A limo and a corsage weren’t going to cut it for Johnny “JJ” Eden Jr.
Last Friday, his mother, Saudia Shuler, 43, threw the 18-year-old a $25,000 Dubai-themed pre-prom bash — complete with a live camel, a 30-foot-high desert mural, three tons of sand, a trio of dates decked out in custom gowns and a rented Lamborghini to drive to the dance.
And to think: This was Shuler’s Plan B.
“I wanted to take him and his friends to Dubai,” said the mom, who owns a soul-food restaurant, Country Cookin’, in Philadelphia, where she and her son live.
“But I thought, why not let the whole ’hood, the whole community, experience Dubai? Plus, he had too many friends,” she added with a laugh.
Shuler decided to go all out for her son, a senior at Simon Gratz Mastery Charter, after surviving three years of health struggles. She had a stroke in June 2014, was diagnosed with preliminary thyroid cancer in October 2015, and suffered through seizures, which she still has to this day.
“He struggled a lot when I was sick,” said Shuler. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t go to the bathroom on my own. He had to go through all that and still go to school. And I said, ‘If I make it through this, I’m going to make his prom the best.’ ”
Eden — whose father passed away when the boy was just three years old — had converted to Islam and become a Muslim in 2013, which his mother said helped him get through the tough times.
“I wanted to reward him and do something nice for him,” said Shuler of her son, who has a 3.76 GPA and is attending Delaware State in the fall to study chemical engineering.
“Other kids at the prom had way more expensive suits than my son and way more expensive parties. It was just that I had an imagination and this is what I dreamed for my son.”- Saudia Shuler
“And he’s so into his religion, I thought, ‘That’s it. Dubai!’ ”
She started saving for the extravaganza about one year ago.
“I would put my ones and fives and change in a big water jug,” she said. When she went back to work in December 2016, after taking time off due to her ailments, she upped it to $200 a week.
“It’s not like I had $25,000 sitting around,” Shuler said. “Family and friends helped, too. Probably $8,000 of that was my personal money.”
Shuler said the Lamborghini rental, which cost a few grand, was paid for by her aunt and that the sand was donated by a neighborhood friend.
“He went and shoveled it,” said Shuler. “I don’t know where he got it from.”
And while her son’s dates’ custom gowns — $1,500 each — ended up being gifted by a local designer, Shuler shelled out for the girls’ Giuseppe Zanotti, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent shoes ($1,000 to $1,400 per pair) and makeup.
“I wanted to do three different dates,” said Shuler, who said her son didn’t realize he would be escorting multiple women to the party until two weeks prior. “He almost had a heart attack because he didn’t want to change three times. My son isn’t the type of kid who likes any attention at all.”
She invited her son’s girlfriend of five months, as well as a cashier at her restaurant and a friend’s daughter who works at a salon applying eyelashes — though only the girlfriend, Natalia, accompanied Eden to the actual prom.
Shuler also had a cake made in the shape of the Quran, catering for 500 neighborhood guests, a videographer, photographer, DJ and photo booth, and three custom suits made for her cherished boy, two of them costing at least $1,000 each.
“It’s normal,” said Shuler. “Other kids at the prom had way more expensive suits than my son and way more expensive parties. It was just that I had an imagination and this is what I dreamed for my son.” She understands, however, why people think it was over the top: “I think it was just the camels!”
She’s staying mum on where she obtained said dromedary: “I’m saving that for Oprah or Ellen.”
And while Shuler said she has experienced some online backlash over the whole affair, she is proud that it was a huge success, community-wide.
“The week of his prom, there were over 15 shootings in Philly,” said Shuler. “At his pre-prom, there were almost 1,000 people out there. And there were people out here who didn’t like each other, people who were in gang wars with each other, but none of them did anything.
“Everyone benefited from it.”
“He was really happy and impressed by what I’ve done,” the proud mom recalled. “I‘ve never seen my son with a smile so bright.”
As for his graduation party, Shuler has something in the works. Just don’t expect another viral sensation.
“It’s going to be very private, trust me,” said Shuler, who has gained an extra 25,000 Instagram followers since photos from the party hit the Web. “Because this is too much.”