Gayfer Girls reunite for a photo shoot at Edgewater Mall in April: Back row, from left: Celeste LaRocca, DeAnn French Alewine, Tina Ross Seamans, Susanne Herndon Simpson, Penny Sturtevant Payne, Amy Peoples Wood, Robbie Davidson, Monica C. Thomas-Hurst, Nita Frazer Derouen, Julie Smithie Milanese. Middle row: Julie McGehee Scruggs, Stephanie Seymour Harksins. Front row: Lisa Cameron Fagan, Charlotte Logan, Diane Rutland Sison and Deena Liberto Crocker. Photography by Christy Ryan.
Story by Elaine Stevens
When Gulf Coast Woman did a call-out for Gayfers Girls, emails from across the country and even outside the U.S. filled up the editor’s box. They were anxious and excited to share about an experience that transformed them.
C.J. Gayfer migrated to America after the Civil War from Southwold, England. In 1879, he opened his first department store in downtown Mobile, Ala. The retail visionary died in 1915, but his prosperous chain of upscale department stores dotted the Southern landscape for well over a century until 1998 when Dillard’s purchased the chain.
When Gayfers at Biloxi’s Edgewater Mall opened in 1963, the landmark store quickly became the go-to shopping experience for then entire family. Gayfers is remembered for its quality inventory and customer service, however the standout for parents and younger customers was the prominent Gayfers Teen Board implemented in 1960. Under the direction of Teen Director Amy Peoples Wood, the group achieved national accolades and publicity.
Known as The Gayfer Girls, the elite group of academically screened young women promoted fashion, style, and poise among younger clients. As community ambassadors they became adept at public speaking, how to coordinate events, and raise money for charitable causes.
Those skills are a mere smattering the young women acquired as a Gayfer Girl. It’s no surprise they went on to become successful career women in their own right.
Celeste LaRocca, president of Mpress Consulting, LLC, now lives and works in Austin, Texas. She describes her years as a Gayfer Girl, 1981-1983, as the most rewarding experience of her life:
“It shaped my career path with fashion, confidence, team work, and leadership,” says LaRocca who went on to manage shopping centers in Mississippi, Florida and Texas, where she created fashion ambassador boards. “I commentated fashion shows for Donna Karen in Dallas, made a trajectory step into corporate healthcare traveling the USA, and eventually transcended into sports celebrity marketing for Dallas Cowboys Legends.”
Kristy Kidd Nicaud, administrator of the Medical Oncology Group, explains how she was able to connect with girls from “faraway places on the Coast…from Waveland to Pascagoula” during her tenure, 1985-1987.
“So many of us have become friends through family, college, work, clubs, and social media,” says Nicaud. “Even our children have grown up together from elementary school through college as well.”
Lasting friendships seem to be the golden thread which runs through the lives of former Gayfer Girls, along with the influence and inspiration of teen director Wood, hired by Gayfers in 1978.
“Amy was a fantastic role model and was a constant encouragement for us to give our best in everything we did,” says Nita Frazer Derouen, Gayfer Girl 1986-1987. “Amy was relentless in pushing us to pursue our goals, reminding us constantly that each of us was capable of accomplishing any goal.” Today Derouen is a certified registered nurse anesthetist for Memorial Hospital at Gulfport.
Julie Milanese, Ocean Springs High School counselor, says her marketing and counseling skills can be traced back to being a Gayfer Girl, 1981-1983. Milanese was also a Gayfer Girl Big Sister, which she describes as “an utmost honor.” Apparently, a sense of humor became vital as well.
“I can remember my zipper breaking two minutes before I was supposed to go on stage for the Seventeen Fashion Show,” she recalls. “I had to be pinned into my outfit by the backstage crew. It wasn’t funny at the time, but it made us all laugh afterwards. I held my breath the entire time I was on the stage!”
That brings us to the component of grace under pressure. Suzanne Herndon Simpson, administrator for CSM Publishing, remembers the lesson well while she helped Wood coordinate a fashion show.
“In the middle of the preparations, Amy had a death in her family. Well, the show needed to go on,” explains Simpson. “Amy asked me to handle it and commentate the show. I was terrified. I wasn’t comfortable with public speaking. I was thrown into it. I pulled myself together and overcame my fears. The show was a success. Amy’s influence had prepared me for that moment and for success in life. Today, I have spoken to groups and have been able to do it with confidence.”
