I remember the first time I met Carlotta. We were working for Neiman Marcus, and I had just moved to Dallas. I was like, “Wow this woman is gorgeous…I need to get back to the gym, pronto!” I had packed a little lunch that day, and I was munching on it when the client came in, excited to see Carlotta, and asked about her baby girl. Yes, this supreme female specimen had just birthed a baby three weeks prior.
Thirteen years later, I thought a lot about this when it took me close to a year to lose my baby weight after Darlington’s birth. Sometimes life isn’t fair, but anyone who compares herself to Carlotta is often going to find herself on the losing end. Since that day, Carlotta has continued to amaze me, and I’m not just talking about her physique.
I’ve witnessed her navigate being a single mother with such grace. I’ve witnessed her strength after losing her father right before her wedding. And I’ve seen her love wholeheartedly when we learned our Kelly was dying (I can’t believe the anniversary of her passing will be here on May 14). Carlotta is a force, an inspiration, and the most loyal of friends. The girl can rock the runway like no other, and the next minute have you in stitches.
Of course, she saves these private moments for her select friends. She’s always early, like by half an hour, and she always has the best smile to greet you. She is an unbelievable mother to an equally extraordinary young lady. I’m grateful to have a great friend, who I admire so much, go through many of life’s first—like motherhood. There’s been no greater teacher. I love this woman, and you will fall in love, too!
Please enjoy Courtney’s interview with our May Woman of the Month, Carlotta Lennox!
MB: You grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, correct? How old were you when you moved there?
CL: I was five.
MB: Do you remember anything before that?
CL: Not really. We were from Oklahoma City, and my father had gotten the opportunity to be the president of a small little meat-packing company in Enid, Oklahoma. He’d worked with the owners, and since my father was a genius when it came to working with spices and creating different products, they asked him if he would come on board and run the facility in Enid. That’s pretty much how we landed there.
It was a small plant, so as the years went on, my brothers and sister worked at the meat company. When I turned fourteen, it was my turn to work there, too.
So I followed in my brothers’ and sister’s footsteps. I had to be up at 4:30 in the morning and had to be at work at 5:00. We had to wear a white jacket and a hair cover. The machines would come on and roll out the line of chicken fried steak fingers. We each had a cardboard box, and you had to count out how many steak fingers went into each layer. Once the box was full, we put the box down on a pallet, and once the pallet got to be a certain height, a forklift would come to take it away and put it on a truck to be delivered around the US.
I was kind of bratty. Sometimes I wouldn’t pick up the steak fingers, and they would fall off the end. I’d get in trouble by my dad. That was kind of fun, and it did teach me a lot as far as working on a clock and working with other employees at a young age. With my father overseeing the whole facility, that was a pretty unique situation as well for the time.
MB: I love hearing childhood memories like this! Do you have other ones that stand out from your time in Enid?
CL: There’s something that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share, but it was very formative.
When my parents first moved to Enid, the neighbors found out that we were Black, and they sent a petition to all the other neighbors asking them to sign it because they didn’t want any Blacks moving into their neighborhood. That resonated with me as a child. Of course, we still moved in, and to my understanding nobody signed it, but that was something where I thought, “Wow, they don’t even know us, but because we’re Black and moving into an all-White neighborhood, our neighbors don’t want us here.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to throw it out there, but the more I think about it, that was pretty darn hard-core.
MB: Was that one of the first times that you’d really experienced anything like that?
CL: Yes, it was. But my parents wound up living in that neighborhood for fifteen years before they went and built their own house. No other Blacks ever moved into the neighborhood either. And the actual neighbor, he owned a restaurant in Enid, so he was big-time. Everybody knew who he was. Eventually they would start waving to us… but it was only after a number of years. I guess they figured we weren’t going to bring the neighborhood down.
MB: Moving to a new place, especially a rural town, must have been a huge decision for your family, so I’d love to hear more about them. What were the dynamics like?
CL: We are an extremely close-knit family. Always have been. Nothing can break our bond. I’m the youngest of four, with two brothers and a sister. My mother is the matriarch while my father taught and instilled a strong work ethic in each of us. Our family loves being together whenever we can, and we love to entertain. Our door is always open to friends and relatives and even strangers.
