Shai’La Yvonne: Redefining Beauty

By Dawn Hockaday Editor in Chief


Shai’La Yvonne is a model, actress, DJ (and not necessarily in that order), from the Bay Area. Her natural beauty combined with her edgy tattoos, puts Shai’La in the forefront of the ever changing definition of American beauty, and most importantly black beauty. A non-conformist to Euro standards and an optimist about the wider acceptance of black women in the future of the fashion industry, Shai’La is a “model” in more ways than one. In this interview with Sista Ink Magazine, Shai’La shares her challenges, triumphs and passion for self-evolution and discovery with us.

Tell us a little about your background. Where did you come up?

I was born and raised in Northern California.  More specifically, I was born in Hayward, California.  I lived in a few different cities around the Bay Area, until high school when my family and I moved to Manteca (aka the middle of nowhere). Growing up, dance was my main focus. I did tap, jazz, ballet and lyrical. I danced starting at age 2 up until about high school when I decided that cheerleading was the cool thing to do, so I dropped dance, which I kind of regret nowadays. I know that everything happens for a reason, but it would have been really nice to still be a beautiful dancer with all that training that I had. I did cheerleading competitively for maybe about 5 years or so before going away to college at UC Santa Barbara.

What did you study there?

Those 4 years were the best years of my life. I studied sociology and black studies with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I just knew I loved learning. I really like people, I really like the study of people, and then I am black and I needed to know more about being black. It was just an excellent, excellent 4 years learning about the black culture.

When and what was your first big modeling break?

The first one was actually in high school. That’s when I decided that hey, I think I want to be a model. Our varsity cheerleading rep would come and measure us every year for our uniforms. She would always tell me, Shai’La, I see you a couple times a year, are you interested in being in our catalog? I’m like no, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I’m not into that, whatever. Finally, she was like, “look, I’m going to…” I don’t know if she asked my mom for my pictures, but somehow she got my photos, and then she submitted my photos for me to the varsity cheerleading magazine. They selected me and flew me out to Atlanta for a week. I remember in high school I just thought I was the coolest person ever getting flown out to Atlanta like I’m a celebrity. That, I would say, was really the start of why I became interested in modeling.Once I got into college, there was a photography school right next to UC Santa Barbara called Brooks Institute. I came across a lot of students needing models for their portfolio projects. By working with them and trading work  I had somewhat of a portfolio once I graduated. I ended up moving to back to the Bay Area and would make trips to San Francisco with these images and ended up getting signed to an agency.

I would say my biggest, biggest agency job was Intel. I still haven’t seen this ad to this day, but I got paid for it, so I know that it exists somewhere in the world. It was cast for each continent. I was Africa, which, because I haven’t seen it, maybe my ad is in Africa. This was maybe 3 years ago. That was the biggest money maker for me. Exposure not so much because I never go to see it. That same year I was in Essence Magazine. It was just a photo I had done with a photographer in San Francisco. They used it as a beauty ad. I think it was an ad for good skin and teeth. It was just me smiling and it turned up in the beauty section of Essence Magazine.

What challenges, if any, do you find being a woman of color with such a natural look?

I don’t know I’ve experienced any firsthand, which is nice, but I do think that just being natural in general is against the European standard of beauty. Thus, that is a challenge for me.

I just recently started growing out my hair. It was shaved. Now that my hair is growing out, It’s like a catch-22 because there’s natural hair castings here in L.A. that I’ve submitted for and I’ve gotten, but then I’m wondering if because I have natural hair that I didn’t get some of the other gigs.  I think it’s going to take a long time for the world to adjust to black beauty, which is very unfortunate.

Going back to my background with black studies in college, I had a whole course on black hair that I took with Professor Ingrid Banks who also wrote a book about black hair. It totally warped my mind. Growing up, I used to get a relaxer, get my hair straightened. It was just what I did and I never really knew why. After Taking these courses and reading, it became obvious that we were brainwashed standard of European beauty is straight hair. That’s why we’re putting chemicals and heat onto our hair because our curly hair is not acceptable.

Back to your question, I think I face the challenge every single day unknowingly, but I’m very optimistic in the fact that … Black people are taking over. We’re doing things that we’ve never done before. Social media has allowed this platform and this voice. I feel like this challenge is just slowly but surely going away.

Besides print, you also do TV, runway and just every category possible in the modeling industry. Which of those is your favorite? What do you enjoy doing the most?

I think right now, I enjoy the commercial acting side of things, mostly because it’s new for me. I just started really diving into this thing called acting.  By diving in, I mean just trying it (laughs).

