Contest winner gets life-changing break

As Claremont students head to the mall for back-to-school shopping, a familiar face will greet them on American Eagle Outfitter’s storefront.

Claremont resident Quinci Smith, 18, is no longer just the mild-mannered 2013 Claremont High School graduate and tennis player classmates and teachers have come to know. Now she is also the poster child for American Eagle’s national Back to School campaign, her face plastered on storefronts, in television commercials and across a spread in a recent issue of Seventeen Magazine.

While a little overwhelmed by the sudden attention, and seeing her face on display at the local shopping malls, Quinci is taking her newfound recognition in stride with the help of family and friends.

“They are always there to encourage me to try new things and support me in what I do,” Quinci said. “They help inspire me.”

Her modeling break came just months before graduation day, when Ms. Smith was selected as a finalist for the clothing company’s Project Live Your Life contest. Tens of thousands of young hopefuls posted pictures along with “their inspiration” on the American Eagle website as part of the contest, with their peers voting for the top finalists. Only 12 were selected, and Ms. Smith was among them. She was at school when she received the news.

“She texted me, ‘Mom, I got it!’” her mother Renee Smith recalls. “When she got home, she couldn’t stop smiling.”

She may have the trim supermodel physique, but modeling was never really on the young athlete’s mind. Until April, her focus was on finishing classes, enrolling in Citrus College’s computer science program and eventually gaining employment at a software company like Sysco. She signed up for Project Live Your Life on a whim because, like many other teenagers, her friends were doing it.

Ms. Smith didn’t even start showing an interest in fashion until high school, according to her mother.

“She was the tomboy and I was the one with the fashion sense,” her mother joked. “But then all of a sudden, I started taking notes!”

She isn’t the only one. Now thousands of girls will be looking to the Claremont fashionista as they browse the racks and Internet for fall clothes. Much more comfortable with a tennis racket in hand or soccer ball at the ready, she still finds it all a little surreal.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “It’s been life-changing, but a lot of work.”

Fighting the odds

The budding model is no stranger to hard work and determination, particularly in the face of adversity. Strength has always been key to Ms. Smith, who was born with a rare throat condition called posterior laryngeal cleft. Her mother noticed something wasn’t right when young Quinci began having trouble breastfeeding. Instead of swallowing food, she observed her daughter would start to choke. She took her to see a doctor, but he dismissed the choking and crying as symptoms of a colicky baby. When symptoms persisted with the introduction of solid foods, it became apparent the problem was something more severe.

Finally given permission to see a specialist, doctors discovered the underlying issue was an esophagus that had failed to fully develop. As a result, there was a gap between the esophagus and trachea, which allowed food to enter into the windpipe when swallowing. Ms. Smith was rushed into an emergency operation to clear her airways and ensure she hadn’t aspirated. Her mother was forced to standby and hope for the best.

“I just started crying,” she said. “I was in such shock and so scared.”

While the initial operation went without a hitch, it would take 13 operations to fix the laryngeal cleft. One of the operations Ms. Smith underwent at age 2 was nearly life-threatening. For a year, she was unable to eat solid foods, instead receiving her nutrients through a feeding tube. Unable to talk, she began communicating with her mother through sign language.

While doctors were able to successfully repair the cleft, complications relating to the condition continue. Ms. Smith’s left vocal chord remains paralyzed, and unable to be repaired because of the abundance of scar tissue. And yet, Ms. Smith’s has never let it keep her down. Speech therapy has helped her and, at her mom’s urging, she continued to work through the complications to pursue athletics, joining her school’s track team and becoming part of Claremont High School’s CIF-winning tennis team.

“We never put the idea in her head that she couldn’t do anything,” her mom said. “She’s never let it hold her back.”

Managing the changes

The last few months have been a whirlwind for Ms. Smith, characterized by fittings and last-minute shoots. Just 2 weeks after receiving the congratulatory email, Ms. Smith was thrust from her studies into the busy world of modeling when she was flown out to New York for the Back to School shoot with other contest finalists. She learned quickly that the industry is not all glitz and glamor.

“The days can be really long,” she said. “Sometimes, you get your makeup and hair all done and you just sit there and never get shot. You learn to be patient.”

She doesn’t mind the downtime. While she enjoys the fast-paced photo shoots, like the one she did in a cab in the middle of New York City, the teen’s favorite part of the shoots so far has been the in-between time with her fellow contest winners. She also doesn’t mind the travel. In addition to her trip to New York, her new “home away from home,” she just got back from a week’s stay in Alaska where she was featured in American Eagle’s holiday campaign. She might live in the City of Trees, but she was still shocked by the native beauty of the country’s most northern state.

“I’ve never seen anything like it—all the scenery and the trees and the mountains, ” Ms. Smith said. “

She even saw a bear, she relayed, though Ms. Smith was happy to report it was from the safety of her hotel window. Having just signed a 2-year contract in addition to the 1-year contract that came with winning the contest, she looks forward to what is to come. The tennis player-turned model has learned a lot in the past few months already, like being flexible to respond to a casting call at any moment, and taking criticism with a grain of salt.  

“You can’t worry about what other people think,” she said.

Along with new experiences, Ms. Smith shared some new fashion tips for the upcoming fall and winter seasons, hinting that keeping it casual with flannels will be the trend. More apparent than her new style-savvy, however, is her growing sense of confidence, her mother shared.

“I’ve never seen her smile so much,” she said. “It’s given her a new kind of energy and sense of confidence. It’s made her stronger.”

The Project Live Your Life campaign is back, and the Smiths encourage other Claremont kids to get involved. Find out more by visiting

—Beth Hartnett


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