My mother is a creative genius when it comes to decorating and fashion. She and my dad both followed their dreams. My mother opened up a boutique clothing store in Enid where she only carried one-of-a-kind items. Customers would drive an hour or more just to shop in her store. My dad on the other hand was busy innovating in the food industry and helped introduce the first mass-produced chicken fried steak in Oklahoma.
MB: I was obsessed with chicken fried steak growing up. To the point where I would throw a fit if we went out to eat somewhere that didn’t serve it, so I’d love to know more about this famous chicken fried steak.
CL: Absolutely! My dad also made the chicken fried steak, which was called Legend, and it was sold to places like Grandy’s and Sam’s Wholesale Club. Then he had chicken fingers that were sent to schools throughout the United States, and that was back when kids actually had real mashed potatoes
MB: Yeah, real food. Not soy burgers.
CL: He would always come home with a new piece of equipment. He created something called a Packman—which was this kind of dough ball stuffed with sausage and cheese. They rolled that out for a while. We got used to him saying at night, “Hey, kids, we’re going to try this.” We had floor-to-ceiling cabinets that were just full of spices. My father was a mad genius, and it was really cool to watch him create and invent and taste and smell. He never measured. He was just a food guru.
MB: That’s really cool to hear because I think sometimes we forget that cooking is an art form and can be such a creative outlet for people.
CL: Exactly. Before we had all these reality TV shows and celebrity chefs, that was what he was doing. Of course, with a job like his, quality control and the FDA has to come in to make sure he’s using everything correctly and it’s done perfectly. It was a big deal because all his products were at supermarkets. I mean, the other day I was at Costco and I saw the legend. It was my dad’s creation. I was like, “Oh my gosh!”
MB: What a cool moment! And I mean, that has to have an influence on you as you’re growing up, right? Seeing your parent be so successful in their work. It seems like he cared about it greatly—even outside the office. But on top of that, like you mentioned, you’re in this small town. It sounds like there wasn’t a lot of diversity there, and definitely not in your neighborhood. I’m guessing there weren’t too many Black business owners or people of color with this kind of position. So to see him overcome those barriers and be successful, do you ever think about how that may have impacted you?
CL: It definitely did. I didn’t really recognize any difference besides that one neighbor. Sometimes when you grow up and you move out of your home and you have your own life, you can forget those formative years, you can forget what made you who you are. The things that have happened in your life—good or bad—that made you say, “I’m not going to go in that direction, but I am going to go in this direction.” And seeing that my father never missed a day of work ever, his work ethic and the passion he showed—he came home and couldn’t wait to see what else he could create—really influenced me the most. I work hard and I love what I do, and I try my best to be a positive person.
Same thing with my mom. She had four children, but she loves fashion. Always has. So she decided she wanted to open up a boutique shop. She had so many cool pieces of clothing, especially for Enid. Finally, the community in Enid started to recognize our name and know who we were. Plus, my mom’s store was beautifully laid out. Let me tell you, my mother can shop from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night and love every minute of it. She and my father both worked hard and were creative in their own venues.
MB: I love hearing all this. It sounds like they worked but enjoyed what they did, and it was very inspiring to you.
CL: Yes, and my parents worked so hard that eventually they were able to achieve their dream house.
MB: How old were you when they built it?
CL: My early twenties, which reminds me of another formative experience…
The contractor they hired was also a pastor at the Church of Christ they attended. About six months into the build, my mother noticed that things were not being completed and the money put up for materials and other project needs was missing.
Long story short—the pastor ran off with over $50,000 and left the house unfinished.
My mother took it all in stride and became the contractor to finish the house while her attorneys searched for the missing pastor and the missing money. I watched my mother turn a dire situation into an amazing opportunity. The new contractor and crew she hired gave her a yellow hard hat with the title Boss Lady on it!
That is what my mother is. She is a no-nonsense woman. I watched her build a 7000-foot home every step of the way. I watched her learn about everything, and she completed the house in about a year and a half. It’s the most beautiful house on the block, both on the outside and inside. She put love into every detail.
