Supermodel Camerone Parker needs a life-saving heart procedure but COVID-19 makes it too risky. While shielding herself in the Arizona desert, Camerone shares her remarkable story with our features writer, Sue Smart.
Hearing Camerone’s upbeat voice and watching as her image comes into focus on the screen, I immediately stop worrying that our interview might be too much for her. There she is, exuding glamour, wearing a radiant smile and flashing mischievous blue eyes.
With her edgy, avant-garde look, Camerone’s modelling career soared in the 1990s, walking the runways for designers like Vera Wang, Bagley Mischka and Giorgio Armani. For a time, she was the face of Olay, and appeared on billboards across the US for brands like Ralph Lauren. Featuring in more than 350 magazines, she has also made appearances on television shows such as Good Morning America and The Today Show.
For more than 20 years, Camerone has bravely battled with multiple sclerosis (MS) and its dramatic effect on her body each time she relapses. It significantly increases her risk of heart failure and already, in the past seven months, she has had two heart attacks (one was a ‘widow maker’, considered one of the deadliest). Camerone says she will not survive a third.
As a result, Camerone is at very high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 as it rages across the world, so her life-saving heart procedure has been put on hold. While she courageously endures the wait, Camerone is tucked away in Sedona with her husband, shielding from the brutal virus and wearing a heart monitor 24 hours a day.
“I had a very unique look”
Raised in southern California and a college graduate, a modelling career had never been on Camerone’s radar until she was ‘discovered’ by John Casablancas, founder of Elite Models. “He said I had a very unique look but I couldn’t tell anyone how old I was, as 23 was considered ancient then. I sprouted up in college, and all of a sudden I was 5ft 8.5in (174cm) tall with 36in (91.44cm) inseam legs; when I walk through a door, two weeks later my body walks through,” she laughs.
Camerone credits much of her success to being a well-mannered, drama-free model who remembered everybody’s name from back of house to the crew onset and to having great representation. “Also, I was the only girl who looked like me; I had a distinctive look.”
At the peak of her modelling career in 1998 on assignment in Los Angeles, Camerone and four other models were rushed to hospital with meningitis. Weeks later, she was called back to see her neurologist, who totally shocked her with the diagnosis of MS.
“The doctor said I was going to have it for the rest of my life and there was no cure. I had big tears in my eyes and said to him: ‘You have just signed my death warrant. No one is going to hire me if they know I have this’.”
Keeping a secret to stay alive
The disease-modifying drug she required cost US$65,000 per year and that did not include medical appointments, ongoing tests and other drugs. Camerone did not have any medical insurance so there was only one way she could pay for the help she needed – and that was to remain working.
“Basically it took 24 hours – I told my parents, we marched to the consultant and plotted what I called ‘the biggest secret in the fashion and beauty industry’ – that one of their supermodels was working to stay alive; and I did it.”
Wherever Camerone was sent on modelling assignments, her doctor arranged treatment there. To avoid being seen, a car service collected her from the hotel at 2am and took her to hospital, where she had her blood work and infusion done before returning unnoticed. Twice the crew saw her getting out of the car and teased her about other possibilities; little did they know the serious truth.
“I did extraordinary things to become ordinary”
“I can look at those stories and kind of giggle but I did extraordinary things to become ordinary – I just wanted to be a woman living with this disease.”
By 2008, Camerone was still under contract but being married by then, she had medical insurance for the first time and no longer needed to work to stay alive. It was time to tell her story – to offer hope and inspiration – not to be pitied. The support Camerone received as a result was overwhelming and she promised herself she would do whatever she could to change things for people with MS.
Being a voice for those with MS
As the world’s foremost celebrity voice advocating for MS patients and treatment, Camerone is making an impact as she works hard to raise awareness and money to find a cure. In the last seven events where she has been the keynote speaker, US$1.1 million has been raised.
Living with MS
“MS is an insidious disease. Sometimes people look at me and say I do not look sick but just because on that particular day I am not walking with a cane or in a wheelchair, does not mean I don’t have the ravages of the disease tearing up my body. For instance, I have had 4 eye surgeries to save my vision, and I don’t know why I can walk the red carpet and the next week I can’t get out of bed and I can’t see. I am very fortunate to have an incredible team of doctors who are all keeping me alive.”