You mentioned being a DJ. When did you first decide to start spinning records?

I don’t even know. It was literally a random thing. It came from years of going out and being dissatisfied with music, dissatisfied with how DJ’s put music together.

It was about March of 2015, when I bought all the equipment. I just decided, I was just going to go for it. I’m just going to do it. I don’t have anything to lose. I’m like, okay, so now I’ve got to start … I need to at least make some money to pay for all this equipment I just bought. I probably DJ-ed to myself for about a year. A lot of nights I spent just literally DJ-ing in my living room by myself and figuring out my songs, figuring out the programs.

It wasn’t until the transition from quitting my full time job and knowing that I was moving from the Bay area to L.A., that I was like, okay, DJ-ing could potentially allow me eat and have a roof over my head while I figure out everything else. Then, boom, I was just doing it. I’ve done a lot of private birthday parties, baby showers, corporate events, random things. I just started spinning for a celebrity down here, Adrienne Bailon, which has been pretty exciting. I worked a private party for her and then through her I’ve gotten this connection to Kia in Malibu.  It’s just crazy the power of networking and word of mouth.Yeah, it’s just become a thing that … I love it. I seriously love DJ-ing. I’m happy to have found something in my life that I can share with other people. Modeling is cool, it’s great. If people like to look at me or my picture, it’s cool, but music is so universal. I don’t even know what I want it to be, but I’m just excited to see where it all goes. I feel like the possibilities are endless.

Let’s talk about your tattoos for a second. Let’s dive into that. Let’s dive into the ink. What do the Roman numerals on your shoulders stand for?

The Roman numerals are each of my grandmothers’ birthdays. I put them on my shoulders like guardian angels. One is still here with me, thank goodness. When I call her for stuff, she’ll just be like, “well, you know, keep doing you, but behave.” The other one has passed away, but she’s still very, very influential in my life to this day. I also have her handwriting on the same shoulder. Then on my left wrist, it says “I love you.” She wrote it in a birthday card, and I had the artist trace it and tattoo it onto my wrist. I have tattoos on my fingers, on my right hand. Each tattoo on each finger is for what each finger means. The pointer finger says “Shhh.” The middle finger just says “you,” because I didn’t want to put the F word on my finger. The ring finger says “love.” The pinky finger says “promise.” I really like these because they’re incognito. I think this was maybe my third tattoo, but people just aren’t ready for it. All of a sudden I’ll have my fingers up and they’ll be like, “oh my gosh,  what do your fingers say?” I recently had a really large piece done on mythe right side, which was actually a cover up because … I love tattoos, but you know, when you’re 18 and you’re just like, ooo tattoos! Not all the time are they the best.

Yes, I do know that.

Anyway, my cousin is a tattoo artist, Shannon at Inkestry Tattoos in Livermore. His shop is phenomenal. I have a really big rose on my hip and that’s probably my favorite part of the piece. In bathing suits it looks really nice. If I wear shorts, you can see the bottom of it peeking out and so then everybody is like, “oh, you’re tattooed.” I also have stars on my hip. Again, an 18 year old getting a tattoo. I’m going to have Shannon add to it.

Do you find that having tattoos sometimes keep you from getting modeling gigs? You show up and they’re like, “look at this tattoo on her hip, how are we going to work around it?”

Yes and no. I’ve had people that cast me specifically because I have tattoos. They especially love the ones on my shoulders. But then I’ve also been asked to cover them up. I think tattoos are common, everybody has them now. Plus, in Photoshop, you can remove tattoos easily.

If you could offer any advice to any aspiring young DJ, any aspiring young model, aspiring young actress, so many things that you do; especially if they are a person of color, especially if they are a woman of color; what would that advice be?

Love yourself. You have to love you before you can put yourself out there, and loving you will keep you out there. You’ve got to be sure of you, sure of yourself before you can take on really any passion that you have. Do what you’re doing for you and you can’t go wrong. Do it in honesty, do it in love, do it in trust, and you can’t go wrong. Follow your passion. Make a plan, go for it, but make sure that you’re confident in yourself and ready to go so that when you get those no’s, because they come left and right, nothing but no’s, you can just brush them off so that when yes happens, you’re like, I knew it, I was ready for it. I’ve just been waiting.

Listen to Shai’La Yvonne On SoundCloud

Photo credits:

Beach Rose Tattoo | Photographer:  Julia Kovaleva
Numeral Tattoo | Photographer:  Kellan Rogers | Makeup:  Ashleigh Ducato
Headshot-Finger Tattoos | Photographer: Christian Thomas | Makeup:  Martha Tafoya