Updated 9:18 pm
Saudia Shuler was planning to gift her son a trip to Dubai for high school graduation. But then she had another idea.
“I figured, why not take everyone to Dubai,” she said, seated at a table outside Country Cookin, her soul food restaurant on 22nd Street in Swampoodle. “Let them see what it’s supposed to look like.”
Why not, indeed. Hundreds turned out for the Dubai-to-Philly themed prom send-off she organized for her son, Johnny “JJ” Eden, Jr.. The event that took over the 3400 block of Clearfield on Friday is now going viral on social. Shuler had a custom mural commissioned. She brought in three tons of sand. She rented a camel from a farm in Ohio. For a week straight, friends and family worked into the wee hours each night, helping prep the scene. Her crew created three separate Dubai-inspired sets. Eden had a Lamborghini, a Range Rover and Rolls Royce for the evening. And he had three different dates, all wearing their own custom dresses. Eden himself made costume changes until he was wearing his third ensemble for the night, selected with the help of a stylist.
“I just wanted to do something no one had ever seen before,” Shuler explained.
Prom send-offs in recent years have grown far beyond crudite and a few awkwardly posed photos. Social media has exposed some pretty elaborate set-ups— like this one from 2016, where dancers performed choreography from Beyonce’s “Formation” ahead of a prom-goer making her grand entrance. Shuler’s got everyone beat, though.
“You know, the funny thing about it, he didn’t even want to go to on prom,” she said about her son. “He was like, mom you’re doing too much.” She didn’t listen. After all, she had the camel paid for a year and half ago.
On Fridays during prom season, it’s easy to find homes decorated for family receptions. “I feel like with this generation,” one prom-going teen told us in May, “everything has to be red carpet everything.” And yup, at prom send-offs in Philly, there’s often an actual red carpet. Also plenty of big balloon displays, especially arched ones for pre-event portraits. Limos aren’t as in style as foreign cars are, especially bright sports cars with suicide doors. Then, when the kids head off to the big dance, friends and relatives stay, hanging out, almost like a family celebratory cookout. The Chicago Tribune reported that glamourous prom send-offs have become a custom in the African American community; a rite of passage for black teens.
Eden admitted he told his mom things were mayyybe over the top.
“It was a lot going on, but it all worked out,” he said. His actual girlfriend was the third and last date — Eden called her “the main event” — and said she didn’t mind.
Because this send-off was more than just a party. It was the crowning culmination of a promise that Shuler, 43, made to herself on her deathbed.
Three years ago, she had a stroke. “I was messed up,” Shuler recalled. “I couldn’t walk for year and a half. I couldn’t wipe my butt.” Tough enough, but it was just the latest in a litany of medical and societal hardships she’s had to deal with since giving birth to her son. First his father, Johnny Eden Sr., was murdered, and she lost another baby she was carrying amid the tragedy. Then in 2007, she got hit by a car and was left with a slipped disc, taking her out of commission as a hairstylist. It was after she turned to cooking, selling platters out of her grandmother’s house in North Philly, that the stroke hit.
“I was like, I’m not going to be able to see my baby’s prom.” She vowed that if she lived to see it, if she lived to see him graduate, no one would stop her from going all out.
She says the critics don’t know what she’s been through. In October 2015, she had surgery for thyroid cancer. Then, after making a good recovery thanks to help from Eden and other family (she didn’t have a home nurse), she started to suffer from seizures.
In the house, she kept a water jug. “I called it my JayJay prom and graduation foundation,” she said. “Every day that I worked I put $200 in that. All my fives and change? I put them in that jug.”Shuler estimates yesterday’s send-off cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 — which was less than it should have cost. Many friends refused to be paid for their services, like makeup artist Tiffany Phillips, or gave her heavily reduced rates, like muralist Ivben Taqiy, or Cree of DeCreed, the prom dress designer who would only let her pay for materials. The sand was delivered and shoveled into place by her friend D. Her family and her adopted family of friends and neighbors all contributed. The flowers. The cakes. The photo booth. “The whole North Philly helped me,” she said.
On Saturday afternoon, Shuler’s friend QB came by her restaurant with a trophy. Shuler hollered after reading the plaque: “2017 Most Valuable Prom Killer.”
It meant a lot, because there’s already been some social media backlash, criticizing Shuler for spending that much on a party.
“Trump is president. The country is about to go through hard times. You might want to start saving all the money you can before it’s too late… just sayin’,” wrote one Shade Room commenter.
Shuler is trying to ignore that. There are lumps in her mouth that doctors think may be cancer. She hasn’t told her family. Her son maintained a 3.8 GPA. He’s planning on heading to Del State, possibly on a basketball or academic scholarship, but he’s weighing his options. She’s open that many relatives of hers had been drug dealers. She knows he could’ve chosen a different path.
“He could have folded,” she said. “One time, somebody tried to get my son hooked up in a scam… He got friends that got killed. But he chose basketball. He chose to go to school. He chose to do the book work.”
So why focus on the prom party instead of the graduation party?
“Girllllll, no,” Shuler said, shocked that was even a question. “The graduation gon be fabulous… I’ll show you receipts all the way from two years ago.”