Mary Alice Stephenson said it was an a-ha moment. Nearly two decades ago the style and beauty expert, who has worked for magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Allure and talked fashion on shows like Good Morning America, Today and Oprah, was waiting to board an airplane when the lounge around her began filling up with cheerleaders of all ages. The cheerleaders organized into two facing lines through which a 6-year-old girl, followed by her parents, ran through. Tears were flowing on many of the faces she saw. “It turned out it was something organized by the Make-a-Wish Foundation,” Stephenson says. “This little girl’s wish was to go to cheerleading camp and Make-a-Wish sent her off in such a big, beautiful, joyful way. I knew at that moment that I had to harness my personal power and my love of fashion and create positive experiences for people in need."
Every free moment outside of her career and life with her son, Stephenson started doing exactly that. She began rallying high-profile brands and people within her industry to "glam for good," as she calls it, through organizations such as Make-a-Wish (where she is a national fashion ambassador), Free Arts NYC, The Bob Woodruff Foundation, Grace Centers of Hope and Get Reel With Your Dreams. Now Stephenson is shaping up her Glam4Good movement into its own brand and nonprofit. We sat down with her to find out more about her philanthropic work, her plans for Glam4Good and her philosophy on how beauty can make a change in people’s lives.
Your story about seeing the Make-a-Wish Foundation in action for the first time is incredible. How did you make the connection at that time that you, and especially the world of fashion and beauty that you worked within, could become a part of a philanthropic movement?
The fashion and beauty industry has given me an incredible career and life. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to thrive in an arena I am so passionate about. After years of working as an editor, I felt an intense need to take what I love about the business and all of its glamour and all of the joy it's brought to my life and share it with others in a way that was more soulful and substantive. I have so many heroes in this business—Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Evelyn Lauder—people who have done so much to help so many. I turned to the many talented, bighearted people in this business that I work with. Once I started sharing with them what I was doing with many of the organizations through which I volunteer, they offered to help in any way they could.
Who are some of the people you have brought together over the years to grant fashion and beauty wishes and to carry out other Glam4Good initiatives?
Wow, there are so many generous people and brands that have helped me. I wish I could name them all! I’ve worked with big beauty brands like L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Dior and CoverGirl. Designers like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Vera Wang, Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs, Prabal Gurung, Marchesa, Gorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli, Alberta Ferretti and Naeem Khan have gotten involved, as have makeup artists and hairstylists like Sally Hershberger, Scott Barnes, Jeanine Lobell, Romy Soleimani and Oribe. There have been models, photographers and celebrities. I could go on and on, and could not create such spectacular moments for people without this help.
Many of the wishes you make come true revolve around fashion and beauty. Why do you believe young women look to fashion and beauty when making wishes?
With Make-a-Wish, these kids can wish for almost anything. Yet so many are continually wishing for fashion- and beauty-related experiences. Most of this has to do with our pop culture and the fashion and beauty imagery they are bombarded with every day. If you are going through something difficult in your life, you already feel bad and down. Then these images can be even more debilitating to your self-esteem. I believe one way you might come to terms with that is to want to feel and look as glamourous as what you see in the media. Even if it’s for one day, and I can treat these kids like the stars they are—pamper them and make them feel as gorgeous on the outside as they are on the inside and help them to feel empowered—it does good. It is an honor to be able to give these kids experiences that create joy and happiness and unforgettable memories.
You have also worked to help women in shelters and veterans. How do they respond to Glam4Good?
A lot of these women are dealing with very serious issues in their lives. We come in and we say, "Whether you like it or not, I am going to make you feel beautiful today." And it's an interesting thing when it comes to women, fashion and makeup; no one ever says no to me. They might be hesitant at first. But once I give them a safe experience to potentially forget their hardships for a moment and just allow themselves to be pampered, to be taken care of and to be adored, then you see the joy start to flow. You see hope and feel their self-esteem fueled again.
I never get emotional when I'm doing this because I feel too happy in these moments in my life. But when I step away and talk about the experiences I have had over the last 20 years of "glamming for good," I will often be overcome by the pain of knowing the hardships so many people overcome and the truth that fashion and beauty can help people heal in a profound way. I have witnessed this over and over again, and there is nothing more inspiring than having a woman look at you with a huge smile and say, "I feel beautiful today."
You also sprung to action in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
I’ve never been involved in disaster relief like this before. But I have a good friend in Far Rockaway, and the day after the storm my team and I decided to ask people to help us "glam for good" because my friend there was telling us how bad it was and what he and his family and friends needed. When I started posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter of what I was seeing and what people needed, my fans, friends and fashion family immediately started responding to help. Page 6 [of the New York Post] picked it up and everyone started calling, asking me, “Where should we go? What can we do to help?” Within 24 hours, people and brands started sending me massive bins of shampoo, soap, products, blankets and warm clothes to get into the right hands. There are so many amazing organizations and people who are doing so much to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. I am inspired by all of their efforts and am just doing anything I can to help in whatever way I can. We even just had a car donated to Glam4Good—an Audi, no less—that went right to a family that lost theirs in the storm!
What are your goals for Glam4Good?
I do not see Glam4Good as a charity. It is a movement, a community, an opportunity for people to be empowered and to get inspired and to help ignite positive change with style.
When times are tough and there are so many difficult things to deal with, sometimes it's as simple as turning to the pretty to help you feel better. It's why Winston Churchill didn't ration lipsticks during the war. If a lipstick, even for a moment makes you feel good and takes you away from thinking about something painful, then it’s worth every penny. The truth is when you look and feel great it's so much easier to believe that anything is possible to overcome. I hope that Glam4Good will help people understand the power fashion has to make a difference in people's lives—and that it just doesn't look good unless it does good!
What advice do you have for others who want to get involved with Glam4Good?
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Photo: Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images