The Road Beautifully Traveled
Story by Diana Addison Lyle
Photography by Curtis Dahl
Hair/Make-up: Kathleen Hagan
IconicFocus Models NYC
Suzanna Lanza’s beauty lies in the essential stuff: devoid of any vanity, her consideration for others is immediately apparent, and her genuineness is evident in every facet of her life. Striking in her quiet, intelligent strength, Suzanne has chosen a road less traveled, and she’s borne the fruits from that journey because of her humanitarian qualities.
Her vastly impressive professional résumé is something you have to prize from this lady. She began modeling at 16 and was whisked off to Europe by Herb Ritts for a GQ shoot, a week to the day after she graduated high. She has graced the covers of Elle, Marie Claire, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar. She has also walked the runways for designers including Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garcons, Chanel, Yohji Yamamoto, Lanvin, Michael Kors, and Dolce & Gabbana. Suzanne has appeared in numerous beauty and fashion campaigns, notably Lancôme, Pantene, Cover Girl, Revlon, Oil of Olay, Escada, Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret.
The famous fashion photographers with whom she’s worked include Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Patrick Demarchelier, Peter Lindbergh, Wayne Maser, Steven Meisel, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sante D’Orazio and Pamela Hanson. As an actress, some of Suzanne’s credits include Strays (with Vin Diesel), Friends, Dexter, Ellen, It’s Like You Know, and Once & Again.
Suzanne graduated Cum Laude from ULCA with degrees in History and Art History. She is a co-founder and director of Kaleidoscope, a non-profit that provides education, support, and community to adopted children of color and their families. She lives near the beach in Los Angeles with her daughter, where, in addition to acting and modeling, she has a thriving social media company, Blue Ladybug Social, with clients that include James Beard Award winning chefs, Michelin Star restaurants and a green home make-over service Blisshaus (recently featured in Goop).
Through the years, Suzanne’s accomplishments have only served to enhance her thoughtfulness, humility and sensitivity. She’s an all-important woman whose beauty essentially lies in making this world a kinder, more considerate place.
Q: You grew up in LA in a large family. What are some of your outstanding memories from childhood?
Suzanne: One of my outstanding memories is when we drove around the southwest in my mom’s VW van! I had just finished elementary school. My mom sold our house, bought a green VW van and we drove for a few months visiting friends and relatives. My brother and younger sister stayed with my dad, so it was my mom, two of my sisters and I. We visited friends in Arizona and then an aunt in New Mexico; more friends in Colorado. I don’t think she knew exactly where we were going and there was no schedule so we could stay anywhere we stopped for as little or as long as we wanted.
Q: Unlike a lot of teenagers, you weren’t interested in modeling or the models on magazine covers. How then did you land up being a top model?
Suzanne: I wasn’t into modeling at all. I was approached by people from time to time with offers but never pursued it. I wanted to be an actress. My mom said I had to wait until I was 16 so I could drive myself to auditions. When I turned 16 I looked for agents in the phone book and found one. And they took me! They set me up with an acting teacher, Brooke Bundy. She was great. She’s the one who convinced me to try modeling. She saw that it was a struggle for me to pay for acting classes and she said that would all change. She set up an appointment at Wilhelmina Agency. When I went in I was really late; my hair was wet, my shirt was like half buttoned. The receptionist was very sweet and sort of said ‘hey you might want to button your shirt.’ The head of the agency came out and I think the first thing he said was ‘You are going to work a lot.’ Thankfully he was right. A couple of months later Helen Murray from the New York office came out to meet the LA models and she said the same thing. She called a few months later with a booking in New York for Italian Vogue. And that was sort of it.
Q: Italian Vogue, New York, Italy and France constituted your first modeling experiences. What did you love about those days and what were some of the highlights?
Suzanne: I really loved everything about those days. I mean it was scary and new, and since I am a shy person, in some ways, it was really hard. But it was great. I thought New York was the most exciting place in the world. I loved the energy of the city. It seemed like anything was possible. I didn’t grow up thinking I would travel the world so to leave for Italy a week to the day after I graduated high school was huge. I would say that living in Paris as a working model was a dream come true; actually it was beyond my dreams.
Q: You started modeling for Victoria’s Secret in the late 80’s and 90’s and enjoyed that ride for 10 plus years. Why was it such a great experience to be a Victoria’s Angel?
