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The Ugly Duckling

The story of how Bedford's Sara Grace Wallerstedt became a globe-trotting cover model—and went to prom.
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Elizabeth Lavin

The Ugly Duckling

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Sara Grace Wallerstedt poses in her violet-hued room, holding a stuffed Simba. A long-forgotten One Direction poster is rolled up at the foot of her bed, and overflow from a laundry hamper lies rumpled on the floor. Her dad, Darren, the general manager of production at a water treatment company by day and a ham radio enthusiast by night, peers around the corner, watching his daughter wide-eyed. It’s the first time he has seen Sara work. So far he has seen only the end product, the ads and editorials in the magazines stacking up in their home since the teenager walked into a Dallas modeling agency in March of last year.

Sara’s face is the shape of an inverted teardrop, and her freckles—which seem to have burst from the bridge of her nose, scattering up and down her body—have become her trademark. She stands just under 5-foot-10, a midrange height on the fashion runway, but her elongated neck and lean limbs make her appear much taller. Many have looked at her wide-set almond eyes and asked if she was part Asian, which would be remarkable if it were true, considering the strawberry blond mane that nearly brushes her waist.

In April, Sara landed on the cover of Vogue Italia, perhaps the world’s most illustrious fashion magazine, at a time of intense anticipation. It was only the second issue since the beloved editor in chief, Franca Sozzani, passed away, and the new editor, Emanuele Farneti, took the gilded reins. The cover story was called “The New Beautiful” and waxed poetic about three of fashion’s fresh models, including the young redhead. “Sara Grace Wallerstedt reminds one of dew on leaves in light and shadow and something between an insect and a flower,” the translation reads.

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Yet, until just over a year ago, Sara lived in an ordinary world. Specifically in Bedford, an ordinary suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth, in an ordinary one-story brick house filled with ordinary things: wood paneling, bulky leather couches, wrought-iron accents, and an occasional hairball courtesy of one of the family’s three cats. The teenager herself is ordinary and admittedly “kind of a nerd.” Her library account history shows more than a few comic books. Batman: The Killing Joke is her favorite of all time. She loves Game of Thrones, which she started watching with her mom years ago. (“They’d take my mom card away for that,” Karen says. “She goes, ‘I heard this show has dragons in it.’ ”) She plays Zoo Tycoon on her laptop and Mortal Kombat on her Xbox and listens to pop remixes on YouTube’s Trap Nation channel. Her mom gets onto her for eating too much junk and drinking too much Starbucks. She played the clarinet in Trinity High School’s marching band and competed in color guard contests. Her Instagram handle is @walldamort.

Sara always had an affinity for animals. As a kid, she’d let garden snakes slither through her fingers for hours, and, when she got older, she volunteered at the Euless Animal Shelter. She dotes on her elderly dachshund, Gracie. She hoped to be an Aggie and then a veterinarian—until her world took a spin toward the extraordinary and she became one of the most buzzed about new models in the world.

One year into her career and Sara has already worked with fashion’s greatest living legends. She has shot with Peter Lindbergh and Patrick Demarchelier. She has been styled by the frizzy-haired Grace Coddington and had her makeup done by Pat McGrath. “Rising star” and “It girl” are the terms attached to her name in the press. “Shy” and “awkward” are the words she uses to describe herself.

That’s the reason we’re here—me, a writer, along with a photographer. We asked to spend the day with Sara as she got ready for her senior prom in May, curious to see the real Sara Grace on one of the final milestones in her adolescence.

Sara in her Bedford bedroom.

Sara had always been small.

Doctors ran tests when she was a child, coming to the conclusion that the girl was “just skinny.” “I was a weird-looking kid,” she says. “I looked like a chicken nugget.” By eighth grade, she was taller than her 5-foot-3 mother and kept on going, reaching 5-foot-9 by junior year. She towered over all the girls at school and most of the boys. And though some thought her height gave her modeling potential, growing up in the suburbs, where the trifecta of physical attraction includes a tan, curves, and highlights, wasn’t exactly easy. People would make comments about her being anorexic. One time a boy told her she looked like a giraffe. Kids gave her a hard time when she wore heels—which she did just once. There was a whole year she didn’t smile at all, embarrassed to show her braces. Karen remembers Sara telling her, “Mom, I know I’m not pretty.”

“It’s hard to tell a high school girl that tall and skinny ages well,” Karen says. “Sara would say, ‘I’m so skinny, and I have this stupid long neck, and my freckles are so ugly.’ And those are exactly the reasons why she got signed. They love all the things that she hated about herself.”

Sara’s reason for pursuing modeling is simple. She was 16 years old and all of her friends were starting to get jobs. Her mom thought it could be a confidence booster. Maybe Sara might be able to book a modeling gig here and there for a local catalog.

Sara and Karen visited two major Dallas agencies. One presented a contract so quickly that Karen worried it was a scam; the second met with Sara but never offered her anything. And then the two went to an open call at Wallflower Management, a boutique agency in Deep Ellum opened eight years ago by Tammy Theis and Brenda Gomez, who lean toward offbeat beauties. The office was packed that day because most kids were off for spring break, but the freckled teen stood out among the hopefuls. “With Sara, it was that one in a million moment when she walked in,” Theis says, “and we just knew.”

Sara at age 8 with her dachshund, Gracie; on the cover of the April issue of Vogue Italia; and with her parents, Darren and Karen.

“Just those snapshots that we took with the little point-and-shoot camera when she walked in were stunning,” Gomez says. “You know how some girls have just one expression? There’s something about Sara that, depending on how the light’s hitting her face, you get a different play of emotion.”

Karen and Sara were on the way home in bumper-to-bumper traffic when Wallflower called to make an offer.

