From New York to London to Paris to Milan, Ajuma Nasenyana has conquered the high fashion capitals of the world. However, she is not done. As she embarks on her new found passion entrepreneurship, Nasenyana talks to NAW’s Belinda Otas about her journey to self-acceptance and embracing her authenticity, and why she will never do nude shoots.
You are one of Africa’s most famous models and a globally recognised face on the world’s fashion runways. What keeps you grounded and why is it important to you to stay authentic?
I consider myself to be a people’s person. I like to blend in and enjoy the company of people from all walks of life. My husband always jokes that I’m a social chameleon. It’s very important to me to stay authentic because I know who I am, and I’m comfortable and happy presenting myself that way.
You did not aspire to be another Naomi Campbell because, according to you, the world already had one. Instead, you capitalised on your uniqueness. What is the one thing which you believe defines your uniqueness and how did you build on that element as you developed your brand?
I believe everybody is beautiful. But there’s always something special that everybody has which is unique about both their personality and their look – something that defines them as an individual and stays in the room even after you’ve left. I capitalised on my ability to get on with people and to be confident and positive. My agency and all my clients thought I was great to work with and I got a lot of requests, year after year.
You have worked with brands like Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Giorgio Armani, Victoria’s Secret, Fendi and Ferragamo, and appeared in magazine like Vogue, Vanity Fair, Dazed and many more. What are some of the things you had to sacrifice to make this career path work for you?
You know I had just started professional athletics training with the leading athletics camp in Kenya, run by the IAAF and Kipchoge Keino, an Olympic Gold Medalist at Mexico City (1968) and Munich (1972), and the chairman of the Kenyan Olympic Committee. My coach was Paul Ereng, also a Gold Medalist (800m at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games). I was quickly transformed into the 400m Kenyan National champion in that first year and I was well on my way to world athletics stardom (laughs). So that’s what I gave up. Also leaving my loved ones behind to live the life of a professional model was a huge sacrifice.
You talked about not being trained for the job. How did you get yourself up-to-speed on the nuances of the modelling world and what was required of you?
When I started, there was no time for excuses or whingeing, you just got on with it. During my first few shows, I
just watched the girls ahead of me on the backstage display screen as they strutted along the runway. I found out that it was not a hard thing to do because somehow, I had it in me. If anything at all, I would say the biggest thing I discovered was required of me was the confidence, willpower and being street-smart. And I have plenty of that!
In what ways do you think not having a formal training on being a model has strengthened your resolve to be strong and develop the mental capacity to stay focused on the goals you wanted to achieve within the industry?
I had to learn it all really quickly. I know all the streets in the capital cities around the world, even with my eyes
closed. I learned the tricks of the trade through trial and error, and through falling apart and rebuilding. I had the chance to shape and perfect my own approach to the business. I firmly believe that experience is the best teacher.
What are some of the biggest challenges you encountered to enable you make the right call in an industry that is fast- paced and changes rapidly?
Nude shoots. I have never been comfortable doing nude pictures. I once attempted a nude shoot, as most of the girls did. They were very confident about it and their pictures turned out great but when mine came out, I could not stand looking at myself in those pictures. I gave them one glance and I have not looked at them again ever since. I felt ashamed of myself, thinking about my background and my family back home. I would never put myself in such an uncomfortable situation again. I also had to learn that money is not a guarantee in the industry. You may get a huge bunch of money today and decide to splash it around on really unnecessary things. But you don’t know when you may book the next job. It could take quite a while. So you really had to learn to manage your money in order to maintain your basic living.
You have talked about the industry being artificial and how one can fall off the radar. What have you done as a model to stay relevant and what do you do to strategically position yourself for longevity in the industry?
What really worked for me was to keep my focus on staying true to myself and divorcing myself from the artificiality or shallowness of the business. I separated my work face from my personal face. Because quite frankly, at work I was just like any actress created for that fleeting role.
Let’s talk about beauty standards. As a young girl, you were teased for being dark skinned. In the past you were quoted as saying you sometimes felt more accepted and beautiful when away from home. How do you deal with that kind of trauma to your self-identity?
To be honest, the trauma always remains with you. I still can’t help wondering what people are thinking about my
appearance when they stare at me. It can be quite uncomfortable. As more and more girls of my skin tone come into the industry, who are confident in their beautiful dark skin, like Nykhor Paul, the acceptance of the saying ‘Black is beautiful’ is finally becoming a reality and I don’t feel like the blackest woman on earth anymore!
You were once offered to do an advert for free to help promote acceptance of dark skin in Kenya. However, you were told you didn’t fit the specs; how did that make you feel?