Suzanne: Oh, VS was a great client! So much fun. They always had the best photographers and hair and make-up people. The models were great too. We all worked together so much and we were like a family. We went to amazing locations: St Bart’s, Santa Barbara, Palm Beach. We had a great time and the sets were always really relaxed and just a lot of fun.
Q: You’ve always had a sensible head on your shoulders. You avoided some of the pitfalls of the modeling lifestyle – and you avoided playboy types. To what do you attribute that maturity and sensibility?
Suzanne: I’m not sure if it was maturity or not; I was just never interested in dating someone for whom my looks were the most important thing. There’s that quote from Rita Hayworth ‘They go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.’ It felt like too much pressure to have to be ‘beautiful’ all the time. It wasn’t something I was interested in.
Q: Your life changed monumentally when you hit 40, and you wanted a child. You decided to adopt. How did adopting your daughter change your life?
Suzanne: Well, I think being a parent changes your life no matter how you get there. Being one is the hardest thing I have ever done, and being a single parent is relentless. It’s hard not to have someone to run things by; all the decisions are up to me and that’s a lot of pressure sometimes. If I screw up, it’s on me. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be because I might not have done it. Without a doubt, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I am so lucky and blessed to have my daughter. She’s so f…… (can I say that?) amazing! And fortunately I have a lot of support from my family. My sister, Laura, in particular has been a God-send.
Q: You have always been color-blind, and yet you soon discovered by adopting your daughter of color – that the world, and in particular, people in the USA, are not color blind. How have you and your daughter navigated that hurtful territory?
Suzanne: I wouldn’t say that I’ve been “color blind.” And in fact, I don’t think that’s the goal. I am always suspicious of people who say they don’t see color. Of course they see color; we all do. If I went around saying ‘I don’t see gender’ people would think I was nuts. But it’s essentially the same thing. I’ve had the luxury and the privilege as a white person of not having to think about color or race. That’s not an option for people of color. I always knew we lived in a very racist society but I was still shocked when we started experiencing things first hand at a very early age. We experienced racism in mommy and me class. At three, another pre-schooler said she didn’t want to play with my daughter because she was brown. And my friend’s daughter was told that only white kids were invited to her birthday party. This is in Los Angeles. Our ‘Black Lives Matter’ lawn sign gets stolen every time we put one up, yet my ‘No Jets’ sign is still there. And things have only gotten worse since 45 was elected. It frustrates and angers me, and it breaks my heart. People are so quick to counter the Black Lives Matter movement with “all lives matter.” But it’s not true: if all lives really mattered, we wouldn’t need to say that “All lives matter”; it’s a deflection, a shift of narrative that centers whiteness. “All lives matter” is a lie white people like to tell ourselves – to – I don’t know – absolve ourselves of accountability for the injustices that we continue to perpetrate as a society on people of color. The truth is that, if all lives mattered equally, then Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling—the list goes on and on—would not have been murdered. I just read a great article about racism by Jodi Picoult in Time. It’s about confronting your own prejudices and privilege; how it’s easy to call out racism when someone is wearing a white hood, but how, when they are the liberal Obama supporter next door, it’s trickier. As a white woman raising a black daughter I’ve had to take a hard look at myself and it’s tough; I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen. But my role as a white ally – I don’t really like that word because lots of people call themselves “allies” but don’t do the work to actually be an ally – is to keep looking at myself, to keep examining and confronting my biases and hopefully encourage other white people to do the same. Racism is systemic and institutional and it’s not going anywhere until “good” white people are willing to have uncomfortable conversations – to really look at our part and own it. And to listen. We need to humble ourselves.
Q: Looking back on your life, what are 3 standout periods in your life where you flourished for different reasons?
Suzanne: I would say when I first moved to Europe when I was 18. Then, when I went to UCLA, and now. I didn’t work much when my daughter was younger, by choice. I waited a long time to be a mom, so I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible. When she started school, I was kind of itching to get back to work on a more regular basis; I had still been modeling a little and done some TV commercials but I was ready for more. And this social media thing happened and Iconic Focus called, so it feels nice to be a working woman again. Now if I can just figure out my love life!
Q: Your 2nd highlight – UCLA: You were determined to get a degree and you graduated with Latin Honors. What was it like going to UCLA in your 40’s?