Camerone says it is a choice to give up or get up. “I may fall a hundred times but so long as I try to get up, the chance is always there that I will get up. It is when you give up that the chance is gone. I choose to get up.”
House of Camerone
“In my world, fashion can never be black and white; it is brilliant technicolour. Fashion offers different avenues every single day and it says a lot when it inspires you. I can be having the worst day but if I put on a vintage outfit, a fabulous hat or even my beautiful bracelet, I feel protected.
“I am who I am, so I own my own look and even in my darkest days when I am in the hospital, I still have my monogrammed pyjamas. Fashion will always make me feel good.”
“I open up my closet and I am inspired because there is art hanging in there”
It is no surprise to learn Camerone has a stunning and ever-increasing collection of couture and vintage finds in her famous closet, thanks to people who help her acquire amazing pieces. “Rome was not built in a day; neither was the House of Camerone,” she jokes. “I open up my closet and I am inspired because there is art hanging in there.”
Among her favourite designers are Mikael D, who designed her fabulous blue gown which she wore to the Screen Actors Guild Awards 2020 and Emil Gampe, who made her pink feather gown which she wore to the Costume Designers Guild Awards in January. “It is all ostrich feathers and is just gorgeous; it’s a work of art,” gushes Camerone.
Other favourites include Bert Keeter (one of her dearest friends), who made her wedding dress. “It’s an amazing affair! And I love the lines of Valentino and Dior. I’m also very much into vintage and love some of the classic Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne, especially when it’s really avant-garde and different.
The black lace gown from the House of Dior
“The most phenomenal piece in my archives would be the black lace gown from the House of Dior from 1948. I saw it wadded up in a corner in a vintage store and the owner didn’t know what it was but I did; I bought it for $75. The lace work is spectacular,” she enthuses.
“I love wearing big swirly gowns and I can work a train with the best of them. I have incredible jewellery designers, and Anthony Luciano is one of my favourite purse designers. I love taking chances with designers and combining their work as I don’t like to be head-to-toe in one designer.”
Working to stay healthy and optimistic
While shielding at home, the house is filled with music so it is always a happy place, says Camerone. She is limiting her news intake, walking by the creek (when no one is around), binge-watching TV series and reaching out to family and friends through emails and video calls. She misses seeing her parents and has found the separation hard.
“These are trying times but I look back on what I have survived, and think, ‘How can I make today fabulous?’ Even if it is just putting on my kaftan, my designer mask and a little jewellery or I have to stay in bed, that’s OK.”
“My life is like fashion, it becomes ever evolving”
“Every day is different; I can never get tired of seeing sunsets because every one has a different meaning or light. My life is like fashion, it becomes ever evolving and I won’t ever get stagnant or stuck on one thing. Goodness, my life will never be boring!”
Always working on a project, Camerone has started writing a book. “I hope it is inspiring in terms of what you can overcome with the power of family and friends, and the power of love and of giving. There’s nothing better; it truly is the best medicine around and it is phenomenal medicine for me.”
Our interview ends and Camerone flashes me another smile and I am filled with admiration for the incredible way she lives with the threats and challenges of MS while waiting for a cure and her life-saving procedure. She is far from ordinary and her courage, positivity and grace are humbling and inspirational.
Safe travels to all.
Screen Actors Guild Awards 2020
The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, California
Rich Fury for Getty Images
Gown: Mikael D
Makeup: Wesley O’Neil
Courtesy of Dr Robert McCulloch
Courtesy of Dr Robert McCulloch
Red Mask: Victor H, Los Angeles
MS Speaking Photo:
Courtesy of National MS Society
Coat: Alice + Olivia
Photo: Robert Kazandjian
Makeup: Wesley O’Neil
Sunglasses: Prada available at Horizon Eye Specialists
Vintage Houndstooth Hat: Model’s own
CDGA Awards 2020
The Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, California
Courtesy of Robert Rossi | Rossi Talent Management
Makeup: Wesley O’Neil
Gown: Emil Gampe | EMIL Couture
Handbag: Anthony Luciano
By: Sue Smart