Philomena Kwao: On Embracing Her Curves and Colour
Philomena Kwao is one of the leading faces of the modern plus size movement. Her close friend sent her pictures to renowned international modelling agency Models 1, and she became the face of high fashion brands such as Evans and features in high fashion magazines such as Cosmopolitan became the norm.
Her work in England received the attention of the New York-based fashion agency Ford Models, who signed her. Modelling launched Philomena to popularity but her journey was not without its challenges. Modelling has given Philomena a unique viewpoint on style, women and identity. Besides her body confidence, her legacy will be her humanitarian work empowering women. In this interview, Philomena shares her thoughts on modelling, fashion and empowerment.
What brings you to Lagos?
It was important for me to come to Lagos; I am an ambassador Women for Women International, which is a foundation that helps women in conflict zones. I travelled with them to Bauchi, Jos and Plateau to use my platform to bring attention to the important work they do.
Why have you chosen humanitarian work?
I love modelling but I need to do more; I have degrees in Economics and International Health Management and I have always wanted to help people. I spoke to my agency, and they presented me with Women for Women International and I knew I wanted to work with them. Women are already marginalised and add conflict and displacement. I started off hosting their galas and events then that evolved to writing for them. I have written for the Metro UK and Huffington Post.
I saw they worked in Nigeria and I wanted to use my platform to shed light on their work. This trip has changed my life; I am still processing all I have seen. The North is stunning but in the conflict areas, women do not have enough resources to sufficiently help themselves. I have seen women who have had to deliver their own children. These women are strong but they need help, Women for Women setup 12-month programs to help train them in numeracy and literacy skills and social empowerment training.
What have been your highlights and challenges in modelling?
There have been quite a few highs and lows. I was the first black plus-size model in Sports Illustrated; the feedback was amazing and that helped me get a lot of work. I have been on billboards. When I first moved to New York, I didn’t work for a year nobody knew what to do with my look. The thing that makes modelling difficult is that you are judged on your appearance, not how much you know or your personality.
What is your personal style evolution?
I don’t know if I have style, I am very laid back and ‘un-modelly’, you will always find me in a t-shirt and jeans unless I have to work. When I was younger I was really big, I was over 300 pounds, I wasn’t into fashion, I had my own issues of body and size. I stopped eating. I bleached my skin, the more I lightened my skin, the more compliments I received. People also loved my hair because I was always changing my hair.
One day I decided to cut my hair low. The people around me thought I was having a mental breakdown. For the first few days I loved it until I didn’t, my euphoric high crashed. When you strip yourself down like that. You can’t hide. I then realised that we women hide behind our hair. So much of my identity was wrapped around [our] hair. After that, I decided to be comfortable in my own skin. Comfortable is just low maintenance, t-shirt, jeans and easy dresses. Style isn’t about wearing the latest designer trend; it’s about being true to you.