(The Root) — For more than 20 years, Sheila Bridges has been a force in the design world. A graduate of Brown University and Parsons School of Design, she entered the arena of interior design at a time when many people's budgets were ripe. Between those with new money who were ready to spend it and those seasoned in the fineries of life who were looking for a new way of expressing themselves, Bridges attracted a diverse clientele that welcomed her sophisticated approach to fine living.
Her work got noticed fast. Though she rarely name-drops, her clients have included entertainers, business executives, bankers, lawyers and at least one president — William Jefferson Clinton, whose Harlem offices she designed after he left the White House. Most of the leading design and lifestyle publications — including Elle Décor, O at Home, Metropolitan Home, Martha Stewart Living and House Beautiful — as well as Vanity Fair, In Style, Essence, Ebony, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, clamored to show her work on their pages, helping to catapult Bridges to the ultimate top spot when CNN and Time magazine named her America's Best Interior Designer in 2001.
Over the years she has had her own TV show, Sheila Bridges Designer Living, on the Fine Living Network; her own store in Hudson, N.Y.; and her own line of home furnishings and accessories, featuring Harlem Toile du Jouy. By all accounts, she has enjoyed significant success in a field that typically is not the playground of African Americans.
From as early as she can remember, Bridges has lived between two worlds. Though her urban-Philadelphia home butted up against a tony golf course, in the '70s it did not welcome people who looked like her. The youngest child of a dentist and an educator, Bridges commuted a short distance to a private Quaker school to ensure that she got a good education. She had her local buds to keep her company, while at the same time, with her parents' help, she cultivated a lifetime love affair with horses and travel.
As an adult, the 49-year-old continues to bridge two worlds. Living between the urban wonderland that is Harlem and the farm oasis that is upstate New York, she has carved out a life and career that illustrate without apology who she is.
Today Bridges has opened the door to her personal world through a recent memoir, The Bald Mermaid, an artfully executed coming-of-age story in which she reveals her journey from little blond black girl to superstar designer to inspirational woman coping with hair loss because of alopecia.
The Root: You grew up in Philadelphia in what many would say was a kind of Huxtable household — to which some might ask, "Is that real?"
Sheila Bridges: It was important for me to share that part about my family because I have so much pride growing up in a black family with two professional parents and a brother. For me, it has been tiresome to always see in the media that this is not how we are portrayed as black people. Rarely do you see us in the media with two parents, extended family and people that are interesting and accomplished trying to achieve things.
TR: You have spoken about many people not believing that it's OK to better their life, and yet you decided to beautify not just yours but many lives. What made you decided to pursue interior design?
SB: Design for me makes the world a better place. It makes the world run in a better, smoother, more efficient way, and there is beauty in that. A lightbulb went off when I studied abroad my junior year of college. I am always seeking inspiration through other cultures, and so I think, for me, studying [decorative arts] abroad in Rome, Italy, is what kind of lit the spark for my interest in design.
TR: How did you end up getting in the celebrity realm, even working with the likes of former President Bill Clinton?
SB: I generally do not like to say much about my design clients, and of course don't give any clients' names, unless they give permission. I have worked with entertainers, bankers, doctors, all kinds of people.
I think it is great to work with people who are decision-makers. I design a lot of these powerful people's homes and offices, which revolves around making decisions, and people like … former President Clinton are comfortable making decisions. I facilitate that with respect to these professional and private spaces that I was designing when working with them. It was a great opportunity.
TR: You have had a great career, many magazine covers, a store in upstate New York, a line of home furnishings. You also had the TV show.
SB: Yes, it was the flagship show for the Fine Living Network, and so I did four seasons of Sheila Bridges Designer Living. By all accounts it was doing well, and it was a tremendous amount of work, but I was proud of the show. During the fourth season of my show, I started to lose my hair.
TR: During your youth, there was always something going on about your hair, and then in your adult life it was suddenly gone. What was the experience like being in the public eye and suddenly losing it?
