In Profile: Life-long fashionista, Jo Ann Chelchowski, lights the runways across St. Tammany _lowres

Advocate photo by DEBORAH BURST - Jo Ann Chelchowski poses wearing her signature stilettos and bling, inside the Slidell Cancer Center where she will emcee the 'Celebration of Life' fashion show from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 5.

Dressed in a shimmering black dress with rhinestone-studded neckline, Jo Ann Chelchowski effortlessly strikes a pose while leaning on a sleek piano in the lobby of the SMH Regional Cancer Center. A veteran of the modeling runway, Chelchowski will be the master of ceremonies for the charity fashion show at “A Celebration of Life” at 5 p.m. June 5 at the Center, 1120 Robert Blvd.

A longtime fashionista, Chelchowski began posing for the camera at an early age.

“I have been in fashion literally all my life,” said Chelchowski, adding that her mother began dressing her up and taking pictures when she was a baby. “Both my mother and I would dress up every afternoon waiting for my Daddy to come home.”

A native of Lake Charles, she earned a degree in speech and drama.

“In high school, I performed in plays and modeled for a local department store,” she said. “I was hooked on fashion.”

Chelchowski got married, moved to New Orleans and began her modeling career. Working in the fashion industry for more than 20 years, she has produced fashion shows, been featured in local and national commercials, and created a charm and modeling school for teens and children.

In 1985, the family moved to Slidell and Chelchowski assumed the position of fashion director for all the area JC Penney stores including Lakeside, Slidell and the west bank. She produced their fashion shows for teens, children and adults.

“I started promoting JC Penney doing community service fashion shows to raise money for organizations such as the United Way, Volunteers of America and many others,” she explained. “It then became my passion using fashion to serve the community.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Chelchowski retired from the corporate world, and today she shares her talents volunteering for nonprofits. She began working with My Girl Friend’s Closet, opened 19 years ago by Nancy Barthelemy and Jan Smith.

The Closet is a fashionable resale ladies boutique run by volunteers with proceeds benefiting the East St. Tammany Rainbow Child Care Center. Open for 31 years, Rainbow provides affordable child care for working families.

“I do the shows and use their clothes as often as I can,” Chelchowski said. “I love doing shows for clubs and senior assisted living homes, using the ladies as models.”

After producing hundreds of fashion shows, and modeling in all kinds of weather, Chelchowski has always enjoyed her career.

“Even when you are shooting bathing suit shots outdoors in 30-degree weather,” she said.

Filling out her stellar résumé of community services, Chelchowski has worked with the Volunteers of America, the Red Cross, the Covenant House, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and many others.

She was chosen as a YWCA role model in 1998 and winner of numerous Alpha Awards given by the International Fashion Group of New Orleans honoring excellence in the fashion industry.

In 1996, she was selected to carry the Olympic torch that made its way from New Orleans to Slidell. Six residents from St. Tammany took turns carrying the torch.

“We went to a party at Jackson Square the night before and I saw them light the torch,” Chelchowski explained, adding it’s the same fire brought from Greece. “I carried the torch for half a mile in Slidell.”

But her fondest memories are of working with children, many suffering with pain and some struggling with self-confidence, especially during treatments.

She recalls a show in April for the Children’s Wish Endowment. Nine children, all with life-threatening diseases from cancer to bone disorders, were modeling for the show.

“They were so beautiful and brave and their parents were so proud,” she said. “This is why I love doing this; it makes me so happy.”

With no signs of slowing down, Chelchowski enjoys her creative freedom volunteering for nonprofits and believes fashion is wonderful at any age.

“If you love it, wear it; there are no rules,” she said, adding it’s important to check that full-length mirror. “Stand up straight, wear a smile and walk like a star.”

A Celebration of Life includes speakers and the fashion show as part of National Cancer Survivors Day. The free event is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 5 at SMH Regional Cancer Center, 1120 Robert Blvd. Call (985) 280-6611 or visit www.slidellmemorial.org.

Deborah Burst writes about people behind the scenes of organizations and events in St. Tammany Parish. To reach her, email deborahburst@gmail.com.