At her second fitting, Briana Vega maintained her composure while seamstresses from designer Rene Ruiz’s Miami atelier pinned a muslin dress around her frame. The dress formed the outline for what will be a silk organza turquoise gown lined in silver tulle and cinched with a belt. Vega will be walking down the runway next year but she’s not your typical model – she’s 10-years-old and battling cancer.
“I plan on smiling, because none of the models smile,” said Vega. “Then maybe all the other models can smile.”
Vega is an animated blue-eyed fifth grader, who loves waffles and mismatching her socks. Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia just a few weeks after her tenth birthday, she was pulled out of her elementary school and began chemotherapy treatment at the Miami Children’s Hospital in February.
She went on to become an ambassador for the hospital, giving speeches at large events like the Diamond Ball in October. Sitting in the audience of 700, was Rene Ruiz, a Havana-born designer, who was touched by her story of survival. He approached her and told her he’d like to design a tailor-made gown for her and make her a supermodel for a day.
“I thought he was joking because I was a kid,” said Vega from her home in Miami.
But it wasn’t a joke. This February, Vega will walk down a runway wearing her gown as part of a yearly benefit for multiple sclerosis started by Ruiz with his designer partner Brad Rosenblatt.
“She was so vivacious and she has such a great personality,” said Ruiz. “I just had to make her feel a little bit better.”
Ruiz, whose evening wear and bridal gowns can be found in Canada, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, invited Vega to his couture boutique in Coral Gables after she accepted his offer. Together they decided on the length of the dress, cut, fabric and color. He said she acted like most girls given the chance to create a dress from scratch.
“They all want crystals and they want bright colors,” he said, especially Vega. ”She wanted every color in the rainbow.”
Known for luxurious fabrics and sculptured forms, Ruiz began working in fashion over twenty years ago. He left his home in Cuba at 15, feeling drawn to art and the process of making a design come to life.
Drawing and painting was an “escape,” he said. “Escapism from Cuba and all the horrible realities for me.”
One memory that stays with him, is the story of Angél, his best friend from kindergarten to high school. One day, they were waiting for the bus together in Havana. ”Suddenly, he fainted,” said Ruiz. “I’ll never forget it.” Angél was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away six months later. “I still think about it, even dream about it.”
He was in tears, along with most everyone else, when Briana Vega spoke about her own battle with leukemia at the ball in October. He says he knew he had to do something for her.
Vega’s father, Humberto, was touched when Ruiz came up to her at the ball. “You could tell he was very genuine,” he said. “There are still good people in this world which makes it a lot easier in this process.”
In February of 2012, Briana Vega was playing soccer, alternating between goalie and offense. She began to feel pain in her knees and feet and complained to her mother after the game. “It got to the point where I couldn’t walk anymore,” said Vega. Her parents, Joyce and Humberto, first took her to the urgent care center, then her pediatrician who referred her to Miami Children’s Hospital.
Doctors there drew Vega’s blood and found elevated white blood cell counts. After a bone marrow biopsy, Vega waited with her parents in the doctor’s office, pretending to be asleep. The doctor arrived and told her parents she had cancer, asking them not to tell Vega. “When he left the room I stood up and yelled at my parents and said ’ I have cancer?’” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”
The Vegas researched the disease on their own, realizing there were treatments available and studying all of the drugs Vega would need to take. ”I always tell her, this is your body, you need to know what’s going in it,” her father said. “She takes it to heart, sometimes she knows more than her mom.”
Vega’s next worry was her hair.
She was reluctant to cut her long brown wavy locks, afraid being bald would highlight the weight gain caused by steroids but soon found advantages to being bald.
“It’s actually a lot easier,” she said. ”You don’t have to buy shampoo and you take shorter showers and I personally hate taking showers.”
The worst thing for Vega, she said, is being away from her friends at school. When her mother is not teaching her fifth-grade lessons, she plays games at home to occupy herself, creating dresses out of paper or pranking her father.
“I like to take hot showers,” he said “I’m putting shampoo in my hair when all of a sudden I feel this wave of cold water. She’s got a big tub and filled it with cold water and poured it on me! She got me good, I told her I’m gonna get you back.”
Her optimism and sense of humor have made her a favorite at Miami Children’s Hospital, where Vega plays practical jokes on the nurses as well. She was chosen to sing with Gloria Gaynor in a music video for the hospital called “I Will Survive Bald, Brave, Beautiful.”
In March, doctors declared Vega in remission, telling her that she may be able to rejoin her class next year for the sixth grade. In the meantime, she’s busy planning for her runway debut.
“They’re going to do my makeup, my hair, every thing a model would do before a show,” she said. ”I mean I don’t have hair but I like to make jokes. I always tell my dad after I get out of the shower ‘I’m thinking of curling my hair.’”