn’t mean that you get a name or anything,” she said. “They give you a name once they see your alter ego on the runway.”
She earned her name during regular five-hour practices. “Practice was very intense. It was almost, I believe, four days out of the week.”
Practices were held in partial dress. “In the seven and a half inches it’s very vigorous, very tiring,” she said. Skipping practice was not an option. “Right when we joined the team, they automatically wanted a copy of your class schedule.”
When they weren’t stomping in platform heels they were watching previous competitions. They carefully studied some of the many great talents in the ballroom scene, including Stanley Milan, Jack Mizrahi, Octavia Saint Laurent, Dorian Corey, Dashaun Wesley Lanvin, and Pepper LaBeija and those they inspired.
“I also had a job,” she said. “At one point I was on probation for my job because I asked him to go to a competition rather than be on call.”
Getting in trouble was worth it. “We won first place. And that was our third time winning.” Her teammates supported her need to balance work with the runway. The team supported each other off the runway as well. They carved out study breaks during practice.
“Everybody was on their laptops,” she said. “We’re all here for a degree. So, you know, grades, come first, school comes first.”
Working with the team and excelling at school had a great impact on Bowman’s self-esteem. “I became more confident. Even my first time walking out on stage and my stuff, I had been shook, almost thought I was going to fall, but I just did it. I stuck with it.”
After she successfully did her thing the team bestowed her with her new name.
“I actually got my name, which was ‘Diva.’ They, uh, the board chooses your name for you. You don’t choose your own name, they choose it. So they just, you know, see something in you. And they’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s you.’ So they chose diva from me ‘cause they said that was how I walked like a diva.”
She is happy when she recognizes glimpses of couture modeling in mainstream culture, even if it does not get the recognition it deserves outside of the culture. When she sees performers writhing on stage at fashion shows, and White influencers initiating the movements troupes have been using for decades on YouTube she doesn’t react negatively.
“We know where it comes from,” she said.
Bowman wants to bring the talents the team nurtured to a career in mainstream modeling. “I feel like they really helped me grow and develop as a model,” she said. “They really encouraged me to do more and to venture out,” she added. “They’ll always be a part of me.”