Lisa Cameron Fagan says serving as a Gayfer Girl, 1982-1984, literally “broadened her world.” Now retired, Fagan worked as an International Primary School Teacher at American International School of Vilnius, Lithuania, Munich International School, Germany, and International School of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“Amy taught us how to be strong independent women,” say Fagan. “Through the activities led by her, I strengthened my skills in organizing, prioritizing, improvising, being creative and patient. Most of all I was taught the importance of completion, starting a project, seeing it to the end, learning from the experience, and enjoying the success.”
Wood’s sentiments about her years with the teen board as a mentor are just as heartfelt. “When I was new to the area, I made friends from every town on the coast,” says Wood. “I watched the girls grow, met their mothers, their fathers, and grandparents when they came to watch shows or rehearsals. As I look back, I was growing also. You always get out what you put into something. It was by far the most gratifying part of my work at Gayfers.”
Gayfers Girls: Where are they now?
DeAnn French Alewine
Regional Account Manager WXXV TV 25 FOX/NBC/CW
I would not trade my Gayfer Girl days for anything. Being a GG gave me a greater love for fashion, style and a bond with girls that became more like sisters. It is where I first developed my passion for non-profit and giving back to the community.
Julie Smith Ritten
2 years: 1982-84
Office manager RE/MAX Coast Delta Realty
Bring a Gayfer Girl was such a fun experience. It was great to see and model all of the new fashion trends as they made it to the store as well as meet other girls from different high schools along the coast. Many of us are friends today, and our daughters are now friends (and they are fashionistas).
I remember our “watching the watches” duties, handing out numbers at dressing rooms, visiting the VA patients for their No Greater Love Day, and of course, planning and practicing for fashion shows, where we all knew “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”
Deborah Parker Fremin
Retired Assistant Superintendent, Ocean Springs School District
Being a Gayfer Girl gave me the opportunity to learn about modeling and social graces, but more importantly, it was an avenue for me to grow in character. We were given many opportunities to work in the store, to participate in charitable activities, and to choreograph fashion shows.
I won a silver tray for the talent competition when we had GG competition against other regional stores.
Being a Gayfer Girl taught me self-confidence, poise, charm and gave me a great sense of fashion.Licensed Banker II/Brokerage Associate at Wells Fargo Bank.
Being a Gayfer Girl enabled me to meet girls from all over the Mississippi Gulf Coast that otherwise I would not have known.
Being a Gayfer Girl allowed me to meet girls that carried friendships over to my first years at Ole Miss. Having already made these friends made transitioning to college a lot easier.
Victoria Carter Saucier
Director of Development, St. Patrick Catholic High School
I remember shopping in Gayfers as a small child with my mother and seeing the Gayfer Girls on stage in the store. I loved watching them and knew one day that I wanted to be a part of the group. Fortunately, I was selected and served my junior year of high school. I was promoted to “Big Sister” for my senior year and served as vice president. In my opinion, Amy Peoples Wood added so much value to the experience. She taught me to have self-confidence; she instilled a great work ethic and brought out a poise and grace that I would not have otherwise found at that age.
Through being a Gayfer Girl, we modeled but we also spoke in front of large groups of people, approached customers in the store, rang the bell for the Salvation Army outside of Gayfers, planned our own fashion shows and philanthropy projects plus much more. I was so passionate about the fashion office at Gayfers that I stayed on and worked for Amy for two summers as I began my college studies. For a tall, lanky girl from the country, it was an incredible opportunity and adventure. But for the woman I am today, I am forever grateful for the life lessons, work experience, social experience, and “gumption” that I gained from being on the Gayfer Girl board and working with an incredible lady like Amy.
Robbie O’Brien Davidson
CPA, Roberta Davidson, PLLC
Gayfer Girls wasn’t all about fashion/modeling. We also learned that it is important to give back to your community. At Christmas time, we dressed up as elves and took children shopping for Christmas gifts. My friend Patti Jones and I [were assigned to helo] a brother and sister. They were so excited that their parents would have no idea what they were getting for Christmas. It was very embarrassing dressing up as an elf, but we had a wonderful time!
