What makes a model? A beautiful face, a slender 5’9 frame, a pretty smile, perhaps? What then makes for a top model? It must be far more than the attributes of a typical model. Since this question was one I was unable to answer, an investigation had to take place. What better way to find out what makes a great model, than to study some of the top ones.
Africa is beautiful. Just like the residents, there is no area or land without a story. Beauty in landscape can be created through erosion and normal weather processes. The same goes for beauty in people, the tougher the tribulations, the stronger their glow. For every beautiful face, there is a passionate story to follow, especially where great success is concerned. Africa’s top models like Iman, Noella Coursaris, Nina Keita, Flavania Matata, Alek Wek, Liya Kibede, Ajak, Oluchi Onweagba, Ubah Hassan, and Ataui Deng exude confidence, professionalism, passion, and ambition. Their pictures are stories to success, now that is beautiful.
Somalian Sensation Ubah Hassan was discovered in Canada by Click management. After shooting a high fashion Ralph Lauren campaign, she became the face to watch. The size 4, 5’11” model broke the boundaries during a period of time when a lot of designers weren’t casting black models in their shows. In an interview with Iman, Ubah makes the point that as an immigrant in this country, she was so focused on herself and making it, she didn’t focus on the negatives going on in the industry. As the result of a go see at Ralph Lauren she was cast in the ad campaign, which instantly boosted her career, at the mere age of 22.
Noella Coursaris’s modeling career took off in London. She lived and worked there for a few years before relocating to New York for more opportunities. Thus far in her career, Noella has appeared on the covers of Uzuri, Amina and New African Woman. She has been featured in Essence, Vanity Fair, GQ and Trace magazines. Aside from editorials, Ms. Coursaris has also modeled for various ad campaigns. Her top model factor, aside from all the work she has done in front of the camera, is that she was invited this year to be a special guest and co-presenter at two Miss Vodacom Congo shows. Initiated in 2010, the pageant’s mission is to find the most beautiful women in Congo. They must be beautiful on the inside and out, possess values and character, and must also have a heart. That’s an amazing project to be a part of.
Known as one of the most influential models of our time, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid has graced international catwalks, posed for the most famous of photographers, and has always stayed true to her charitable work. With a 14 year-long modeling career, Iman became the muse for many designers: Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Yves Saint Laurent to name a few. After her almost two decade long modeling career, Iman moved into the business sector in 1994. Staying true to her roots in fashion, she started her own cosmetics firm which targeted ‘difficult-to-find’ shades for women of color. She was inspired by her years in the industry of making her own makeup concoctions for the makeup artist to use on her. The year 2007 brought another opportunity to the Global super model. HSN (Home Shopping Network) offered Iman her own clothing line, which she agreed to take on. Her first pieces were Caftans inspired by her childhood in Egypt. As of 2010, Iman Cosmetics was a 25 million dollar business. With every year that passes, this woman ages elegantly and finds a new way to give back to the world we live in.
Also a veteran in the African Top Model pool is Sudanese model Alek Wek, discovered in 1995 at the age of 19, at an outdoor market in London, by a Models 1 scout. Alex began receiving real attention after she appeared in the “Golden Eye” music video by Tina Turner. By 1997, she was named “Model of the Year.” Ms. Wek’s resume lists ad campaigns for Moschino, Victoria Secret, and Clinique. She has graced the runways of top designers such as John Galliano, Ermanno Scervino, Donna Karan, and many others. When not modeling, Alek designs a range of designer handbags under the “Wek 1933” label. Her handbags can be found in Selfridges department stores. This brilliant woman doesn’t stop there. In 2007, she released an autobiography which documented her journey from childhood in Sudan to the catwalks of Europe. Top model characteristics are demonstrated through her membership of the U.S. Committee for Refugees’ Advisory Council – an organization which raises awareness about situations in Sudan as well as the rights of refugees worldwide. This model has more than a beautiful face, she has a commendable heart.
Following in her aunt’s footsteps is Ataui Deng. At 19 she has already walked for Zac Posen, Sophie Theallet, and Malandrino. A few of her tear sheets include Harper’s Bazaar, Teen Vogue, V, and a cover for Lurve magazine. Her look is fresh and vibrant, so there is no question why everyone wants to book her. With all this attention in just three years, she is sure to continue to soar in her career.
