Work It, Girl

Tonya Smith's journey from the Spokane Valley Mall to the attention of New York’s fashion elite.

Kristen Black

The model is perfect. A blue polka-dot shift dress hangs on her thin-but-not-too-thin frame as waves of brown and blond hair spill over her shoulders. She shifts her cat eyes away coyly, lips turning to a smirk.

But back the camera up a few feet and you’d see that Tonya Smith — that girl flirting with the camera — is standing in her parents’ backyard against a wooden fence. She’s never been a model before.

Smith is, to most people, just a 20-year-old girl who works at her parents’ sunglass store at the Spokane Valley Mall. But to more than 1,000 rabid online fashion hunters, she’s a forward-thinking blogger with a great eye for style.

It’s photos like these — taken by her boyfriend just steps from her childhood bedroom — that have turned a lot of eyes on Smith in the last few weeks.

She posts photos of herself in vintage dresses, scarves, hats and shoes on her blog,, one star in a growing universe of style blogs, in which shutter-friendly writers post their day-today fashions, shopping tips and favorite new looks.

In December 2011, The New York Times observed that, unlike Vogue or Elle, fashion bloggers are “posting images and reviews of collections before the last model exits the runway.” One of the most popular among those bloggers is 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson, the author of a blog called Style Rookie, who now sits in the front row at many Fashion Week runway shows.

Smith hasn’t yet achieved Style Rookie-like fame, but in mid-February the 2011 Central Valley High School graduate learned she was one of five bloggers selected from a pool of hundreds to compete in the “Next Big Style Blogger” competition put on by Refinery 29 (which is “like Elle, but without a magazine,” according to Smith).

Smith was shocked when she heard the news. “It was weird. I had to pinch myself a few times,” she says.

It only got weirder when she saw her competitors: a Los Angeles graphic designer, two preachy New York label addicts and a Philadelphia teacher with one hell of a closet.

“And then me … from Spokane,” Smith says, her eyes wide.

But there are other big differences between Smith, a student at Spokane Falls Community College, and those other women. Aside from being the only one who isn’t shellacked in red lipstick and thick makeup in her photos, Smiths fills the Mop Top with fashions she builds from $5 sweaters or boots she finds at thrift stores.

“For a while, I didn’t have a sense of style because I didn’t have any money,” she says of the beginnings of her style blog, which she launched during her senior year in high school.

She started developing outfits inspired by Jimi Hendrix and 1960s mods instead of hot new fashion models. She says she strives to be real. “I only buy things if I like it, not if it’s trendy.”

Sitting at a downtown coffee shop in a flowery dress, brown leather jacket and scarf, she describes her style as “vintage-inspired, kind of laid-back, girly but not too girly.” She says, above all, she has a soft spot for hats and floral dresses.

That disinterest in high fashion has also separated her in the competition, which poses a series of challenges to the potential bloggers in order to choose who will get $1,000 and an internship with the company.

Smith is just happy to be thought of as a contender. A high school athlete and lifelong tomboy, she’s a little surprised that this simple blog of hers could end up being her ticket to the fashion world someday.

“I see so many people with such cool style and I’m like you need a blog!”

Visit Smith’s style blog at, and see her compete at

I Am My Own Wife

Through April 11, 7-8:30 p.m. and Through April 18, 7-8:30 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...