The Original TrueTeenBabe

Note - The following post was originally published in TrueTeenBabes during November of 2004. I have many of these old stories and thought it would be fun to feed a few in here now and then for fans that missed the original - Jimmy

I was recently in Las Vegas for a couple of nights and ran across an old friend. Her name is Tracey Jo. She is the original TrueTeenBabe, but she doesn't know it. She is 36 years old.

Way back when I first started in the photography business in the pre-internet days of 1983 my partners and I would visit smaller towns to look for models, sell portfolio shots, and promote one product or another. By smaller towns I mean somewhat smaller than Denver, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico and Wichita, Kansas.

One such town on our fall 1983 schedule was Rapid City, South Dakota. In advance of our visits we would run ads in the local papers. When a potential model called we would ask her to mail pictures to our office. We didn't have email or websites or JPG image files back in those days.

One of the girls sending pictures was a 15 year old blond named Tracey Jo (TJ). She was just weeks away from hitting 16 and lived in Spearfish - about an hour from Rapid City, near Sturgis. She was very, very cute, but unfortunately her age and shape didn't fit the projects we were working towards at the time.

Many of the girls contacting us from these towns didn't fit the idea bikini / lingerie model style we scouted for and for them we had a standard form letter that we would use when returning the pictures. For reasons I still can't explain 21 years later I didn't use the form letter with Tracey Jo, choosing instead to type a more personal note about how I liked her shots and how she should keep in touch because something may come up at a later date that she could fit into.

She wrote back about 8 days later. It was one of many letters we exchanged over the next year. She kept writing and sending pictures while I kept answering and keeping her up to date.

This went on for about a year until just before Christmas 1984 when she sent some new pictures taken by a high school friend. They had spent all afternoon playing with hairstyles and make-up and in a few shots had gotten it all just right. TJ, for the first time in a year, looked more like a model - or at least a potential model - than a country kid from Spearfish. I called her and told her so. I also mentioned that she should send me the negatives to those shots and I would blow them up larger and show them to my friends in the business.

At the time I was doing basic bikini, lingerie and even topless or soft-nude work, but I had friends at a couple of agencies in town that dealt with the more traditional fashion, print and runway style of models. The negatives arrived by mail a couple of days later and I kept my promise.

Both agent friends seemed impressed. One wanted to meet with her right away. I called her again and explained that she needed to get her butt to Denver in early January '85 to meet with Steven Vannoy, who at the time was the big agent in Denver - casting all sorts of Pepsi commercials, car ads, fashion work and much more. His office was the entire top floor of a local office building and he had around 20 employees working as bookers, producers and agents.

She called back the next day with the news that she couldn't make it. Her parents were divorced. It was just her and mom alone. Mom worked at the Homestake Gold Mine, but there was no extra money for trips to Denver.

After talking it over with my make-up helper Sharon (another silly Jimmy story from the past...) we decided to invite TJ down at my expense. Arrangements were made for her to fly down on a Saturday, shoot fun shots with us on Sunday, and go to the meeting on Monday, then fly home that night.

The plan worked perfect. TJ was the perfect guest. Lots of fun, but super nervous too. She really didn't know what to make of the big city. She was just one week away from hitting 17 and had only been out of South Dakota a few times to watch friends at Rodeos in Wyoming, Montana or Nebraska.

The agency people loved her and wanted her to move to Denver as soon as possible. They were ready to put her to work. She flies home to tell mom - about as excited as anybody I've ever seen. Of course we all know what came next. TJ and mom couldn't make the move. They simply didn't have the cash.

Days go by, phone calls are made, lawyers are contacted, and paperwork is reviewed and discussed. Before I know what happened both the agency and myself have put money into an account at a local bank. I have become, at age 27, the legal guardian to a 17-year-old model prospect from the sticks.

She moves by herself to Littleton (south of Denver) and gets her own apartment. It was this sort of special building that has several other girls in it on their own. It is directly across the street from a major ice rink and the place is used for training potential figure skating stars of the future - Scott Hamilton and others trained there at one time or another.

The building housed many boys and girls, with just a couple of adults (coaches) in other apartments. TJ is a model in training, not a skater in training. It's about a half mile from my townhouse.

She walks about a mile to high school. The same high school I had gone to 9 years earlier. She has the same counselor and one of the same teachers. It was all too strange now that I look back on it.

