Mississippi Madness

It began innocently enough. Photographer Brad Jones, über-stylist Alicia George, art director Hudd Byard, and I met for lunch to discuss how to creatively tackle the annual fall/winter fashion issue.

After perusing several national and international fashion mags, we decided to go glam — a return to the days when people actually dressed for dinner and black tie meant black tie.

We decided to head down the road to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the photo shoot. What better place than the Delta and the Shack-Up Inn to take us back in time?

For those unfamiliar with the Shack-Up, it's an honest-to-goodness former working plantation a mere four miles from the "Crossroads," where Robert Johnson supposedly made his devilish deal. The place boasts authentic sharecropper shacks, original cotton gin and seed houses, and other outbuildings. Perfect! We booked the rooms, gathered our wares, picked up model Alina Bovkun from The Peabody, where she works as a concierge, and hit the road.

Now, Alina has been in Memphis for about a year. Other than a runway show or two in her native Russia, this was her first magazine fashion shoot, but she bravely piled into a car with virtual strangers, and didn't panic as we drove her to the middle of nowhere. (Imagine yourself in Russia with a car full of strangers claiming to take you on a "modeling shoot" and dropping you off at a farm in the middle of the night. I'd be a shivering wreck. But that's just me.)

In her pretty accent and angelic voice, she looked at us in bewilderment, "This is where we pay to sleep?" It sure didn't look like the kind of hotel she was accustomed to.

It took a while to explain to Alina the rich musical heritage of the area, and that people come here to pay homage to the likes of Pinetop Perkins and T-Model Ford, among other blues legends. I think she finally figured out she was in a whole new world when we took her to Sonic for dinner (first-class all the way, baby), and was amazed at the ability to order fried food and have people bring it to the car.

The owners of the Shack-Up were as welcoming as could be, but sadly, other elements were not. Rain turned what had been a lush, green field location into a mud pit. The temperatures crept into the mid-90s. A cute but god-awful-smelling mutt took a liking to us, and so I was put on "dog-alert," ensuring that our canine companion didn't jump on Alina's dresses with his muddy paws. We persevered. So what if the jook joint we used had only one electrical outlet with about 30 things plugged into various extensions, there was a hole in the roof, and it began to rain? So what if Brad's light-screen caught on fire and we had to quickly unplug everything to make sure we didn't accidentally recreate Inferno? Nothing could stop us.

Well, almost nothing. We didn't count on the fire ant army.

They were everywhere. On our last morning, Hudd arrived for our 6 a.m. call time looking a little worse for wear and awfully grumpy. Seems he had woken in the middle of the night to find himself being eaten alive by dozens of fire ants that had decided to shack up with him. He was covered in bites, and slept in his truck for the remainder of the night.

But the light at the end of the tunnel was near. We just had a couple more shots to get, and we were headed home. As we zoomed in on a close-up of Alina, we noticed she had tears streaming down her beautiful face.

"I think they are crawling up my dress. The ants are. And biting."

Sure enough, her legs were spotted with the little bastards, and her Dior-sandal-clad feet were so red and swollen we could barely get her shoes off. But she never complained.

The shoot was finally over. We packed up and headed back to Memphis — hot, stinky, ant-bitten, and a little giddy from the prospect of seeing the outcome of all the effort. Just before we hit the highway, Alina had one small request.

"Can we stop at the Sonic one more time?"

It was official. Our Russian beauty finally "got" the Delta.

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