You might have seen Andrea Smith at Tysons Corner Center.
She was the woman behind the camera, waving a plastic tambourine above her head, trying to make your baby smile as she sat in Santa’s lap. Or, if your child was older, Smith was probably yelling “cheeseburger” and “stinky feet,” hoping to draw out a giggle.
Smith enjoys taking photos of children with Santa Claus.
But like most other jobs she has held, the $13-an-hour position is temporary. It is a way for her to pay her bills, for now.
Her real passion — the job she does year-round and would do full-time if she could — involves dirty, stained and unwanted sneakers and boots. It involves a service that you don’t go to the mall to find.
She is a shoe beautifier.
That is not her real title, of course. Others just don’t seem to fit as well. She is not just a cobbler, although she will fix broken shoes and clean them if that’s all they need. She is also not just an artist, because her work is more than an expression of creativity. It is grounded in practicality.
What she does is takes shoes that might have been discarded and, using paint and other materials, transforms them into something eye-catching. She makes the unwanted once again desirable.
“I bring them back to life,” the 26-year-old said. “Some of them be dead. There’s some shoes that could have never been worn again, and I made them look like a brand-new pair.”
Smith has revived Ugg boots that have been scuffed and rescued plain white sneakers that have been discolored. She has taken tiny Timberlands and made them beloved by kids by adding cartoon characters to them.
She has even taken a pair of Nike Airs and somehow made the colors gold, purple, red and turquoise work together.
Using shoes as a canvas is not new. Look at Pinterest, and you will see Toms covered in flowers, sea creatures and even Winnie the Pooh. In February, CNBC ran a piece about a man who had started painting shoes in his mother’s New York basement and now counts among his clients NBA stars LeBron James and Steph Curry.
Unlike him, Smith’s story is not about finding success. She’s not there yet. She still struggles some months to pay the $1,100 rent for her Northwest Washington apartment. What is striking about Smith is her decision to change the trajectory of her life a year ago in search of happiness and how, in her pursuit, she has caused others to look differently at what’s in front of them.
Each time I have talked to her, I have walked away thinking about the potential we don’t often see — in things and in people.
Not everyone is meant to follow the traditional path of high school, then college, then a steady paycheck. Smith knows that because she tried it. Last year, she was working at Starbucks as a shift manager and attending the University of the District of Columbia. Her grades were good, but she was struggling to find motivation.
She was also struggling to pay for her education without going into debt.
Unlike other 20-somethings, she didn’t have any financial support. She had lost both her parents when she was young. Her father died in a motorcycle accident when she was 10. And at 15, she lost her mother to breast cancer. After that, she floated among relatives’ homes.
“I kind of raised myself,” Smith said. In the beginning, holidays were a “little rough and complicated,” she recalled. “One Christmas, I got stuff, and then the next year, I didn’t get anything.”
Her brother, who is her main support system, pushed her to graduate from Booker T. Washington high school. But when it came to college, she said, she had to make the decision for herself. She considered whether a degree and the debt that would come with it would make her happy — and she decided it wouldn’t.
“Failure for me would look like me just settling, or just standing in the same spot I was in last year, not elevating or growing. Not being happy in life,” she said. “I feel like if you’re going to fail, you can always go back and do what was making you unhappy in the first place.”
She knows that the way she now survives in the District is not the way many people would choose to. She works a lot. She does landscaping. She makes jewelry. She takes photos for events. She also does catering and volunteers her time cooking and serving the homeless about once a month.
And then there are her shoes, which she customizes for anywhere between $50 to $130.
It takes her about two weeks to finish a pair, and when she does, she posts photos of them on Instagram. Already, through her two pages, Webbs Customs and Just_Webbie, she has built a following of more than 7,800 people.
This week, she also gained one more fan: Santa.
Santa — who also goes by the name Mike Graham and has been known to comment on the intentionally ripped jeans of some of the children who sit on his lap — had talked to Smith about her work with shoes. Still, he wasn’t sure what to think about it.
Then, in a quiet moment this week, before eager children streamed past the naughty and nice meter and into his lap, he saw the latest pair she was working on.
From a black plastic bag, she pulled out a pair of Fila sneakers. One was white, and the other was painted pink, red, aqua and purple.
“I was blown away,” Graham said.
People talk about walking in someone else’s shoes, he said, but she lets you stand in your own a little longer.
And just like that, suddenly even Santa was looking a little differently at what was in front of him.