Just days after hitting 17 she has her own apartment in Colorado. She walks to school, then an agency person or I would take her to their place for classes or photo shoots or auditions 3 days a week, and all day on Saturdays.

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By April it was all too weird. She was working, but claiming boredom. The girls her age at school didn't seem to like her - possibly because she was this model chick with her own apartment or maybe because she was sort of funny backwoods cute and didn't understand how some city girls act.

She quickly made friends with some of my buddies or staff - all girls a few years older - but not with girls or boys from school. It became a group thing - Jimmy and TJ and Evonne (AKA "Mouse" - another strange story from the past) and Jean all going here or there as a group when we didn't have work to do.

Before you know it May has arrived with TJ and I are boyfriend-girlfriend and acting like silly high school kids most of the time. She asked me to take her to the high school prom. I didn't even go to my own high school prom - at that same damn school - and I did it.

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By late June her mom wants in on the action and moves into TJ's apartment. No shit, mom had simply quit her job in South Dakota and moved down unannounced. She didn't get a job or anything - just moved in and let TJ pay the bills from her modeling money, her part-time job money, or the money I had set aside to help her.

TJ, rapidly maturing and becoming a big city girl, hated it. Just a few weeks later she leaves mom in the apartment and moves into my townhouse.

Her modeling work was good, but the jobs not as frequent as hoped. She worked part time with Mouse and Jean at the One-Hour Photo I co-owned.

She loved horses. Once while she was out of town on a modeling trip I went to a horse auction. I knew zero about horses. I went hoping to buy her one. I went home with one gelding for her and a pregnant mare that already had a young foal by her side. TJ left town with no horses, came back to 3 and a half.

By Thanksgiving 1985 she was in her senior year of high school, we had 5 horses and I was wearing cowboy boots. My snazzy little Chevy was in the garage, replaced by a pick-up truck that could really haul the hay.

I was "In Love" as they say.

She played high school basketball and I made a fool of myself in the stands. The girls at school started to accept her - and I guarantee no high school girls basketball team ever had better parties than the ones TJ and I threw, and the local sheriff broke up.

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She hit 18 in January of '86. The lease was up on the apartment she had been paying for her mom to stay in. Her mom moved away to Bullhead City, Arizona - just across the river from the then new gambling town of Laughlin, Nevada.

The modeling was slowing down as one advertising agency after another merged with New York or Chicago or Los Angeles agencies - leaving not much work for a teen in Colorado.

The burden of the horses being housed at stables many miles away started to add up. We made two decisions that month. One, to find a place in the country and have the horses right on the property, and two, to get married when she graduated in the spring.

The search and planning began - while basketball season was still rolling - we found tons of horse properties (5 acres or more with a barn). We planned who would be at the wedding.

My mom didn't know what to think. TJ's friends thought it was great. They had a place to go when they could escape South Dakota, and I could buy beer.

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We find the place we want. 3 bedrooms on 5 acres, 4-stall barn, 3 corrals, near horse trails and the trainer she was working with. It was perfect.

I was "In Love" as they say.

I close in late March. We move in over the weekend of April 1st, 1986. Her high school teammates and their boyfriends help us make the move - with the promise that we'll have a house warming party there later that month.

The next Tuesday I fly to Arizona for a business chat over a photo lab I was hoping to partner in. TJ and I chat by phone every few hours. Funny discussions about all the unpacking she was doing, what should go where, what we need to buy, who wants to come visit, and much more.

I get back on Thursday and there is a note on the kitchen table that reads:

"Goodbye, I love you"

TJ is gone. Most of her clothes are gone. There are no other notes or letters or messages. There is some young kid from the neighborhood feeding the horses per her request.

I'm panicked. I can't find her. I can't believe she left on her own. I call all her friends and they say she wasn't at school that day. I call friends in South Dakota. They know nothing, or won't tell.

I cried and searched, searched and cried. I'm 27 years old and sitting on the kitchen floor shaking and crying.

Weeks went by and I never left the house. Not for studio shoots, lab business or any other reason. Eventually one of her South Dakota friends broke down and told me the story.

In the two days she had been alone in the house TJ had realized how big of an obligation it was to have a house, with horses and other pets, and bills and chores and taxes and responsibilities.

She also realized that even though she had been hanging around me (27), Mouse (20+), Jean (20+) and others; she was still just a high school kid. Modeling jobs, horses, an older boyfriend, her own car - none of that meant she was mature, adult or prepared for life, much less marriage.

