Within a month, Zaria McDonald, 17, had surgery, started chemotherapy, signed with a modeling agency and appeared on the cover of a magazine.
The teen’s diagnosis with a rare form of cancer came as a devastating shock but also vindication.
McDonald 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 “growing pains.”
She was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of cancer. Since then, her life has become as unpredictable and exhilarating as a roller-coaster.
Now 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.
If the high school senior, who graduates May 24, is overwhelmed or frustrated by the attention, the belated cancer diagnosis or her future, she doesn’t show it.
“I 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.”
Something was growing
Growing 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.
At 5-foot-8 and the age of 15, she modeled adult clothing at the first Missouri Style Week in 2013.
“There 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 deep inside.”
Style 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 5-foot-9.
All 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.
They 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.
“All 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 didn’t.
Instead, she prepared for a party. The next day was her school’s homecoming dance.
“It was kind of a bummer,” McDonald said, but she knew that she would feel worse if she didn’t go.
She 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.
Within a month, she’d lose all of her hair.
Cancer and coincidence
That 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.
“I 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.”
McDonald 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.
“There’s this strong, powerful look to her. I just love her,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, 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 high school.
“She 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.”
Gonzalez 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.
“She’s 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 incredible.”
McDonald looks the picture of health. She said people often assume she’s bald by choice.
“Sometimes 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, ‘Um, thanks.’”
McDonald 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.
Her 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.
And 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.
Within 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 reposts.
“It 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.”
Kendra 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 knee.
“All 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.”
Now 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.