When Nigel Barker burst through the door of a swanky New York City studio, four teens with life-threatening illnesses knew their dreams to model were about to come true.
Celebrity stylist Mary Alice Stephenson partnered with the "America's Next Top Model" photographer and the Make-A-Wish Foundation to enable the teens to take a break from medical talk and treatments on Friday to get the pampering and the bright lights they always hoped for.
"I've had several children's parents write to me and say it was one of the best, if not the best, days of their lives," Barker said through tears of the volunteer work he's done since 2003.
It was clear from the way Shannon Sills, 18, beelined for Barker when he arrived that this would turn out to be one of the best days her life. Currently battling Lymphoma, a cancer involving immune system cells, Shannon admitted that she wouldn't have made such a daring move before her October 2009 diagnosis.
"I've always been a straightforward person," she tells the Huffington Post. "But now, being sick, it shows you how short life really is."
Shannon currently undergoes weekly chemotherapy treatments and says it affects her physically, but that she's accepted it and focuses her energy on making herself as healthy and happy as she can be.
As a photographer, Barker told the Huffington Post that granting wishes for these young people is one of the most rewarding assignments he has because of the raw emotion involved.
"The passion in these girls is what brings photos to life," he said. "Without it, it's just a tear sheet. I like photos to be timeless, and these are."
The girls were glammed up with smoky eyes, mile-high cheekbones and red lips. Then it was on to the clothing rack, where Stephenson showed them gowns worn by Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and other celebrities. The girls chose dresses that matched their personalities, from old-Hollywood classic red to modern, one-strap dresses with spunk.
"They're getting permission to be girly-girls. They're able to forget and just dress up," said Stephenson, who has styled stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Britney Spears and has been working with the organization for more than 10 years.
The fantasy day wasn't just about being pampered, though. Renee Kirnberger, Make-A-Wish communication director, told the Huffington Post that the experience gives the girls courage.
"They're going through a lot with long hospital stays and treatments," she said. "Something like this can give them the strength to finish treatment. There's a certain faith in themselves that they gain. And with a shoot like this, you notice the change in the girls from the first frame to the last."
The foundation grants a wish every 40 minutes and made more than 13,500 wishes for kids with life-threatening illnesses come true last year.
Stephenson told the Huffington Post she continues contact with the wish recipients to show that the support isn't just a one-time thing.
"We stay in touch," Stephenson explained. "I never want the kids to walk away and say, 'Wait, they took back the dresses. There's no more hair and makeup.'"
Barker good-humoredly pointed out the difference between this photo shoot and the ones he typically works on.
"With models, you kind tell them what they need to do. But these girls today are A-list celebrities, telling us what to do!"
SLIDESHOW OF THE PHOTO SHOOT:
Photos: Myra Iqbal, Huffington Post Media Group
Mary Alice Stephenson leads Uniqwa and Azia into the studio.
The girls learn Nigel Barker will be their photographer for the shoot.
Angela loves taking photos herself, and wished to know what it was like to be on the other side of the lens. The 14-year-old from Butler, Penn. likes fashion magazines and is a self-taught pianist. She was diagnosed with Mitral valve prolapse, a heart defect. In addition, Angela has connective tissue disorder and Ehler-Danos syndrome, which affect her joints.
Azia is set on one day becoming a model. But she also has a Plan B, which is to attend Texas State University for business and international studies. The Missouri City, Texas native was diagnosed in 2005 with Lupus-Systemic, Antipholipid Syndrome & Chronic Nephritis, which affects body cells and tissue.
Originally from Lubbock, Texas, this girl dreams big. Uniqwa would like to do print, runway and magazine modeling and loves poetry, music, dancing and reading. She has Sickle Cell Anemia, an inherited blood disorder.
Shannon hopes to one day become a model, but says her backup plan is to be a detective. The Oroville, Calif. native says she she doesn't think there are enough women in the field. Shannon was diagnosed with Lymphoma, a cancer involving immune system cells, in October, 2009.
Mary Alice Stephenson has Nigel Barker try a dress on for size.
Nigel Barker and Uniqwa show off their dance moves.
Nigel Barker shoots Azia
Shannon knocks Nigel Barker off his feet!
Mary Alice Stephenson shows off Angela's new look to Nigel Barker.
Angela poses at her photo shoot.
Azia gets the royal treatment.
Shannon goes for the glam look at her photo shoot.
The girls receive gift bags to bring home.
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