Magical moment

Teen battling cancer gets dream makeover in NYC

Fashion photographer Nigel Barker takes a photo of Oroville teen Shannon Sills during a Make-A-Wish Foundation-sponsored makeover and fashion shoot in New York City.

Fashion photographer Nigel Barker takes a photo of Oroville teen Shannon Sills during a Make-A-Wish Foundation-sponsored makeover and fashion shoot in New York City.


Less than two years ago, at the age of 17, Shannon Sills was diagnosed with lymphocytic lymphoma, a form of cancer that generally is incurable. The Oroville teen who dreamed of being a model and a detective at one point was given less than a 10 percent chance of survival.

On Friday (Aug. 26), Sills, now 18 and with her cancer in remission, was ecstatic to find herself at Milk Studios in New York City, one of the foremost fashion metropolises in the world.

While there, she received makeovers from some the world’s top makeup artists and stylists and the attention of other famous folks. Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, icons such as fashion photographer Nigel Barker, a judge on America’s Next Top Model, and style and beauty expert Mary Alice Stephenson catered to every fashion whim of Sills and three other teenagers. The end result was a radiant, transformed Sills in a flowing red gown designed by Jason Wu, one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s favorite designers.

“It was amazing!” said Sills, by phone from New York earlier this week, fresh off the experience. “I never thought I’d do anything like this, and it’s helped me to push on emotionally.”

The team that made her look as though she were attending the Academy Awards reads like a dream team of fashion design, said Stephenson, a 10-year Make-A-Wish volunteer and its national fashion ambassador.

Sills was treated to the work of Ted Gibson, the hair expert on the fashion makeover TV show What Not to Wear, who has worked with A-list stars like Angelina Jolie. Her makeup was expertly done by Romy Soleimani, whose work with a host of supermodels has graced the pages of high-fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, said Stephenson.

Stephenson was proud to guide Sills through most of the pampering at Milk Studios, a full-service photography studio that she describes as “the biggest and best fashion studio in the world.” The VIP treatment even included a pedicure and manicure.

And then there’s the wardrobe.

“Shannon fell in love with the red gown immediately, even though there were 30 to 40 dresses to choose from,” said Stephenson, a 20-year veteran as a fashion and beauty commentator whose credits include Showbiz Tonight, MTV, VH1, Oprah and Entertainment Tonight, among others.

“The look on Shannon’s face when she was done was a beautiful and amazing thing,” she continued.

Stephenson called Sills and the other girls participating in the makeover “supermodels of strength” and said that she gets as much pleasure from volunteering as the recipients.

“Make-A-Wish is my soul candy,” she said. “Fashion is frivolous unless it’s anchored by something meaningful.”

A global charitable organization, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has served more than 250,000 children with life-threatening illnesses since its founding in 1980. Its mission is reliant on 25,000 volunteers.

Stephenson noted that the wish is not meant to simply be a one-day event, as the girls also received a goody bag with fashion accessories and a $250 gift certificate for an online shopping spree. She also gives them her email address, which often leads to long-term friendships.

Sills’ road to her fashion fantasy began when she applied to the Make-A-Wish Foundation shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Her favorite part of the experience was meeting Barker.

“I’ve always wanted to meet him since I saw him on America’s Next Top Model,” Sills said. “He’s very funny and a real sweetheart.”

After taking the photos, Barker handed the camera to a colleague and posed with Sills, saying, “This one’s for your boyfriend,” and gave her a peck on the cheek. He promised to sign the photo before mailing it to her.

Sills made the four-day trip to New York with her boyfriend’s mother. She said her own mother is her biggest supporter but had to stay home to care for Sills’ three school-age brothers.

Hurricane Irene ended up hampering a planned tour of Teen Vogue magazine’s offices during Sills’ stay, but that didn’t diminish her euphoria. The experience, she said, was well-deserved after all of the pain, emotional struggles and doctors’ treatments she’s endured.

She currently receives chemotherapy treatments weekly but is feeling much better and said her survival expectancy is now approximately 85 percent. She lives life almost as if she didn’t have the cancer. The Los Plumas High School graduate plans on taking online college criminal-justice courses to become a detective in order to help crime victims.

Sills’ advice for others going through similar, life-threatening illnesses is simple yet profound.

“Life really is worth living,” she said. “No matter how much you may want to give up, don’t. I kept pushing on, and look where I am today.”