Demeatria Boccella’s evolution from self-doubting child to a foremost fashion force in Pittsburgh is one for the history books.
From age 5, the Hazelwood native was interested in fashion and design, though the lack of diversity she saw in magazines crippled her confidence. As a young African-American, she felt so ugly that she tore up every photo of herself.
Yet family, friends and role models within the fashion industry nurtured her creative interests until eventually Boccella felt empowered enough to make a difference in her community. Her mother always set an example of community service, so Boccella knew from childhood that she’d be giving back in one way or another. Her story just needed time to unfold.
Her story is finally being told. In honor of Black History Month, Boccella has shared her personal oral history as part of the PNC Legacy Project, where it’s displayed alongside such influential African-American Pittsburghers as Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh President Esther Bush and Olympic gold medalist Swin Cash.
“The more I learn about my African ancestry, the more self-pride and self-love that I have,” Boccella’s warm, youthful voice flows out from her exhibit. “We need to first accept ourselves and to understand our beauty and that it is unique.”
Encapsulated in a recording dangling from a cord from the ceiling of the Lantern Building on Liberty Avenue, Boccella’s story has taken on a life of its own. Consider her many inspired projects: Her collaboration with Paris-based fashion photographer Mario Epanya; the creation of Utopia Model Agency in 1999 to promote the beauty of all ethnicities; launching the nonprofit FashionAFRICANA to raise awareness of African-inspired culture; and directing the fashion show for Steelers Style 2013.
Today, Boccella’s star continues to rise.
She will co-host Quantum Theatre’s Q Ball on March 15, when she’ll unite local fashion designers with theater artists in a series of installations. In February, Boccella served as a panelist at Macy’s Black History Month event downtown with Beverly Johnson, the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue in 1974 and one of Boccella’s personal fashion icons. Later this year, Boccella will introduce FashionAFRICANA’s first children’s show on August 16 at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. (FashionAFRICANA’s annual fashion show takes place in December.)
“I feel like everything happens for a reason, even the obstacles we face,” Boccella says. “Even though it was painful growing up with low self-esteem, I feel like I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now.”
Boccella’s generous spirit and outside-the-box thinking are evident in her recent efforts to promote Pittsburgh’s arts scene, from acclaimed jazz trumpeter Sean Jones to local high school students traveling to New York for the national August Wilson Monologue Competition, says Quantum Theatre Artistic Director Karla Boos.
“She just knows how to put things together so that the benefits ripple out to the community in a beautiful way,” Boos says. For last summer’s performance of Aida at the New Hazlett Theater, for example, Boos says Boccella didn’t just make the costumes — she actually organized the production.
Also on the horizon for Boccella is the chance to take Glamazonia, the multi-media exhibit she curated in 2012 with Epanya, to international audiences. And this spring she’ll breathe new life into Utopia, the modeling agency she founded with business partner and best friend, Darnell McLaurin.
Now offering one-on-one training and personal development to a handful of freelance models, the the company will re-launch to include production and talent representation for artists, musicians, actors and models. McLaurin and Boccella also hope to expand their roster from local to international clients as part of their work with Epanya.
McLaurin, who said the two instantly clicked when they met as college students in the late 1980s, calls Boccella innovative, electrifying and creative. When Boccella shaved her head, McLaurin says he was the one who encouraged her to do so.
“It adds so much to her character, because Demeatria suffered with low self-esteem but you wouldn’t know it if you just met her,” McLaurin says. “She didn’t feel pretty, but cutting her hair was a bold move for her.”
Boccella says she shaved her head to learn to appreciate her natural beauty, which was masked by her hair. By the time she was in her mid-20s, Boccella says she was tired of trying to lighten her skin and grow her hair long in order to live by someone else’s standard.
“So, I took a big step and cut my hair really short and eventually shaved it,” Boccella says. “It was the most liberating feeling ever.”
That act was another step on a difficult journey of love and self-acceptance, Boccella says.
Now a mother of a school-age daughter, Boccella says she was concerned about her daughter, who is biracial, hearing that mommy didn’t like herself growing up. But the 7-year-old accepted her mother’s story and that was it, Boccella says.
“We’re trying to raise her to appreciate who she is as both black and white,” Boccella says, adding that she and her husband, who is white, search for diverse schools and teachers for their child.
And Boccella says she tries to remember that she’s emerged as a role model for the young men and women making their way in the fashion world.
“I have young people looking at me, inspired by the work I’m doing,” Boccella says. “I hope to inspire the younger generation.”