Nita Frazer Derouen
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, Memorial Hospital at Gulfport.
Being part of the Gayfers Teen Board definitely helped me improve my confidence. Amy Peoples was a fantastic role model and was a constant encouragement for us to give our best in everything that we did. The friendships I made with fellow Gayfer Girls from other schools was priceless. Amy was relentless in pushing us to pursue our goals, reminding us constantly that each one of us were capable of concurring any goal.
One funny thing I remember was doing the bridal show in 1987. I was so excited to be a part of it, and I was actually selected to be one of the bride models! I forgot to change my shoes between sets and wore bright silver pumps with the wedding dress. When I stepped out into the runway, Ms. Peoples immediately looked down at my feet but didn’t miss a beat with her commentary on the outfits. It was a great lesson to check everything before presenting anything in my education and in my career. It was also a great lesson from Amy on how to carry on without missing a step and making the most of an obvious mistake.
Julie Smithie Milanese, NCC, NCSC
Ocean Springs High School Counselor
Marketing and Advertising Manager for Bay Pest Control
From the beginning [being a Gayfer Girl] began to build confidence, leadership, and most of all, community within me. We met girls from the entire Gulf Coast that I have kept in contact with. If we see each other, we always bring up Gayfer Girls; it was that meaningful to us! We also had such a great leader who was a role model and mentor to all of us! I still follow Amy Peoples with such admiration. Our fashion shows were not boring at all and were so much fun. We danced, sang, and made a show during each event. My favorite event was the Seventeen Fashion Show at the Saenger Theatre each year. It was a major production and so exciting! We still sing “You’re never fully Dressed Without a Smile,” which was our motto! We also had the opportunity to work at Gayfers in different positions and to volunteer in our community. Being a Gayfer Girl gave me values, responsibility, community, and friends for life. Each time I walk into Dillards, I think about my experience and wish that my daughter who is in high school and others could have that lifetime experience that I had with the Gayfer Girls!!!
I can remember my zipper breaking two minutes before I was supposed to go on the stage for the Seventeen Fashion Show and having to be pinned into my outfit by the backstage crew. It was not funny at the time but made us all laugh afterwards.I held my breath the entire time I was on the stage!
Mannequin modeling was always super funny. People would walk by and be confused or they would try to make you move or laugh.That was a huge challenge!!!
A great experience that sticks out in my mind was visiting the veterans each year. We would bring them balloons, cards, and cheer. They in return would tell us stories and teach us so much! It was such a rewarding experience!
President, Mpress Consulting, LLC
Gayfer Girls helped shaped my career path with fashion, confidence, teamwork and leadership! Yes, there is life after GGs. I modeled for Gayfers and many local merchants before I moved to Dallas, Texas. I taught many years for a national agency in Dallas to include teaching and modeling in New York. I became interested in shopping centers and managed them in Mississippi, Florida and Texas. I created fashion ambassador boards in Mississippi shopping centers and Dallas shopping centers. With my experience in GGs, I coordinated outfits for fashions shows, pulled merchandise for over 50 stores at a time, commentated the show and created high sales for my stores. I commentated fashion shows for DK in Dallas, made a trajectory step into corporate healthcare traveling the USA, transcending into sports celebrity marketing for Dallas Cowboys Legends and then into my own CRE BD and site planning LLC for Texas. I continue my fashion styling on the side, helping men and women executives. I teach modeling and am currently studying for my Texas real estate eExam. I have a precious six-year-old baby girl, a 22-year-old stepson and an amazing husband. They are my heart and my rock. God is good. I hope my little girl will find her own GGs one day. What an amazing experience for all of us! Thank you, Amy!
I was honored to model in so many bridal shows for Gayfers and make special appearances on WLOX TV. In one of the bridal shows, Amy had me model with live love birds in a bird cage. The music played On the Wings of Love. The birds were pretty much asleep until I started modeling the runway. They woke up and went crazy. The audience laughed, and we kept on modeling. Amy’s shows were beautiful and priceless! They always had her fabulous touch!
