Change does not occur without a cause of action, and these women have proven that success comes with true hard work and a passion for what they want to pursue. From enacting change in politics, media, art, and more, these dreamers and doers have challenged the status quo. From the relentless powerhouse of Sylvia Weinstock, a breast cancer survivor who founded her bakery when she was 50, to the zealous drive of Linda Sarsour, who was at the forefront of the fight against police surveillance of Muslims during the war on terror, CR’s latest issue highlights 16 incredible women that have broken the boundaries to strive for what they believe in.
mickalene thomas and racquel chevremont
Mickalene Thomas’ art spans several media—painting, photography, installations, and now fashion, with her Dior Lady Art bag collaboration with Christian Dior—all focusing on the visibility, history, and beauty of African American women. Chevremont, her partner of seven years, has been a collaborator, subject, and muse in Thomas’s work. “Just like my first muse, my mother, all of my muses possess a profound sense of inner confidence and individuality,” Thomas has said. “They are all in tune with their own audacity and beauty in such unique ways…and most importantly, they are real.”
For two decades, Fanta Zephir has worked in New York City construction—a trade that’s only 3 percent female—on sites from Yankee Stadium to the Freedom Tower. She makes a union wage of an hour, but dry spells between jobs can be long, and the hours are brutal: she often wakes up well before dawn at home in the Bronx to make it to a Brooklyn worksite by 7:00 a.m. But construction is in her blood, and she loves her coworkers. “I never had any problems,” she says. “A lot of people knew my dad.” Her sons are both now construction workers, too, and the job is a source of pride: “I love the fact that I have done a lot of iconic structures.” It’s not everybody who can look up in the sky and say, “I built that.”
Since she entered the industry at the age of 18 in 1993, Carolyn Murphy has been that rare combination: both a prolific and popular commercial model and a denizen of high-fashion runways. An occasional actress and designer, she has been Estée Lauder’s longest-serving spokeswoman and has appeared multiple times on the covers a prominent fashion magazine and of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. Though she was one of the world’s top-earning models at the time, doing SI was hardly a no-brainer for Murphy: “I was never really known as a swimsuit or lingerie model,” she says, “so I met that success, if you will, with resistance.”
On the small screen, Cynthia Nixon has played Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan, and Alex Tanner, the daughter of the presidential candidate in Robert Altman’s miniseries Tanner ’88. These roles were all warm-ups for her 2018 contest against incumbent Andrew Cuomo in the New York gubernatorial primary. Nixon’s campaign centered on income inequality, mass incarceration, climate change, and universal healthcare. The former Sex and the City star declared herself a socialist, and though she lost, her politics might just be the wave of the future. A major advocate for LGBT rights, Nixon says of meeting her partner, Christine Marinoni: “I don’t really feel I’ve changed. I’d been with men all my life, and I’d never fallen in love with a woman. But when I did, it didn’t seem so strange. I’m just a woman in love with another woman.”
Before her big screen debut in The Florida Project—the critically lauded 2017 indie hit, in which she starred alongside Willem Dafoe—Mela Murder (it’s a stage name; she was born Boricua Melanie Sierra) was known for her choreography and her freewheeling Instagram, in which she often appears with her daughters and without clothes. Since then, she’s also featured in Hurray for the Riff Raff’s music video “Pal’ante,” drawing attention to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in her native Puerto Rico. “All I can do right now is spread awareness, and that resonates with people,” she says. “I hope it reaches somebody that has the power to do something about it.”
You might call Sylvia Weinstock a late bloomer. She founded her bakery in 1980, when she was 50 and a survivor of breast cancer. She’d been baking cakes at ski resorts while her family was on the slopes before she set out on her own. Since then she’s become a powerhouse in the world of cake baking and decoration. She’s baked cakes for Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian West, Martha Stewart, and the Kennedys. A recent turn as a guest judge on the Netflix reality baking show Nailed It! only cemented the nonagenarian’s fame. “Unless you are dead, there is no ‘late in life’!” she says. “Get your skills together…and go for it! Age is a number.”
Few areas in American law have been as dynamic in recent decades as the realm of gender and sexuality, and Suzanne Goldberg, a member of the Columbia University Law School faculty, has been at the forefront of all the major battles. As a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, she was a cocounsel for the defendants in the landmark Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas. That victory, the culmination of a decades-long struggle for civil rights, overturned age-old prohibitions against private homosexual activity between consenting adults and opened the door for same-sex marriage. In addition to her duties as a law professor, Goldberg serves as Columbia’s vice president for university life. She’s been breaking down boundaries since she was a teenager and became the first girl on the White Plains Little League baseball team.