But to have your pastor do that. I don’t know. It’s just growing up and learning how some people are.
One of the biggest lessons I think we all took away was to really make sure you know someone before you invest time and energy in them.
MB: I’m interested in that approach, getting to know people first, because that tends to be my approach, but I’ve noticed not everyone is like that. Some people find it very easy to just give out their trust, and they’re very open with people. And other people like to observe first and really take their time in getting to know someone else. Did the circumstance with your pastor make you that way, do you think, or has it always been in your nature?
CL: It’s kind of who I am. Growing up, I didn’t feel like I fit in with other girls. I would observe them and never pushed myself on anyone unless I was invited in. I was a loner in a sense because I didn’t mind being by myself. That was okay. I didn’t have to have a lot of friends around me at all times.
Also, being the youngest in my family, when my brothers and sister went to college, I was pretty much by myself. Even in modeling, I was always the one in the background. I was always the one just kind of watching and paying attention, seeing how things were unfolding with different personalities. If I didn’t think I wanted to be involved, I would bring a book.
MB: Always a solid tactic for introverts!
CL: Not to say that I didn’t want to be invited or be a part of something, but if it was negative or if I sensed a lot of nonsense, I would choose not to go that route. In general, I think my personality is just laid back.
MB: I totally feel that. Getting back to the trajectory of your life, your parents built their house and you were in your early twenties. What happened after you graduated high school? Did you stay in Enid?
CL: I was ready to leave Enid. When I graduated, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Enid’s a great small city, and it’s great for raising children, but everyone knows everyone. I got so many speeding tickets. I just felt like I needed to grow, so I went on vacation in Miami. I was only there for a few days when I was walking down Ocean Drive and was approached by this man named Jack Donahue.
I didn’t know who he was at the time, but he was this older man, so I was like, “This is a bit creepy.” But he just said, “Hey, are you with an agency here in Miami?” I was like, “No, I’m just here on vacation.” So he was like, “You’re exotic. You’re tall. I represent Irene Marie Modeling Agency, which is a few blocks down. I would love for you to give me a call, meet with the owner, and set an appointment before you go back to Oklahoma because I really think you could make it in the modeling industry.”
I was like, “Holy Toledo! I could be the next Naomi Campbell!”
So I did call and set an appointment, and I met with the owner. She told me they’d love to have me as a model, but the thing was, they couldn’t give me work if I didn’t live there.
I was like…oh. What do I need to do?
They said, “You need to move here!”
I knew that wouldn’t go over very well with my parents, and it didn’t. But I called them and told them about everything. When I went home, I told them I really wanted to give it a chance, and a few months down the road, I was able to go back to Miami. My parents helped me get an apartment, so this was the first time I’m living on my own without any adult supervision…in Miami.
My parents came down and they had loaded me up with toilet paper, paper towels, some tuna fish…anything that was easy that would help me survive and not starve. But at first, I didn’t get any jobs. I still had it in my head that I was going to be famous, so I had this reality check—here I am in a new state by myself, I know no one, and I’m not making any money. I had to get a job.
I became a hostess at a restaurant on Ocean Drive just to pay my rent each month. As I was a hostess, I started to get pictures done with the agency and go on a few castings here and there. It took me about a good year and a half to almost two years before I really got molded.
MB: That sounds like a modeling term. What does molded mean?
CL: When I say molded, I’m talking about how an agency will take on a young girl and in their due time, they’ll continue to hire photographers and makeup artists to do photo shoots of this model in the hopes that they have landed someone who will make them money.
For me, they were starting to get my book together. That’s what you need—a nice book to present to clients. Like I said, it took a while, but my breakout was when a designer name Paco Rabanne was flying into Miami and he was holding auditions to fly five girls to Paris to walk his couture show.
I went to that audition with about 200 or 300 other models, and I was chosen. From there, that’s how I got agencies in Milan and New York, and I started my career and haven’t stopped.
Be sure to stop by next week for Part II of our interview with Carlotta!