As a Gayfer Girl, we dressed up as elves for the holidays. One of our fun jobs was to watch watches. These were watches out in the aisle and had a higher price tag. Gayfers didn’t want theft, so we were hired to help secure them. I had my elf outfit on while doing this task. A guy handed me his folded Christmas list and asked me to deliver it to Santa. At first I was puzzled. I was new to GGs at the time but was committed to the GGs and doing my best. I walked the list to Santa in the mall and gave it to him. Santa motioned for me to return to the stage. He continued to explain the list must be for me. It was the guy’s phone number. Men! Santa told me not to worry. He wouldn’t be delivering any presents to the guy. What a relief!
Susanne Herndon Simpson
Administrator for CSM Publishing
Being a Gayfer Girl was the highlight of my high school years. To be chosen as a Gayfer Girl was a huge honor. We were ambassadors of the store, and we did do some community events.
I think the thing that being a Gayfer Girl did for me is it gave me confidence in myself. I was very shy, and Amy Wood invested time in me and mentored me. We coordinated fashion shows, modeled, and interacted with customers. It forced me out of my shell. It taught me leadership and excellence in a job well done. It really prepared me for life. In my job today, a lot of the skills that I learned planning and executing events prepared me for what I do now. I coordinate large conferences and manage production of many printed materials along with overseeing staff. I also have throughout my life invested in young women–helping them to become confident and influential women as well.
One event that stands out is I worked with Amy on a fashion show. In the middle of the preparations, she had a death in her family. Well, the show needed to go on. Amy me asked me to handle it and commentate the show. I was terrified. I was not comfortable with public speaking, but here I was thrown into it. I pulled myself together and overcame my fears. The show was a success. Amy’s influence had prepared me for that moment and for success in life. Today, I have spoken to groups and have been able to do it with confidence. Everything I learned was valuable in what I do today. I wish there was still a Teen board for young girls to participate in. It meant so much to me and still does.
Lisa Cameron Fagan
Retired, previously an international primary school teacher at American International School of Vilnius, Lithuania; Munich International School, Germany; International School of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Being on the GG Board was a life-changing opportunity. I was able to make friends from other schools thus broadening my world. One of my best friends to this day was from a different school, and I would not have met her except for being on teen board. By meeting girls from the different schools, I had/have friends up and down the coast. It is nice to bump into someone you know at different places. My husband and I moved away from the coast in 1989, and upon retiring and moving back, it was wonderful to see familiar faces.When I see these women, we have an instant connection and immediately start to catch up.
Amy Wood was a wonderful role model. She taught us how to be strong, independent women. Through the activities led by her, I strengthened my skills in organizing, prioritizing, improvising, being creative and patient. But most of all I was taught the importance of completion — starting a project, seeing it to the end, learning from the experience and enjoying the success.
We all wanted to look our best when representing Gayfers with events in the store, the mall or elsewhere. However, it was quite the norm to see us arriving at the store and preparing for our event with hot rollers in our hair.
Roianne Newman Gutierrez
1982 – 1984
CFO of Newman Lumber Company
Being a Gayfer Girl in the ’80s really meant a lot. I was given the opportunity to model and to work for Gayfers. The Gayfer Girls would have fashion shows throughout the year. We would have a big back-to-school fashion show in the fall, then we would have Christmas fashion shows, spring fashion shows and the hardest of all–mannequin modeling. Our jobs at Gayfers would be anything from handing out boxes in the gift-wrapping department, watching watches or handing out numbers for the fitting rooms. Sometimes I would get lucky and get to spray perfume samples. Another great job was checking clothes in and out for a fashion show, which really taught us about inventory and respecting merchandise. Working at Gayfers really taught me how to show up for work on time and how to appear and conduct myself at work.
Besides modeling and working as a Gayfer Girl, we were given the opportunity to work with Amy Peoples. She was a fabulous role model to all teenage girls. She would correct you if you needed correcting, and she would give you a project, and she would expect you to complete the project. Everyone on the teen board respected Amy, and almost everyone wanted to be Amy! I have always said, “Amy gave me positive direction when I really needed it!”
I really liked meeting so many people from all over the coast. I am still friends with so many people that I met through Gayfer Girls.
