Saudia Shuler of North Philly wanted her only child's prom send-off to be epic, so she spared no expense, even renting a live camel for the event.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The camel came from a farm in Ohio, and Shuler had it waiting in front of an elaborate mural and backdrop she commissioned especially for the occasion —which even had a theme, "Dubai Meets North Philly."
And instead of one beautiful prom date, Johnny "JJ" Eden Jr. had three – each wearing an elaborate, custom-made gown. Not to be outdone, he also had outfit changes throughout the event, coordinated by fashion stylist Cheyenne Smith, including one that was an elaborate black robe with gold Versace trim.
Stay with me, because this gets even richer.
As first reported by BillyPenn, Eden had not one, but three luxury cars at his disposal – a Range Rover, a Rolls Royce, and a Lamborghini. The vehicles, which were on loan for the evening, probably got dusty from the sand.
Yes, there was sand. Three tons of it, trucked in and deposited across the street from his house.
"You can't have Dubai without the sand. You can't," Shuler, a soul-food restaurateur, declared Sunday afternoon when I stopped by to chat with her. "I wanted to send him off with a bang. I wanted to do something that nobody else did."
I'd never heard of anything like it. So I decided to drive by the neighborhood Sunday to see what I could see. There was plenty. Residents were milling around in front of the mural of mosques and desert sand. Next to it, a majestic purple-and-black backdrop was still attached to a wall.
Kids ran around and buried their little feet in the sand, which still covered much of the sidewalk near Shuler's house. A nearby tree showed the effects of the camel's nibbling at its leaves.
Eden had lost the superstar swag he had on prom night and was incognito in casual pants, a T-shirt, and athletic shoes. But Shuler, owner of the Country Cooking bistro in the 2800 block of North 22nd Street, was still in major hype mode. After years of planning, her prom send-off had gone viral on social media.
"Y'all don't understand how big this is for me and my family," she said excitedly. "And, yes, I splurged on my son. A lot of people criticized me. I spent a little over $25,000. Guess what? It was worth every bit of it."
Friends and neighbors helped her pull things together. It wasn't easy.
"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," Shuler said. "But guess what? It all went right, do you hear me? My boy is going to college. Do you hear me? He's going to college, whether it's on academic or basketball scholarship. Either one, but he's going. If Mama has to pay for it herself and sell six zillion [food] platters, guess what? He's going….
"I work hard. This ain't no drug money. People say, 'What is he, a drug dealer's kid?' This ain't no drug money. This ain't none of that. This is all from muscle."
It's tempting to judge. But then, we haven't walked in her gold Chanel sneakers. Shuler came up with her elaborate plan about three years ago after a series of health problems, including a stroke at age 40 and a thyroid cancer diagnosis.
"I just seen how he kept going to the masjid. Kids don't go to church," she recalled. "I said, 'I'm going to splurge on my son. I don't care what it costs.' "
At first, she planned to take him to Dubai on a visit. But then she decided instead to bring a taste of the United Arab Emirates to the corner rowhouse they share. Hundreds turned out to watch Eden pose for photos before heading to Simon Gratz's prom at the Hilton on City Avenue.
"I just wanted to show our kids what we could do with hard work," Shuler said. "I always tell my son, 'There's nothing you can't do.' "
Eden's goal is to be a chemical engineer. He plans to attend Delaware State University in the fall.
As for Shuler, she's aware that a whole lot of folks are criticizing her and saying that the $25,000 would have been better saved for Eden's education, invested, or used as a down payment on a house. She has heard it all and isn't fazed Not in the least.
She told me, "This is what I wanted to do for my son."