Kenyan based reporter Ryan Kohls catches up with our August cover star Oluchi Onweagba-Orlandi in Nairobi.
Born and raised in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, Oluchi never dreamed of being a model. But in 1998 she was encouraged to enter a modelling contest. At the age of 17, Oluchi won M-Net’s “Face of Africa.” The victory transformed her life. She won a modelling contract with Elite Model Management and was whisked away to the runways of New York.
Since then, Oluchi has graced the pages of top fashion magazines, walked for Victoria’s Secret and worked with the who’s who of designers (Galliano, Dior, Chanel, Armani).
She also started her own modelling agency, O-Models, in South Africa. After fifteen years at the top of her game, she’s ready to give back. This year Tyra Banks’ “Next Top Model” franchise will reach Africa and Oluchi was handpicked by Banks to host the show. For years the idea of bringing the show to Africa was discussed, but a slew of logistical hurdles stood in the way.
Now, the stars seem to have aligned and the show has been given the green light. Auditions are currently taking place across nine African countries, and filming is set to begin soon:
Ryan Kohls: Africa’s Next Top Model has been in talks for years. How did things align to make it happen now?
Oluchi: It took great determination and vision. When you go to South Africa, the fashion industry is a lot more structured, but the industry is still very small on this continent. Africa is a very interesting, complicated continent. I feel like everything that happens on a global scale takes forever to happen in Africa.
RK: I read that someone in New York told you that you wouldn’t be able to find enough beautiful women in Africa. Did somebody really say that to you?
O: (laughs) Yes. People have said to me, ‘You’re crazy. You’re going to go scout for women across Africa? I don’t think you’re going to find beautiful women.’ I’m here to prove them wrong. What do you think? Do you think I’ll be able to find beautiful women?
RK: Well, I was shocked by that comment. Africa is known for its beautiful women. Ethiopia, for example, is famous for that. I noticed that country was not on the list for your talent search. How will you make sure all of Africa is represented because many women won’t be able to fly to the destinations?
O: The countries we chose were based on the places where we could get the most support. We can’t go to all the countries because of logistics. But the competition is open to everyone. If you have what it takes you should send in your application and picture. If we think you’re really amazing, we’ll set up a Skype interview. I would love to go to Ethiopia, I’ve never been. My husband was very upset with me that we’re not going to Ethiopia. But maybe season 2. We’ll see how things go and take it from there.
RK: The African woman has long been perceived as ‘exotic’. Do you think that stereotype still exists?
O: Yes, it does. As Africans we don’t tell our own stories. So that perception of the kind of women you find on the African continent is based on that Western understanding or vision of what our women should look like. If we, as Africans in Africa, can tell our own stories then it would be a different thing.
RK: Are you hoping this show will change that by showing the more vibrant and modern aspects of Africa?
O: Exactly. Obviously, the Next Top Model franchise is created to celebrate women and fashion. But, for the continent of Africa the show comes at a different angle. It’s more than just finding beautiful women. It’s more than fashion. There are a whole lot of angles to the competition that I feel are extremely important.
RK: I was reading the application form for the competition. I was happy to see that you’re looking for plus-size models as well. Was that important for you?
O: The original “America’s Next Top Model” did have a plus-size model included. We are actually sticking to the format. Having a plus-size model was a plus for us because in Africa most of our women are plus size. It’s a no brainer. It wasn’t something we sort of added to the package, it’s already there.
RK: The form also says that the women have to be at least 5.7″. Why is that the magic number?
O: When you think of models you have to think of sample sizes. It’s existed through the age of time. Models are like mannequins. You have to be tall enough.
RK: Are you worried about these young girls being exploited once they reach America?
O: Absolutely not. Luckily enough, the United States is one of the fashion capitals and it’s a very, very, legal country. Some of the ones who get to go there are from a well-to-do home, so they can afford to go. But I came from being given an opportunity through a model search. I don’t see it as exploitation in any way. It’s just an amazing opportunity to learn more about who you are through fashion and just experience the world.
RK: All the young girls applying for this show are chasing the dream you’ve achieved. Is being a model everything you hoped it would be?
O: Initially when I started it was a bit confusing. It wasn’t something I had knowledge about. But as time went on it was everything that any young woman would want and more. You learn to love yourself more and appreciate your beauty, whatever your definition of beauty may be. You obviously become more self-aware, you earn an income, you have an opportunity to travel, you work with a diverse group of people, you learn about cultures. These are things you would not have ordinarily been fortunate enough to experience.
RK: Your journey seems to have been quite smooth. Were there any big obstacles you overcame in this industry?
O: Well, one would be staying away from home. But you can sort that out. With time, you can bring your family over. You can also start a new family. Another one would be learning to face rejection. You don’t get every casting you go to. That makes you a better and stronger person.
RK: What’s the most expensive piece of clothing you’ve ever worn?
O: (laughs) I guess some of the couture outfits I wore for Galliano and Christian Dior. They only make one of each. They’re crazy, they go for anything from $80,000 and above.
RK: Do you feel nervous wearing those outfits?
O: You have to be careful not to ruin them. You forget once you’re on the runway. Couture is not like typical runway shows, they’re like broadway shows. Everything is exaggerated and hectic.
RK: What city is more hectic: New York or Lagos?
O: Lagos is like New York. I tell people that and they don’t believe it. It’s one of the most expensive slums in the world. It’s one of the busiest cities. The energy is the same. New York is cleaner and nicer, but when I’m in Lagos I feel like I’m in New York.
RK: Are you a Nollywood fan?
O: I was when I was pregnant with my child. I was addicted for some weird reason. After I gave birth, I said, ‘I can’t watch this anymore.’
RK: Why couldn’t you watch it any more?
O: (laughs) You’re no longer bored. You have all that time to watch movies and then you have the baby and you don’t have time any more.
RK: What’s currently spinning on your iPod?
O: Asha, who is a Nigerian/French artist. Sade. A little bit of everything. I try to listen to what calms me down. There’s another guy I ran into a little while ago. It has to do with affirmations. He created this CD full of affirmations. I bought it and put it on my iPod. I’ve been listening to that a lot.
RK: So, it’s a guy saying things like, “You’re the best”?
O: (laughs) Yes. Things like that. It’s like mental vitamins.
RK: What’s coming out of Nigeria that people need to start paying attention to?
O: I’d say fashion. Ten years ago African’s didn’t listen to their own music, now that’s all they want to listen to. It brings people together. I want to give fashion that same opportunity. It’s a universal language and it can bring people together.
RK: Other African supermodels like Iman and Waris Dirie have focused their energy on humanitarian work later in their careers. Is that an example you plan on following?
O: I’ve had an amazing 15 years of my career, but it is extremely fulfilling to do this show in Africa. It’s my way of doing my own humanitarian work. I don’t like the idea of charity. I don’t like to have things given to me. I like being given an opportunity to work and make my own money. I’m not against charity, but it makes my skin crawl. We should teach people how to work and earn. One of the problems we have in Africa is that aid is constantly being given to people. If you think about the percentage of people who need aid and those who need jobs, it’s like night and day. I’m not doing charity because it looks good on my resumé. I want to give people an opportunity to work. That’s what the continent needs.
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