I remember that every year there would be a Gayfer Girls competition (Gayfers from several areas would all meet in Pensacola). The competition consisted of best uniform, best nametag, best skit, best modeling, best scrapbook and several other categories. The first year I went we didn’t even place in any of the categories; we were all so sad. The Mobile and Pensacola Gayfer Girls won most of the categories. The next year I went, the whole Biloxi Gayfer Girl board was ready for the competition! We won every category! We were in shock, and we were so excited! Winning the event was magical and huge. We had a representative from Seventeen Magazine from New York come visit us and congratulate us on our victory!
Heather Marie Austin Walmsley
Credit and Collections Analyst for Trane Company
Being able to meet other girls from our Gulf Coast schools was amazing. You build lasting relationships with so many of these girls, now women. This organization also taught me to be a poised, graceful, and always respectful young lady. This organization also gave me the foundations for my ability to network with others as well as having a strong sense of wanting to give back to our communities. Since Gayfer Girl, I have belonged to or supported numerous charity organizations, one of which where I was nominated and represented the state of Wisconsin at the National Convention. The Children’s Miracle Network 2008 National Convention held in Orlando, Fla., was such a great opportunity for me not only to witness numerous miracle babies/kids, but also to be a part of a greater scope.
There were so many fun memories! Trip to Ft. Walton Beach Gayfers and spending time with other Gayfer Girls from the Gulf Coast area, Seventeen Magazine Fall Show, being able to create and design my own fashion show with other Gayfer Girls.
Executive Director, Biloxi Bay Area Chamber of Commerce
Being a Gayfer Girl was beneficial in so many ways. It enhanced my self-confidence, and it allowed me the opportunity to make friends with girls from other high schools. The fashion aspect has helped me enjoy the pleasure of feeling good about myself and striving to look my best.
We held a raffle fundraiser to win a stereo with a turntable and cassette player. The money raised was for a trip to the Marriott Resort in Point Clear, Ala., for the regional Gayfer Girl Fashion Show and Conference. I wasn’t very good at selling tickets, so I bought all my tickets the night just before the drawing. Good luck prevailed, and I won! I kept that stereo until about six years ago.
Diane Rutland Sison
University Southern Mississippi, Administrative Assistant
Some life lessons I learned from being a Gayfer Girl: Love for the community, to have grace under pressure and to keep lifelong friendships.
We received a rolled-up note tied with a pink ribbon from Amy at our end-of-the-year awards ceremony. The note sums up what was expected of a Seventeen Teen Board Gayfer Girl.
Dana Williams Jacobs
Proud USMC spouse and mom of two adventurous kids
I really enjoyed my time as a Gayfer Girl. It was a lot of fun getting to know other girls from the coast. I learned about poise, fashion and public speaking. Being a GG was one of the highlights of my high school years.
The fashion shows were always fun. I learned how to walk across the room while balancing a book on my head. Seems silly now, but I’m proud to say I can still do that to this day! My favorite fashion show memory was a little number we did with colorful gloves. We were sitting in chairs lined up on the stage. We had on all black clothing from head to toe, except for long colorful gloves. We performed this amazing number using hands only. I don’t know who choreographed that number, but it was very detailed! And we did it perfectly!
Jan Edwards McHatton
Marketing Manager, (currently in between jobs)
Being on Gayfers Teen Board was definitely an honor and a privilege. My experience as a Gayfer Girl was life changing. I was kinda shy and had extreme “stage fright.” My Mom was always exposing me to opportunities to overcome my fears….ballet/tap dancing, piano recitals, modeling. The in-store fashion shows and the Annual Seventeen Back to School Show were so much fun! For the first time, I could be on stage where I enjoyed modeling, singing, dancing and showing off new fashion trends without feeling sick. I was in my element. Being a Gayfer Girl gave me so much confidence. Amy was one of my biggest mentors and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity.
We all had a lot of fun as Gayfer Girls. Amy made sure of that! I made friendships with high school girls all across the coast. I lived in Gulfport. I moved to Texas after graduating from USM and am still in touch with several of my fellow Gayfer Girls. Some of which also live in Texas. There are far too many funny memories to share. A lot of them happened “behind the scenes.” There were wardrobe malfunctions, missing shoes during fashion shows….sometimes your outfit went missing, but as a team we laughed a lot and just made it work. The sisterhood we shared was something you don’t come across often. And the mentoring I received from Amy is something I’ll never forget. I wish this kind of opportunity was available for young girls today.