She had run off to Bullhead City to be with her mom. She skipped the last 2 months of high school, never to go back. She gave up the modeling, the Colorado friends, the horses and much more.

Looking back on it a few years later and again now still more years later, she did the right thing. It sure didn't seem like it at the time.

At the time I was panicked. After the friend gave me the news I spent hours and days and weeks tracking her mother's place down and trying to get in touch with her.

I finally got an address and phone number in June.

I started calling daily begging her to come home. Day after day, call after call and then a few more calls.

I started sending flowers daily. The florist down there got to know my voice and would simply ask daily if it was to be roses or something else, and which credit card to charge it to. They never asked for TJ name or address after the second or third day.

It didn't work.TJ never came back to live in Colorado, much less with me.

We talked every few days, and it seemed she missed me and wanted to come back, but it never happened, except for one short visit when she had to do something at the modeling agency.

I sold most of the horses and moved out of the house back into town. Life sucked and felt very strange.

In August of 1986 Jimmy Buffett was having a concert at Red Rocks, an outdoor amphitheater near Denver. I didn't have tickets and a friend was using my truck to move his girlfriend. At the last minute I borrowed my mom's car and drove to the concert site. I got a ticket from a scalper outside the gate. My seat was about 30 rows back and the concert was going OK.

It sure didn't seem the same as the summer before when TJ and I, with Mouse and Jean in tow, had seen him in concert at this same venue.

After the intermission Jimmy did a few songs then stopped to tell a story about a song he was about to play. The story was about his early days on the road and how he once came home and the love of his life was gone. She had left a note on the refrigerator that said:

"Goodbye, I love you"

He went on the explain how he tracked her down to New Orleans and called her day after day after day.

While he told this story I felt as if I was right in front of him, not 30 rows or more back. I could clearly see his mouth move, his eyes blink, and it felt as if he was talking to me and only me.

In his story, like mine, the girl never came back. He called and called. She never came back. In his story he finally comes to realize that the world is big and that he'll meet somebody else someday somewhere. He stops calling her and moves on. The song was his way of telling her he isn't calling anymore; "If the phone doesn't ring, it's me".

IF THE PHONE DOESN'T RING, IT'S ME

There are oceans of feelings between us
Currents that take us and sweep us away
That's why we seldom have seen us
In the light of a cold hard day

Lots of new friends with the same old answers
Open your eyes, you might see
If our lives were that simple
We'd live in the past
If the phone doesn't ring, it's me

If the phone doesn't ring
You'll know that it's me
I'll be out in the eye of the storm
If the phone doesn't ring
you'll know that I'll be
Where someone can make me feel warm
It's too bad we can't turn
and live in the past
If the phone doesn't ring, it's me

I've had good days and bad days
And going half mad days
I try to let go but you're still on my mind
I've lost all the old ways
I'm searching for new plays
Putting it all on the line

Lots of new friends with the same old problems
Open your eyes, you might see
If our lives were that simple
We'd live in the past
If the phone doesn't ring, it's me

If it takes all the future
We'll live through the past
If the phone doesn't ring, it's me

I actually felt that was some sort of message. I didn't stay for the rest of the concert. I drove my mom's Oldsmobile as fast as it would go to the local mall and bought that cassette tape - no CDs in those days. I next went home, recorded a message on a blank tape by voice explaining to TJ what had happened, then duplicated over that song.

The next morning I sent it down to her in Arizona. The very second I gave it to the guy at the Post Office counter I felt like my life started over.

Two years went by and I hadn't heard from or seen her again until I got a call in the summer of '88. She was driving through Denver to see friends in South Dakota and wanted to visit. She did, and she stayed at my place three days, but then disappeared yet again while I was out of the house.

Another couple of years go by. I had moved to Las Vegas part-time. In July of '90 I was trying to do a swimwear project and decided to do it in Laughlin, Nevada at a resort called Harrah's Del Rio. It's a neat place, built on the side of a cliff overlooking the Colorado River.

It also happens to be directly across the river from Bullhead City, Arizona.

My helper David and I drove down a week in advance. It was 90 miles from Las Vegas. During that drive I told David the TJ story and sort of laughed that we should hunt her down while in the area.

