COLUMBUS, Ohio - The fashion dreams started early for Lea Marie "Queen" Gardner. And they were born out of necessity.
"I started designing when I was young because I was always a chubby kid, so I wanted to look like my friends," she said. "I wanted to wear the hottest fashion, but they didn’t come in my size as a kid, so I just started creating my own little fashion ideas."
Her ideas kept coming, and her dreams grew bigger. Then came her big break.
"My very first show, ironically, was in New York," Queen said. "And it was just incredible. I was bit. I was taken by then, and then that was actually the first time that it was confirmed – yeah, this is what I wanna do."
And so she kept doing it, but the road was far from easy.
Queen says she once weighed close to 800 pounds and still has heart problems and is dealing with the aftermath of a large infection. There was a period of four years where she says she was depressed and losing hope.
But she kept pushing for her dream.
"Every day, I’m living my dream, and I get to use my blessings to bless others with this platform, and I want to continue to do that," she said.
The opportunity for her next dream came knocking recently when she received an invitation to Paris City Fashion Week, a runway show in the Eiffel Tower that coincides with well-know Paris Fashion Week.
The event is even "on schedule" on Fashion Week Online, a major feat for shows, according to designer Michael Lombard. But the cost can be challenging. He says, renting the space in the famous landmark alone costs $40,000, And each designer is responsible for the costs of his or her own show, including models, hair and makeup, along with travel costs. He says, for the Paris City Fashion Show, that could run between 3,200 and 6,000 euros for each designer.
For Queen, the costs could be much more. She says she would need an aide with medical training to travel with her. That, plus all of the registration fees and more, could total $22,000. Despite that, Queen says she immediately said yes to the invitation, assuming she would be able to garner some support. After all, she saw that happening with other designers. But, so far, she hasn't seen the same reaction.
"It kinda broke my heart to see that that wasn’t happening for me, and, even though I don’t begrudge it happening for them, you know, it was kinda disheartening, so I said, well, you know what, I need to bring more attention to my city so that they can get behind me and support me, too," she said.
So Queen has been reaching out to people she knows, selling special lashes and raising funds through an online campaign. But she has only managed to collect a few hundred dollars.
"I don’t want to feel defeated because I have faith," she said. "I believe in miracles. I believe it just takes being visual so somebody can actually hear my story. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so grateful and appreciate for every little thing."
So she is holding out hope that, come Sept. 27, she will be watching her dreams play out inside the Eiffel Tower. But, even if that doesn't happen, Queen knows that will not be the end of her story.
"Even sometimes when we’re not able to accomplish those dreams, you gotta look at the good in it," she said . "These people saw something in me, they saw something in my fashion line, they saw something about my creativity, my talent, and decided to ask me. And I get to relish in that idea and allow it to be my motivation even if I don’t win in this situation."