Nigeria To The World: An Elite Opportunity?
Modelling is not your everyday profession. We’ve seen the likes of Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss inspire the world with their aesthetic, change beauty standards and become global icons in the process. But while modelling competitions are not new to Nigeria, how viable is the industry generally? How likely are our aspiring models to find success on the scale of Naomi Campbell or Oluchi Onweagba?
The annual Elite Model Look Competition, run by The Elite Model Company, aims to do just that. Their prestigious modelling contests which draw over 350,000 contestants from 70 countries are famous for discovering supermodels, including the Cindy Crawford, Gisele Bundchen. From Nigeria, Mayowa Nicholas was discovered (2014 winner) who is the first Nigerian model to front a campaign for Calvin Klein. Last year Davidson Obennebo, our cover boy, was the global winner.
Elohor Elizabeth is CEO of Beth Modeling Agency and Creative director of Elite Model Look Nigeria. After winning the Miss Nigeria United Kingdom Pageant in 2001 she decided to venture into the modelling business. According to Elizabeth, “People would always ask me to model for them and I decided I wanted to make more money from it. I sent a few emails to modelling agencies all over the world, eight months later I got an email from Elite Models, they decided to work with me.”
Having represented over two thousand models, Elizabeth talks about the industry being tough on black models as it’s mostly about “luck”. She explains, “I always tell people that it’s a competition and the industry for black models is very difficult.”
It’s no secret that the international modelling standards are known to be an obstacle in an industry that generally favours models with straight noses, white skin and the linear, almost androgynous physiques. Although the major international fashion houses have responded to accusations of racism and encouraging anorexia, black models still meet prejudice in the fashion industry. As Jordan Dunn, a black British model known to be vocal about discrimination told Guardian UK, “People in the industry say if you have a black face on the cover of a magazine it won’t sell.” Coming from a model who is British, what, you might imagine, are the chances of the Nigerian models making out there?
International versus Nigerian modelling standards
Although Nigeria hasn’t quite produced an international supermodel that can stand alongside the likes of Sudanese Alex Wek and Iman, we’ve had notable models like Oluchi, who won the M-net Face of Africa in 1998, covered Italian Vogue and walked for lingerie giant Victoria Secret for many years. We’ve also had Agbani Darego who was thrust into the limelight as the first native African winner of Miss World in 2001. However few have found success on such an international scale and within the domestic industry, there are many stories of exploitation and frustrated ambition.
The issue of different modelling standards is a common problem, which prevents models from getting jobs both at home and abroad. A face and body type popular in one market is often wrong for another. While models are uncertain and hopeful of getting foreign jobs, they also need to make money back home to survive. For Omoh Momoh, who won Elite Model Look Nigeria in 2016 it is a struggle getting jobs in Nigeria, as clients in Nigeria often prefer fuller girls. She says “I think in Nigeria, my agency says that clients don’t book me for jobs. After winning, I came back and did some jobs but not as many as I was expecting. They said, “Clients don’t book you because you’re too skinny, you might not fit their products, you need to put on weight or get your hair done.” I don’t want to [put on weight] because I feel there are more opportunities for me out there like I could be signed to Elite New York and there they need skinny models, so I don’t really need to stick to the Nigerian standards.”
What happens to models that make it?
From strikes at the 2012 Arise Fashion Week to payment issues, the modelling industry in Nigeria doesn't have the best reputation. However, modelling agencies can give the models a sense of security as they can earn between N100, 000 to N300, 000 per job in various sectors including branding and advertising according to Elizabeth.
Unlike most professions, the lifespan for modelling is quite short, as most models tend to work for about five to ten years. In rarer cases, like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, models tend to look forward to a longer career that may go beyond the runway. According to Elizabeth, “From about 16-25, we push our models to go to school, and then from there if anything happens, it happens.”
Last year, Davidson Obennebo won the Elite competition in Nigeria 2016 and incredibly also went on to win the Elite Model Look World Finals, making history as the first black model win the competition. When asked about future plans he talks about being hopeful to “one day becomes a successful black model.” Although he has already modelled in Paris Fashion Week and Milan with the likes of Versace, Balmain and Givenchy, Davidson is still considered to be a new face in the industry. He also complains about not getting enough jobs in Nigeria.
When asked about his experience so far he says “My favourite designer I've worked with so far is Versace…The whole team is just simply amazing, kind and caring and Donatella Versace is a legend and it's been a pleasure working and still working with her.”
This year, the Elite competition is scheduled to take place on October 8th in Eko Hotel, Lagos, with many young models hoping to win and progress to compete on a global level. Many of them already look up to Davidson as inspiration, hoping to strut down the runways in the iconic New York, Paris, London and Milan Fashion Weeks.
The competition includes 24 models, 12 boys and 12 girls from 14-17 years old from different backgrounds. Elizabeth talks passionately about the competition as a way to provide hope and possibly a better income for the contestants. Some contestants have experienced homelessness and others resorted to cleaning positions for steady pay. They are hopeful that the competition will give them new opportunities. As one contestant said, “Davidson is my role model… The best part of modelling for me is travelling and I can't wait to experience that.”
Winning competitions is only a step forward. Being popular is no guarantee of long-lasting success. Nation’s sweetheart Olajumoke Orisaguna “Jumoke the bread seller” plucked from obscurity by TY Bello, was signed to Beth Models but warming hearts isn’t enough for a modelling career and after the initial hype wore off, she diverted into acting. “We find Jumokes everyday,” said Elizabeth. “She fits the everyday model for a Nigerian standard but she doesn’t fit the international standard because she’s not that tall.”
Even the stunning Darego could not top the impact of winning Miss World. Apart from a three-year L'Oreal contract and a flurry of international editorials, her career has mostly remained in Nigeria. Recently, she has fronted a brand of relaxer creme and launched a denim wear collection. This year she married Ishaya Danjuma, the son of TY Danjuma, one of Nigeria's richest men.
It's an elite opportunity, but after the bright lights at Eko Hotel go down, it will be back to reality for most of the contestants. “After we do the show, I'm not sure what happens to the girls after - do they make it or not? It's a 50/50 chance,” admits Elizabeth.