We consider ourselves pretty lucky to be surrounded by phenomenal women in the Women’s Voices community—from our readers to our contributors to our staff and our board. As we learn about the intricacies of these women’s lives, we see a common theme emerging: women who reinvent themselves over and over again. We’ve decided to pay tribute to these women in our Women of Reinvention series, acknowledging that for each of them (and you), the concept of reinvention takes on very different and nuanced meanings, and is often redefined at various points in our lives. For some women, reinventing themselves is about survival; for others, it’s about new beginnings. For Cherokee Black, a former model who left the industry to take care of an ill sister and is now returning decades later, reinvention is “a regular occurrence” in her life. For her, “reinvention” means “to transform with grace.”
Cherokee Black will be the first to tell you she has lived an extraordinary life—and she still encounters extraordinary every day. She’s sung with Luther Vandross; she was a background-vocals singer for the legendary drummer “Buddy” Miles; she’s had a career as a fashion model, actress, magazine editor, and make-up stylist. As a child she was surrounded by women legendary in the entertainment world—women like jazz singer Ethel Waters, who was her mother’s godmother. Her heritage is also an eclectic one: Her mother is of Black and Cherokee ancestry and her father’s family comes from Cape Verde. In some way or another, she has always found herself center stage, in front of the camera, or helping others shine behind the scenes.
But that extraordinary life has come with many struggles and tragedies. As a fiftysomething, Cherokee just recently signed a modeling contract—returning to the industry after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Born and raised in New York City, she began modeling at 17, and continued until a series of casualties in her family forced her to step away from her modeling career and devote her time and energy to taking care of her loved ones.
“I got married at the young age of 20 to a man who had difficulty with fidelity,” says Cherokee. “And we all know how that turned out.” Still, she kept believing that after every storm is a rainbow: “There will always be tests and roadblocks that will set you back. You just have to keep it moving.” That rainbow turned out to be her son, Bazaar Royale (pictured to the right), her only child. Royale was heavily influenced by his mother’s career in show business and is now a noted musician himself and founder of “The Ghetto Metal Music Movement”–a fusion of hip-hop and rock. “We’re very close,” she says about her son. “I think we have the same kind of sensitivity about the world.”
Cherokee has had to rely on her faith and spirituality time and time again through several storms. Indeed, from 1981 to 1987 she weathered a series of them. In 1981, she lost her mother (who was 48 at the time) to asthma. Four months later, her younger brother was murdered. He was 25. In 1982, her younger sister received a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 22. Her father died in 1983. And, in 1987, her sister received another blow—she suffered a debilitating stroke. She would need 24-hour care for the rest of her life.
With just herself and her sister left in the family, Cherokee settled down and dug deep. She walked away from her modeling career—which kept her frequently traveling away from home in New York—to become her sister’s caretaker. She also took charge of her sister’s young son. Throughout those early caretaking years, she says, she learned a few significant lessons. “I have always put other people first. I am a nurturer by nature, always taking care of other people. I had to learn to take my life back and not feel a sense of guilt because of it.” Her sister is now in an assisted-care home. And although Cherokee is still her sister’s number one source of support, she’s learned to seek out and accept the help she needs. “I can’t do it alone,” she says.
Now she’s back in the game. A couple decades have gone by. The industry has changed. Cherokee has changed. She says she has a different perspective on being a model in her 50s than she did in her 20s. “Modeling, then, could be a horrendous world. It wasn’t always as glamorous as many people thought. The stuff that went on behind the scenes, and what you had to do to stay relevant, well, people didn’t really want to know about it. Now I’m being accepted for the way I look, for my natural gray hair, for the size 14 that I am, and for my age. I love it.”
It’s a given that Cherokee has had to reinvent herself a few times, sometimes by choice and at times by necessity. For her, reinvention is a natural part of life. “I find it is important to choose spiritual growth as you age and transform. Dwelling on beauty will only serve to make aging very sad. Reinvention is a regular occurrence for me. I reinvent in order to transform with grace.”