SB: I went through something that was very private in the most public way possible. To be a woman in a visual medium and be in magazines and then have your hair fall out — lose your eyebrows, lose your eyelashes, lose your hair, when you are recognized for having very thick hair at that — to have that happen in a very public way was hard, and with the added pressure of having to deliver a television show.
So I had to suck it up and wear wigs, hairpieces, to get through the television season for continuity. We didn't shoot all of the segments in order, so we may have already shot something for that show, but then we had to go back and do another segment that was going to air, so my hair had to kind of look the same. I couldn't be in the middle of the season and now show up with a bald head, and so it was incredibly difficult.
TR: I can imagine that your identity as a woman was challenged, but did you think you would lose your career, too?
SB: I lost my public career. I still have my design business, and that is the bread and butter of my design existence beyond the television career, but that's what people focus on, and people see me visually and see me on television and assume that's my life. What allowed me to have a television show was that I was a designer and worked very hard and was pretty good at what I did, and that afforded me [the opportunity] to have the show.
TR: Was it hard for you to step back into relationships when you lost your hair?
SB: The type of men I attracted changed when I lost my hair. I had dated black men up until one person I mention in my book. Those were the men that approached me, and those were the men that I was always interested in.
It wasn't that I never considered dating outside racial boundaries. I was not typically the kind of person to ask men out, and so those were the men who approached me — black men. When I shaved my head, I am not sure any black men have asked me out since then. Men who approach me now are not black men.
TR: Let's go down that path a little bit, because you have a chapter called "Girls, Guys, Guns." You are a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, at a time when the entire country and beyond is "up in arms" about guns and gun violence.
SB: I have a concealed-weapons card and gun-carrying permits in a few states. I am a gun owner. I own multiple guns.
It's really complicated. A lot of it is geographical on some level. The guns that cause a lot of the violence that we live with, especially here in Harlem and in [other] urban areas, are illegal. Those guns are not bought in a gun store or at a gun show. They are bought illegally.
In order to carry a gun, I had to take classes on safety to understand the mechanics of a gun, how to use it properly [and] how to use it safely. There are a lot of very responsible gun owners like myself who think what happened with Trayvon Martin was just crazy. A lot of that had to do with "Stand your ground." Florida has very lenient gun laws. They are very different than they are in New York state.
Different parts of the country are very different, and the laws are very different. Upstate, where I have livestock, people normally have shotguns and rifles. There's not a stray bullet that's going to hit a little girl on a seesaw in the park.
People who live in rural areas don't quite connect the dots to the people who live in urban Detroit or something. That's why I say it's complicated. Some of it is based on your geography, which is also your daily reality. If I am on my property and there's an animal that comes after one of my horses, chances are I am going to take a shot at that animal. That's a really normal response as a livestock owner or a farmer.
TR: Throughout your book, you write about assumptions about you based on the way you look and how you have embraced your baldness. Is there anything you regret?
SB: Not really. As I say in my book, "No regrets, but many lessons learned." One of the great things that does happen to us, particularly as women, as [we] reach middle age is this thing called self-acceptance. I hope most women achieve that.
As you get older, you become a little more forgiving of things in your life. You can't lose that 10 pounds that you've always wanted to lose, or your hair is never going to look like Gisele's, or whatever the thing is that you have an insecurity about or that plagued you from a beauty standpoint when you were younger.
What if it wasn't about your hair? Just for a minute, let's pretend that it's about that you're smart or you're funny or you're incredibly talented. Or you're compassionate. All these different things that are a part of us as women. What if those things were things people valued or that we were judged upon instead of this physicality? Because for all of us, it is only going to continue to diminish.
It doesn't mean I don't care what I look like, or that I don't care what I look like just because I shaved my head. I care about beauty. It's just a different kind of beauty. Real beauty. Inner beauty. It's something that I think all of us should be trying to aspire to as women, to be comfortable in your own skin.