Ink on the Runway

A new local modeling agency is looking for men and women who don't fit the traditional model stereotype

If the usual picture of a young entrepreneur is a studious nerd wearing glasses and toting spreadsheets on his memory stick, Felicia Patterson blows that stereotype out of the water.

At 23, this dynamic young woman has formed a modeling agency dedicated to destroying stereotypes and presenting a new ideal of the All-American Girl.

Tattered Dolls is the name of Felicia's agency, and her 15 models sport a variety of tattoos, piercings and offbeat hair styles. Imagine the heads of Barbie dolls with voluminous waves of multicolored locks. Picture an ensemble of T-shirts, ballet tutus and spiked heels, all intended to show off limbs liberally illustrated with ink.

Thanks to the Tattered Dolls, a fashion runway in Tucson is certain to be more colorful and fun than one in Milan or Paris.

"Seventy-five percent of all Americans between the ages of 17 and 27 have tattoos," says Patterson. She is seated with two of her models at a conference table in her lawyer's office, where they grind out new contracts and photo releases for the fledgling agency.

"To my generation, the 'girl next door' isn't the blond cheerleader with no tattoos and all clean-cut," says Patterson. "It's girls who are not afraid to express themselves through their art. I think it's a beautiful thing, and I commend them for being strong enough to go out and do what they want and still be professional, strong women."

Her models are teachers, students, moms and waitresses, and most of their paying gigs are promotional events, such as motorcycle shows and a recent stint at La Botana Taco Grill and Cantina on Cinco de Mayo. The Tattered Dolls don't do that much print work, because they refuse to do nudity. All models are required to work at least one charity event every month.

What do they do at a Cinco de Mayo event?

"We sell shots and motivate the crowd," explains model Elizabeth Perez.

Elizabeth is a petite brunette with masses of dark hair and brilliant tattoos. It's not hard to imagine her motivating a crowd of revelers as easily as she motivates her students. Perez teaches fashion design, yoga, Spanish, earth sciences and yearbook at Compass High School, a charter school.

"I love it!" she says of modeling. "I was working out at LA Fitness, and this girl, Emily, came up to me and said out of the blue, 'Have you ever modeled before? Do you think you might send some pictures to this girl, Felicia? She owns a company called Tattered Dolls.'"

Perez points to her beautifully illustrated arm and says, "I didn't get my full sleeve until I was 30 years old. Working at my high school, the kids can relate to me, because most of them have tattoos and piercings. I don't look like a weirdo to them."

Heather Canale is the single mom of an 18-month-old daughter. She met Felicia through mutual friends who worked with Patterson at a local Hooters restaurant. Heather was 17 when she got her first tattoo, and like many teenagers, she had to sneak behind her mother's back.

"It's very much addicting," says the sunny blond about getting tattooed. "Once you get one, you want more. Little ones turn into big ones. You can't stop until your whole sleeve or your whole back is done. But I'm only doing one arm."

Modeling was far from Canale's mind. "When you have a baby, your body tends to change," said Canale, a manager at Java Edge. "I did some modeling in high school and stuff, but when I became a mom, I thought I would have to put that on the backburner. Afterward, it was a lot of hard work, but I was used to that."

Tattoos and models were not high on Felicia Patterson's mind, either, until one evening last autumn that changed her life.

"I got hit by a drunk driver in September," she recounts. "At the time, I was riding and showing horses, and that's what I wanted to do with my life. But the injuries to my arm don't really allow me to ride and show horses like I was before.

"I had been doing promotional modeling for six years, and I knew there was a market for girls who have an alternative look—girls with their own style. They want to fit you into a cookie-cutter mold, but you don't have to be 5 foot 10 and blond.

"I definitely saw a market for girls who can get out there and look hot and work with some great organizations and companies. So many people have gone out of their way to help us. The J. Scordato salon does our hair and makeup for free at charity events. It snowballed really fast—here we are in May, and my plate is getting fuller and fuller."

Not bad for a company that had its launch party on Feb. 23 at the Bashful Bandit, a bar where they often headline charity events. Facebook and MySpace are the best websites to catch up with the Tattered Dolls.

"I feel so incredibly blessed," says Patterson. "I'm lucky to have made the contacts I've made, to have the models that I have, and to keep our reputation moving in a very positive forward motion. I want to find more work for my girls and to do a lot more charity events—taking over Tucson!"

On Saturday, June 12, the Tattered Dolls will parade adoptable dogs up and down the runway at Homes for Hounds, at Brandi Fenton Memorial Park, 3482 E. River Road, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The organizations behind this pet-friendly event are Smiling Dogs Rescue, Dirt Tea Events and J. Scordato Hair, with food by Lindy's on Fourth.

Future Tattered Dolls won't have to know Felicia personally or be discovered by her army of unofficial talent scouts. She held her first open audition on May 9 and plans on holding more. Gentlemen are now welcome, too, as her agency branches into male models.

"We'll probably just call them Tattered," says Patterson with a grin.