By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
It is never too late to follow your dreams. Just ask Della Nicholas.
Nicholas, 51, had dreams of becoming a model since childhood and saw that dream come to fruition when she was chosen to be in an issue of Essence magazine.
“A friend of mine, Pastor Karen Porter of New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church, [located in Jackson, Mississippi, where we both are from], called me out of the blue one day and said, ‘I saw something and tagged you in it. Go to your Facebook page. You have got to enter.’ I asked, ‘What is it?’ She said, ‘I’m not going to tell you. Just go to your Facebook page,’” recalled Nicholas, who did as her friend suggested.
What Nicholas found was that Essence magazine was sponsoring a contest for women turning 50 in 2020 to celebrate the publication’s 50th anniversary. The Birmingham City Schools (BCS) human resources analyst entered the contest and received an email about a month later informing her that she had been selected as a finalist.
Two weeks after that, she received another email stating that she had made it to the top 20—and she knew things were serious. “I had to send a headshot that was no more than 10 days old and a body shot that was no more than two weeks old,” she said.
Of more than 2,000 entries, Nicholas was selected as one of six finalists, all of whom who were invited to travel to New York City for a photoshoot in March 2020, right before the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was blown away because I was thinking, ‘This is a blessing. God has answered a childhood dream because out of 2,000, I actually got picked. This was nothing but God.’ I felt as if I was a supermodel just from the way they treated us,” she recalled.
“I had such an awesome experience. When I walked in the door, someone was there to meet [me and the other ladies selected for the photoshoot]. The Essence staff had food laid out for us and treated us like we were supermodels. … There was someone to do our nails, hair, makeup, to dress us. … It was simply beautiful,” recalled Nicholas, who spent a day in New York City for the photoshoot.
“It was far beyond anything I could ask for or even dream of,” she added. “I’m so thankful that Pastor Porter thought of me because I would not have known anything about that had she not sent me that Facebook advertisement.”
Nicholas grew up in Eastabuchie, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 12 children raised by a single mother.
“When I came along, I had siblings who were old enough to be my parents. I have one niece and one nephew who are older than I am . . .,” she said. “We had lots and lots of fun because somebody was always doing something. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of jokes, so you were never alone because there was always someone there. A big family has its benefits.”
Though Nicholas was the youngest of 12, five were still in the house.
“My mom, [Candace], did an excellent job being a single mom,” she said. “She sewed, she cooked, she worked in the garden, she did whatever she had to do. I learned from her without her telling me anything because I watched her a lot. She was a big influence in my life. Her nickname was ‘Can Do’ because she can do anything.”
When Nicholas was in elementary school, she had dreams of becoming a model.
“We didn’t get magazine subscriptions or anything like that,” she said. “When I would go visit my oldest sister, she would have Ebony and Jet magazines. I would see those [publications featuring] people of color and say to myself, ‘Hey, I would like to appear on one of those.’ That is where that dream came from.”
Nicholas did not pursue modeling right away. She started playing basketball at South Jones High School in Ellisville, Mississippi, and was awarded a full ride basketball scholarship to Jones County Junior College, also in Ellisville, and began paying her way through modeling school.
“I was working on trying to become a model, but I got very involved with basketball, and modeling school got too expensive for me. … My mom couldn’t pay, so I gave that dream up, but it was always in the back of my head to one day appear in a magazine.”
After Jones College, Nicholas received a full basketball scholarship to Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi, where in 1993 she earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. She then took a position as a supervisor at a day care in Mississippi.
“At some point, I thought I wanted to be a teacher,” said Nicholas, who went on to a few other roles, including serving as a global quality auditor at an automotive company and an office manager for a physical therapist, before deciding to pursue a master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on human resources at Kaplan University.
A Model Career
After completing her master’s studies, Nicholas accepted a position as a human resources analyst for Birmingham City Schools. She moved to Birmingham in 2013 and has been working for BCS ever since.
Since making her debut in Essence, Nicholas has not pursued modeling full time—but she hasn’t totally abandoned the idea.
“I’ve thought about it, but I have not done anything. My husband, [Elliott], tried to contact a modeling agency on my behalf,” she said. “[The Essence shoot] may have just been that one opportunity that I got that God fulfilled a little girl’s dream. [Modeling] may be something I will try to pursue, but I guess I’ll need to step out on faith because I’ve had a couple of people ask me if I am modeling now from that.”
For anyone pursuing a dream, Nicholas said, if she can do it, anybody can.
“[Modeling] was something that had always been in the back of my mind, and I still had that dream. I would see something that would trigger that passion or see someone on a magazine cover at age 49, but I thought I was too old,” she said. “Don’t give up. Go after whatever your dream is. God brought my dream back, and even if it was only that opportunity, I thank God for it.”