A native of Wisconsin, Missy Rayder has been a top runway model since 1997, shortly after she came to New York to visit her sister, the model Frankie Rayder. The pair soon became sibling supermodels, gracing magazine covers together and living across the street from each other in Tribeca. Their sister Molly joined them in an iconic 2003 Gap commercial to the tune of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” She hasn’t lost an easygoing nonchalance picked up during a Midwestern childhood. “I’m the least-picky eater that you’ll ever meet—I’ll eat anything,” she once told Grub Street. “Although, I won’t eat fast food, ever!” Model behavior.
A former federal prosecutor and law professor at Fordham, Deborah Batts was elevated to U.S. District Judge for Manhattan in 1994, becoming the first openly gay African American judge ever. Among her major rulings are a 2006 decision against Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman for failing to safeguard people in Lower Manhattan against air pollution in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and a 2011 decision holding that U.S. courts can’t rule in cases of foreign law. In 2009 she issued an injunction against an unauthorized sequel to J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye—as long as the copyright’s in place, thou shalt not take Holden Caulfield’s name in vain.
ngoc minh ngo
Flowers fill the work of the photographer Ngoc Minh Ngo, but don’t judge a bloom by its color. “I thought people saw flowers as only a way to add a pop of color,” she says of the germ that led to her first book, Bringing Nature Home. “I wanted to show that flowers aren’t just objects. Our connection with nature is what makes them special.” Ngo grew up in a seaside village in Vietnam and started out in New York as an independent film producer. It was research for that job that brought Robert Frank’s photography to her attention, which in turn inspired her to pick up a camera herself. More floral portraiture than still life, Ngo’s work spans four books that have moved from flowers captured within the home to gardens in the Bronx and Morocco.
It was in a South London market in 1995 that Alek Wek, then 18, was scouted for her first modeling job. In no time, she was appearing in music videos by Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, yet she was only four years removed from her childhood in what is now South Sudan, a region that had been at war since she was nine. “I went hungry, not to fit into a dress but because I was a refugee,” she says. Beyond the runways and magazine covers, which she revolutionized with her sub-Saharan beauty, Wek has been an activist on behalf of refugees and in the fight against AIDS. An author, handbag designer, and actress, Wek is now an icon, and her look, once considered exotic, is now at the center of the culture. In 2018, she did a campaign for Ann Taylor. “You don’t,” she says, “get more mainstream or typically American than that.”
The nation of Georgia, sitting on the northeast coast of the Black Sea, has since ancient times been one of the world’s great crossroads. And so, since she came from the seaside region of Guria, relocated to the capital Tblisi, and from there moved to Paris at age 14, the model Marisha Urushadze has enjoyed spectacularly international success, especially since she became an exclusive model for Gucci in 2018, representing the brand on catwalks and in campaigns around the world. (Lucky for her, she speaks five languages.) But the real turning point, Urushadze says, was when she decided to grow her hair out and let her distinctive brown curls flow. “My friends tell me that I look like Medusa because of my hairstyle,” she says, invoking the mythological stunner. For this up-and-comer the future is hardly etched in stone.
linda sarsour and faiza ali
The abuses of Americans’ civil liberties during the Bush administration turned Linda Sarsour into an activist. She was at the forefront of the fight against police surveillance of Muslims during the war on terror. At the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, she helped form Muslims for Ferguson, and so after the 2016 election, she was a seasoned protester and became cochair of the first Women’s March, which stormed Washington one day after Trump was inaugurated, and the 2017 A Day Without a Woman strike. In the process, she has sought to change the meaning of the word “jihad” in the public mind, to align it with nonviolent action against injustice: “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,” she says.
As director of the office of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Faiza Ali has brought her street-level experience as a community organizer to City Hall. She’s spent her adulthood working to mobilize Muslim Americans for progressive causes. Her efforts have helped bring about the celebration of Muslim holidays in New York City schools and put a check on discriminatory police practices against Muslims. A native of Brooklyn and a lifelong New Yorker, Ali is of course a lifelong Mets fan.
Nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her 1972 role in The Heartbreak Kid, Jeannie Berlin was a fixture of 1970s cinema, culminating in her title turn in Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. After an absence of several decades, Berlin, daughter of the legendary director Elaine May, returned to the screen over the past decade with parts in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, Woody Allen’s Café Society, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. She’s also lit up the small screen with parts in The Night Of and in Succession as the vicious right-wing media executive Cyd Peach.
CR FASHION BOOK Issue 16 is now available online and on newsstands packaged alongside CR MEN Issue 10. To order a physical copy click here, and sign up for our newsletter for exclusive stories from the new issues.
PHOTOGRAPHS DAVIT GIORGADZE
FASHION CHRISTIAN STEMMLER
VIDEO WYATT WINFREY
VIDEO EDITING NATHANIEL LESHEM
HAIR SHIN ARIMA
MAKEUP ASAMI MATSUDA
DIGITAL DIRECTOR JOSHUA GLASS
CASTING DIRECTOR EVELIEN JOOS
PRODUCTION SASHA BAR-TUR FOR CR STUDIO
ON SET PRODUCTION CARLOS GARCIA
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