Suzanne: It was very important to me to go to college – a personal goal that I put off for a long time so when I finally got to UCLA I really enjoyed it. In fact, I loved it. I had great professors and I met 3 really dear friends there. It was amazing. I was still working a fair amount as a model while I was at UCLA so it was a pretty intense time. It was a period where I traveled a lot while going to school; trying to fit everything in required a lot of discipline. I would be on a modeling job all day and then go to my hotel room and write term papers. But I loved every minute of it.
Q: You recently founded and you are the Director of ‘Kaleidoscope’ – a group for Adopted Children of Color and their families. What is the purpose of this group and describe some of the pivotal accomplishments in the group?
Suzanne: Kaleidoscope came about because my daughter and I attended Pact camp. Pact is a wonderful organization based in the Bay area that gives support, community and education to adopted children of color and their families. Every year they do a family camp in Tahoe. My daughter was 2 when we first went. After the second year, I thought, I can’t wait another year to be around this community. Luckily a few other families had the same idea and with the help of Pact we started Kaleidoscope. We do one or two educational events a year as well as 4 or 5 family gatherings. We have an amazing group of counselor/mentors who work with our kids. We’ve had some incredible speakers at our educational events, nationally recognized speakers on race and adoption including Louise Derman Sparks, who is a pioneer in anti-bias education and also an adoptive parent. We still work very closely with Pact. Recently my daughter and I did a shoot for Maman & Moi, a clothing company that makes these great dresses for kids and robes and pajamas for kids and adults. They are donating a portion of the sales to Kaleidoscope! So if you’re in the market for some new pjs or a robe, check them out!
Q: As well as modeling for IconicFocus NYC, you do all the Social Media for 10 clients – including one business called ‘Bliss Haus’ which is a Green Home Makeover Business. Clearly you understand the enormous value of social media, but you also have a love/hate relationship with the medium. Describe your thoughts.
Suzanne: Yes, I sort of got into social media by accident. A friend was starting Blisshaus and she wanted help with her social media, so I did that and it was quite fun. And then another friend with a furniture staging and home design business called Taylor Miller asked me to do their stuff. And then from that I started working with Jannis Swerman & Co, who is one of the top PR firms for restaurants and chefs. And Blue Lady Bug Social was born. So obviously it has an economic value to me. But I do have a love hate relationship. I love social media because it has allowed me to connect with people I had lost touch with. After searching for years, I was able to find an old family friend thanks to Facebook. I got to spend some time with her before she passed away and she got to meet my daughter. So that was special and would not have happened without social media. It also makes things like the Women’s March and even the Arab Spring possible. And then on the other side, studies are showing that digital screens affect the brain exactly like cocaine and can be highly addictive. And you see these kids now, young kids, and they are all on their phones. They hang out together on their phones and compare who got more likes. It’s terrible. I think it has to be really monitored with kids and avoided as much and as long as possible. I’m hoping that by the time my daughter is old enough the pendulum will have swung the other way and it won’t be cool anymore.
Q: Do you think that companies like Facebook have a social responsibility to hand over information to the FBI – especially when terrorism or human lives are potentially endangered in any way?
Suzanne: You know that’s a tough one. Of course the first response is, yes of course, if lives are at stake, and I certainly don’t have any tolerance when it comes to terrorists but it gets really tricky. When you start violating people’s privacy it can set a dangerous precedent. When you are crossing the line and moving the line, where do you stop?
Q: Favorite indulgence?
Suzanne: Wine and sleep.
Q: Most beautiful part of the world?
Suzanne: My daughter’s smile.
Q: Favorite food dish?
Suzanne: French fries.
Q: Favorite movies of all time?
Suzanne: Magnolia, Blade Runner, Le Mepris, Moonlight.
Q: 3 people you admire and respect enormously?
Suzanne: Michelle Obama because she is smart, funny, beautiful, and has endless grace. Beth Hall of Pact because she has taught me so much and continues to give endlessly and fight the good fight. Actor and activist Keith A.Wallace because he is brilliant, brave, and a real artist.
Q: Your greatest hope for the future?
Suzanne: That my daughter feels safe and protected in the world. I hope that she doesn’t ever feel she has to make herself smaller for any reason, not even one little bit. And I hope she feels loved.