We got to the resort, walked around outside for a few minutes looking at the cliff, then went inside the entrance near the casino. I was inside about 30 seconds when I lightly bumped into a cocktail waitress who turned and said "I knew you would show up here someday".

I felt like I was in some old Bogart movie.

TJ was now in her early twenties and working at Harrah's Del Rio. Her mom was just a few feet away, dealing cards at the blackjack table. How our lives had changed sense that ad I ran in the Rapid City newspaper years earlier.

TJ actually helped us on that project by guiding us around town to other locations, working out details with security at the hotel, and other tidbits. She even got in a few pictures for fun.

I was dating this Oregon girl named Tina at the time who also dreamed of being a bikini model on car magazines. I had once told her the TJ story. She refused to come to the project because TJ was there.

On the last day TJ was helping us load the cars then just disappeared again.

A few months later I get a call from Tina. We were still dating and she was out in California for the finals of the Ujena Swimwear Pageant. There was about 300 girls there, but her roommate at the resort was a blond from some little town in Arizona named Tracey. I never learned what they talked about over that weekend.

Eight or nine years pass and out of the blue my mom gets a letter from TJ. Just a note asking how she was, how I was, and that she thinks of Colorado and that 16 month period of her life often. She even asked about this rare large poodle my mom owned. She still remembered the darn dog's name.

When my mom passed away this past year we found a small envelope of little notes from TJ to my mom. Apparently they had written back and forth on colorful little stationary every six months or so from '99 to '03. I never knew.

In October of this year I was to do a sort of seminar thing in California. Jimmy Buffett was scheduled to play in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Arena the following Saturday night. I juggle and twist and turn my plans a bit here and there to make that concert.

I end up with enough tickets to invite some friends. Some come out from Colorado, and a couple of Las Vegas area friends come by. It was a fun Saturday with a few friends and helpers from the past.

TJ was there too. She just sort of appeared as the rest of us kicked back near the pool at midnight. She worked there. She said she always knew she would see me come through some day. She said she almost didn't recognize me at first because my hairstyle has changed a little in the last 14 years.

She looked more beautiful than ever. Then she left again while I was at the bar.

Tracey Jo, the original TrueTeenBabe. I still miss that girl.



Jimmy Stephans
November 20th, 2004
Clearwater, Florida. USA.



Follow-up December 1st, 2018

It has been 14 years since this was originally posted I've never seen or heard from TJ again, but here are a few other thoughts or tidbits of information.

I have no idea if she ever knew if I was in the website business, still worked with teen models, or had written this story.

She did appear in a "magalog" named Swimwear Illustrated twice in the early 90s after attending that even where she met Tina. I don't have copies, but did check Google and eBay today to see if I could find one. Nearest I found was 2 months off, but I'll keep checking. If I find one I'll scan and post here.

A "magalog" back in those days was a catalog dressed up to look like a magazine and sold as a magazine. Ujena Swimwear out in California used the name Swimwear Illustrated, not to be confused with the famous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and in the pre-internet 80s and 90s sold them at 7-11 and other stores. Collector copies are found on eBay as "Swimwear Illustrated".

Long time website followers recall behind the scenes photos from parties the studio would have at Jimmy Buffett concerts in Florida (all model ages) or in Las Vegas (ages 21+). In 2010 I decided to try locating Tracey Jo, as well as Tina, and others from my early photography days to invite to a Las Vegas event. I used the sites Spokeo and PeopleSmart, paid for full reports, and got what the report had as the latest name (changed by marriage), and address, then sent letters. No idea if they ever received them. I received no reply and the letters did not get returned.

I checked again today, but without paying for the full report, and the listed city in remains the same.

I've never seen her on social media. It might be because I rarely use it, don't try to find many people, and on Facebook don't even bother to keep a personal profile. In 2010 when I tried to find her I had a reason - trying to plan a reunion party in Vegas. Now, I would feel too much like a stalker as I have no reason to find or contact her.

When first published in 2004 this post received many messages about how I shouldn't feel bad, I'll find somebody, and on like that. I sort of laughed because the point of the post was the story of how she was the first under age 18 model I ever invested time in, the odd way I got over her, and the odd ways we ran into each other a few years later. Don't feel bad for me; but you can make fun of me over how foolish I was back in the day.

Also, when first published this post received a couple of questions about the Tina girl. I've provided an update on her, with a couple of old photos, on the Latest News page here.

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