Theis couldn’t wait for the contract to arrive. As soon as Karen called to say she had dropped the two-page document in the mail, Theis had her assistant post Sara’s digitals, those initial point-and-shoot snapshots, to the Wallflower website. Within a few minutes, they got their first inquiry; within an hour, they received another two. Gomez called a friend at a New York agency in a panic. “Look, I don’t know how to handle this situation,” she said. “We’ve never had this happen.” Take the photos down immediately, he advised. They were already going to be inundated.

That’s when Gomez called Karen and said, “We need to know how serious you are. We think we can market Sara to a New York agency to do high fashion.”

“I was kind of gobsmacked,” Karen says. “I thought she’d be doing teenager clothes.” They hadn’t even told Darren about visiting agencies, let alone signing a contract. “My dorky little teenager is high fashion?”

“What’s high fashion?” Sara asked.

That July, after Sara finished her junior year, Karen took time off from her administrative job at UT Southwestern, and she and Sara checked into a hotel near Times Square. In two days, they visited seven agencies, buzzing from one side of Manhattan to another, then across the bridge to Brooklyn. It was the first time either of them had used Uber.

Sara signed with The Society Management, the agency that reps Adriana Lima and a brunette simply listed as Kendall. The agency quickly booked 12 test shoots in two weeks, and high-powered casting director Ashley Brokaw optioned her for an exclusive for Proenza Schouler’s New York Fashion Week show.

In September, having been shamed out of wearing heels by classmates, with no training beyond a basic tutorial at Society, Sara walked her first runway. Vogue’s Anna Wintour sat front and center. “I was so nervous, but I think I pulled it off,” Sara says. The New York Times featured her in a piece about the crop of new faces at Proenza, and published a “meet the model” article, praising the teenager who “practically stole the show with her surreally beautiful smattering of freckles.”

Despite her natural abilities, she had a lot to learn. In the days after her runway debut, a photographer who would shoot Sara’s first-ever fashion editorial asked to meet with the new model. It wasn’t until after Karen dropped off her daughter and walked outside to update Darren that the parents Googled the photographer Sara was speaking with. It was Steven Meisel, the reclusive genius who shot hundreds of Vogue Italia covers, not to mention Madonna’s landmark coffee-table book Sex, which sold 150,000 copies the day of its 1992 release, seven years before Sara was born. “We were too stupid to be impressed,” Karen says.

One time, Sara finished packing for a winter trip to Milan and Karen asked why she didn’t have a jacket. “The weather is the same as here,” Sara said, shortly thereafter discovering that when she typed “Italy” into a weather app, it automatically pulled up the results for Italy, Texas. (“I was so mad,” she says.) And another time, Sara gave reporters her full name, not realizing her team intended she be known as “Sara Grace.” (“No one told me!”) Now, she is stuck with the clunky surname.

It was when Sara saw the images of herself lying in the sand of the California coast, wearing head-to-toe Prada, posing for the couture house’s spring ad campaign, that it all hit her. “That was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually doing this right now,’” Sara says. “I did not think I was going to get that far. I was just going with it.”

Last spring, she closed the Prada show (major players usually get the opening and closing positions in runway lineups). There was the Vogue Italia cover, of course, and she has appeared in American Vogue a number of times. This summer, a Vogue crew traveled the United States, shooting new and established models such as Amber Valletta in their hometowns for the inches-thick September issue. The crew stopped in Oak Cliff to snap Sara in front of Taqueria El Si Hay and at Norma’s Cafe.

Back at Wallflower in February, Theis and Gomez had just celebrated an almost-inked contract with Prada, surprising Sara with a shower of Silly String and a cake, when they got word that Raf Simons, the acclaimed creative director who had just left Dior for Calvin Klein, had swooped in and offered Sara a sweeter deal, a one-year exclusive. This means Sara won’t be doing ads for anyone but Calvin Klein until next year and can therefore hold off on leaving her Bedford home till she’s free to take more gigs. It also means she’s making a lot of money for an 18-year-old. Sara’s team asked that I not disclose how much that deal is worth, but Karen confirms it’s more than her and Darren’s combined annual income.

No, Seriously: Sara got her dress for about $400 at a store in New York. She had her nails painted teal to match her dress at a nail salon “near the Walmart.”

On prom day, four of Sara’s friends huddle in front of a bathroom mirror, applying mascara while Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” plays on a phone. I ask them what they think about Sara’s career. Shrugs. “She’s still the same Sara,” one says.

Sara wasn’t asked to prom, but she figures more than half of her classmates are going without dates. “It’s not, like, a big deal at our school,” she says. The girls—there end up being 12 of them in the prom-bound Hummer limo—are all going stag.

Weeks later, I ask Sara what happened after the limo pulled away, headed for Dallas Market Center. The theme was Arabian Nights, which involved palm readers and belly dancers. She left her 4-inch heels at her table, not because she felt weird standing more than 6 feet tall, but because she and her friends spent most of the night on the dance floor. “I’m really stiff and awkward, but I dance anyway,” Sara says. “I couldn’t care less what other people think.”

The girls got excited anytime Beyoncé came on and screamed when the DJ played Justin Bieber’s remix of “Despacito.” They thought it was funny when the DJ’s crew passed out fidget spinners. When the dance ended, at midnight, the girls went back to Sara’s house to change. Some had to go home to make curfew, but the remaining few piled into the 2007 Chevy Cobalt Sara’s dad bought her, and they drove to IHOP. They stayed up past 3 am. “It was probably the most memorable night of the high school section of my life,” Sara says.

She wasn’t able to sleep the next day away, like an ordinary teenager. She had to catch a flight to Los Angeles, where she had a fitting for a Calvin Klein photo shoot first thing Monday morning.

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