The winner of 1998’s “Face of Africa” competition was Oluchi Onweagba at age 16. A Lagos suburbs native, Oluchi was encouraged by friends and family to try out for the show, which she won and was awarded a three-year modeling contract with Elite Models. After relocating to NYC, Onweagba posed for the covers of Vogue, I-D, and Elle. She has done features for Nylon, Marie Claire, and Allure. Oluchi has been the face for Express, Gap, Ann Taylor as well as Victoria Secret. Runway wise, she has walked for the greats: John Galliano, Christian Dior, Chanel, and Giorgio Armani, and others. Oluchi’s top model credentials lie in her volunteer work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like LEAP Africa (an entrepreneurship incubator) and NIPRO, a medical technology group. In 2008, she launched a modeling agency in South Africa called OModel Africa, with offices in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Tanzanian beauty queen and fashion model Flaviana Matata was discovered in 2007 on the first edition of Miss Universe Tanzania. Later that year she placed among the top 15 semifinalists in Miss Universe 2007. Essence magazine named her the 2010 breakout model to watch. During Ralph Lauren’s 2010 collection, her presence stole the show. Subsequently, she was one of the most sought after models of the year.
Hailing from the Ivory Coast is Nina Keita. Picked up by Next Model Management in New York, her flawless face was placed in an Old Navy Campaign. From there her face has been affiliated with Old Navy. In the modeling industry money is made in the branding sector, which occurs through brand ad campaigns. Nina securing her 2007 face of Old Navy position, helped make her a real value to bookers.
Named model of the moment in 2011, Angelique ‘Ajak’ Deng represents a true success story. Originally from the Sudan, Deng had to flee with her family to a Kenyan refugee camp where her mother died of malaria and left Ajak with the responsibility of her 7 siblings. After immigrating to Australia, she completed school while modeling internationally for United Colors of Benetton. Since 16, Deng has been financially responsible for her siblings. Her humility is inspiring. When asked why she wants to model she responds with “So I can give my siblings all they want.” This kindred spirit has walked for Lanvin, Gucci, Gaultier, and Marc by marc Jacobs to name a few. Ajak has been on the cover of Vogue and was the face for the fragrance CK One. She is not only beautiful; she is a survivor and a provider. What woman can’t appreciate that?
Last but certainly not least, an Addis Ababa-Ethiopia native, Liya Kebede, is so much more than just a supermodel – she’s just a general superwoman. Not only is Liya a model, she is also a maternal health advocate, a clothing designer, and an actress. She had appeared on the cover of US Vogue three times in her career as well as in 2008; and was considered by Forbes in the top 15 highest paid models. She is a force to be reckoned with, and has the experience to prove it. It was Tom Ford’s request for an exclusive contract for Gucci Fall/Winter 2000 that kicked off her whirlwind of success. Her popularity rose when she appeared on the front cover of Paris Vogue, which dedicated the whole issue to her. She has also posed for the covers of numerous high fashion magazines from I-D to Spanish Vogue. In 2003, Liya was named the newest face of Estee Lauder cosmetics. Kebede was appointed WHO (World Health Organization) Goodwill Ambassador for maternal newborn health care in 2005. As if she hasn’t done it all, in 2008 she also launched Lemlem – a women’s and children’s clothing line. Pieces can be bought in Barney’s, J.Crew, Net-a-Porter and boutiques across the country. She is a brilliant role model for young girls who want to be everything in life. She is living proof you CAN be.
These women are so much more than just pretty faces and slender figures. Behind the stunning smiles are stories of trials and tribulations, challenges, and a passion so strong, it overcame the negatives. Africa’s land is rich in resources, and its people are rich in talent. When given the chance to shine, these women can never be stopped. I ask again, what makes these ten women more than mere models? The journey they took to get to the top, as well as remembering their purpose of being at the top! Each of these women used their resources in some way to help change or shape young women like them to be their full potential. As a woman, no one understands your struggle and can embrace the success of it with you like another woman. Let these models inspire your drive in your passion, be it fashion or political science. Let Africa’s Top Models inspire your journey to the top!