I didn’t expect people to change their minds overnight as they had their routine specs they worked with. I was just giving them a platform to think outside the box because the majority of Kenyans are not the skin tone they keep advertising year after year. It’s not a good message for the younger generation. I don’t want them to feel that they don’t look right, just like I did when I was growing up.
Are you currently doing any outreach work to address this particular issue among young women, so they are encouraged to be more accepting of themselves and the skin they are in?
I do pro-bono training for aspiring models affected by low self-esteem due to the bullying they experienced because of their appearance. I work with them to boost their confidence and they look up to me and they can relate to my story. This is a really satisfying experience for me, helping girls feel good about themselves.
How do you physically, mentally, and emotionally manage the intensity that comes with being a high fashion model, going from city to city during fashion weeks, and try to have a balanced life?
During an intense period you have to be mentally prepared, knowing you have to put everything else aside to focus on the journeys, the casting sessions, the jobs ahead of you. As well as deal with the stress, the tension and the disappointments that come with it.
You are a supermodel, a wife, and a mum, and you have to balance these different aspects of your life with work. What is your take on the myth that women can have it all given the barriers women still have to face in spite of the progress they have made over the years in the fight for equality?
In the space I’m in right now and with the great support system around me, whether it’s my family, my team at work and my friends in general, I’m able to juggle it all. I feel that in today’s society, regardless of gender, we all have equal opportunity to succeed. Although this is still something we have to work on with regards to women in our rural areas who are still very much oppressed.
In your opinion, what is the best Africa has to offer the fashion world?
Africa adds great colour, patterns and culture to the world’s fashion palette. And I feel that every new look on the runway has a story to it. It warms my heart when I see the world embracing our African fashion. I also believe that there is no continent more blessed with striking beauty and diversity when it comes to models.
In the past, you have encouraged people to invest in the African fashion industry – in what ways do you think this particular area is evolving?
All I can say is that we need to really get involved at all levels, individually, corporately and on the government level to help the industry grow. I’m doing my best to help, and I have some great ideas in the pipeline.
What are your hopes and dreams for the African fashion industry and what would you like to see more of?
My hopes and dreams are to see more African designers and a more equal blend between Caucasian and African models on international runways and in magazines.
Your colleague, Nykhor recently had the social media world buzzing when she called out make-up artists who still don’t get that dark-skinned models like herself have make-up needs and said she would not apologise for her Blackness. Is this an experience you can relate to and how do you deal with such situations?
There are many times I’ve walked on to the runway with an ashy complexion. Sometimes they tried to combine different tones of foundations in an attempt to match my skin tone because they didn’t have my colour in their stash. I ended up looking gold and ashy instead – I think some of those shots are still online. At the time I accepted that there must be no foundation and powder for my skin tone in the market. So I sucked it up and focused on my performance instead.
Do you think this is down to laziness or an unwillingness within the fashion industry that dark skinned models do need make-up, and the right one for their skin tone? What course of action would you like to see more of to correct it?
Naturally, I think all make-up artists should invest in foundation and powder for darker skin tones just like the other tones they have in their collections. Now that we have a lot of cosmetic brands producing products for darker skin tones, there is no excuse for a make-up artist not to apply the right make-up due to a model’s complexion.
You have a foundation that is heavily involved with maternal health in Kenya; why is giving back to your community important to you?
There were a few times as a young girl I happened to visit the labour ward in my hometown, visiting relatives who had given birth. It was tormenting watching women in labour being mistreated in filthy conditions by underpaid and unmotivated doctors and nurses. As a mother there’s nothing more beautiful in this world than bringing in new life. I believe a woman in labour needs proper love, care and support. That’s the most crucial time for both mother and child. Above all I have a soft spot for babies, they are just innocent little angels.
You also run an agency, City Models Africa, seeking to discover another talent like yourself. What has the search been like and what are some of your success stories to date?
I started the agency about 18 months ago. We have spent most of our time casting for TV commercials, which represents the majority of work in Kenya. But we have some really great faces that we have scouted and we’re always looking for the next African supermodel. I plan to run an online activation soon to find her… or him!
You travel around so much, where is home for you and where do you feel at home – the runway, Kenya, New York or anywhere you are able to rest your head for the night until the next city?
Now that I have a child, I feel like the best place to raise him is at home, in Kenya. I want him to have the same upbringing I had. I think I turned out okay, don’t you?
What do you count as some of your greatest achievements in the industry?
I’m most grateful to the fashion industry for helping me develop a tough skin, the skills and knowledge to face the next stage in life, which has turned out to be entrepreneurship.