Back street to catwalk

Adia is a Muslim girl from a suburb of Paris. Will she be the next supermodel? By Tamsin Blanchard
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Just thinking about the life of a top international model is enough to make most of us feeldizzy. After all, they go out with supermoguls, film stars and pop singers, don't they? They hang around at movie premieres and they have apartments to kill for. Claudia and Karen have their tax- friendly pads in Monaco, Linda has her house in Los Angeles. and others are lucky enough to call New York lofts and Parisian flats "home".

The French-born black model Adia may not be in the same league - yet. Last week, the 21-year-old strutted down the catwalk at the Paris Ready to Wear shows of Issey Miyake, Christian Lacroix, Emanuel Ungaro and Rifat Ozbek. Last month she was in London for Roland Klein, Nicole Farhi and Bella Freud, before jetting off to Milan where she modelled exclusively for Gucci. She has been photographed by Nick Knight for British Vogue, features in at least 10 pages of October's American Vogue and graces the pages of November's The Face.

It is thus astonishing to discover that she lives on a council estate (or cite, as the French call them) in the northern Parisian suburb of Pierrefitte. France's decidedly unchic cites are generally linked in the collective memory to acts of violence. Last year, cites in the greater Paris region were the scene of riots; only a few weeks ago, an adolescent girl was shot dead by an 18-year-old in a cite near Montpellier.

When I suggest going out to a cafe for a bite to eat before interviewing Adia at home the response os swift. "I don't think you understand", she says. "There are no cafes there. There are no taxis. There's nothing there." Later, when her agent rings up at the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her parents, brother and sister, his first question is whether we managed to get there without being mugged.

Adia's address may sound lyrical - L'Allee des Poetes (Poets' Alley) - but, in reality, there is nothing poetic about it. Blocks of concrete high-rise flats line the road and clutches of kids hang about with nothing better to do than kick their heels. The corridors of her apartment building are covered in chipped lime-green paint and as we wander through them, I somehow can't imagine old Streatham girl Naomi Compbell living in a place like this. Inside the flat, the furnishings are decidedly unglamorous. The settee, coffee table and wall unit would not look out of place in an MFI showroom and only a curtain separates the living room from Adia's bedroom. Through a slit, you can see the bunk bed that she shares with her 16-year-old sister.

Yet, it is not only where she lives which makes Adia different from other models. Her whole life seems to be the antithesis of that of her illustrious colleagues. She is planning to marry her local high school sweetheart. She doesn't smoke. She doesn't drink. She even avoids socialising with the fashion set. "Once I remember that a girl said to me in a club, 'It's really strange that you don't drink'," she recalls, "it was as if I were a mutant or an extraterrestrial." She may be neither, but she is almost certainly a unique species in the world of fashion: a Muslim model.

"I really have a great belief in Islam," she declares, and while she may not go so far as to wear a veil, her religion forms an important part of her life. She proudly declares that she knows all her prayers and recites them daily. As well as avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, she plans to stay at home until she gets married, and accepts that she cannot spend the night at her boyfriend's flat. "That's completely out of the question. There are certain values which are strict and which I respect."

Needless to say, the reaction of the local Muslim community to her career choice has been anything but supportive. "For them, modelling is not a profession", she says. "People said to me, 'Only hookers do that', and it was very difficult for me in the beginning. My father thought that modelling was a very unhealthy environment." She initially went to castings for shows behind her family's back and when her father found out, "he went absolutely mad." He has apparently calmed down since, and now accepts that she models "because he can see that I have kept on the straight and narrow up to now". "Is he proud of you now?" I ask. Her answer says a lot about how her Muslim background still affects her view of her profession. "You know, I don't know if I would be proud if my daughter were a model," she wonders.

As I flick through her portfolio, I hit upon a nude shot of her from British Vogue and ask what her parents think of such photos. "They haven't seen it yet," she says, as a look of panic crosses her face. And how would they react if they did? She slowly draws her index finger across her throat, as if to say, "They'd kill me", and then quickly reassures herself. "But, my father doesn't know Vogue and he doesn't speak English".

While she now seems at ease with nudity, she says that it took her a while to get used to being in front of the camera. "At the start, I was really uptight," she remembers. "As a Muslim, I have had a very, very strict education and was very ill at ease".

Her modelling career began two years ago in the most cliched way. She had gone into Paris to look for a summer job in a McDonald's when a photographer stopped her in the street. At the time she was still studying management at high school and was planning to become a lawyer. "I really did not think that I had the physique to become a model," she says; and she does not seem to have been that interested in fashion. "I only ever bought one fashion magazine, and that was an issue of Vogue Homme. I saved up for ages to buy it because it was very expensive. About 30 or 40 francs (pounds 4-pounds 5)." Today she is earning up to pounds 2,000 per catwalk show and is still sincerely incredulous that it is possible to make a living "by wearing clothes".

The model on the cover of Vogue Homme was Naomi Campbell, and it was a desire to look like her which persuaded Adia to give modelling a try. After things did not work out with her first agency, she decided to take her career into her own hands. "I didn't know anything about modelling," she admits. "But Naomi was with Elite. So I said to myself, 'I'm going to try to sign up with Elite'." The agency signed her up immediately, but her time there proved to be short and not so sweet. "It was not my thing," she says nonchalantly. "They pushed me too much and wanted me to become a supermodel straightaway."

In fact, it was only after she joined the Paris-based Karin agency that her career began to take off. After being spotted in an Issey Miyake show, she was signed up for an advertising campaign with Gianfranco Ferre. Another campaign for Lacroix Jeans followed, as did the Vogue photo shoot with Nick Knight. This year, her summer jobs were a far cry from selling burgers to Parisians. They included the campaign for the launch of a make-up line by the black model Iman, who has become something of a protege, a shoot with Arthur Elgort for American Vogue and supermodel snapper Peter Lindbergh's first photo story for The Face. Next in line is the photographer Steven Meisel.

The secret of Adia's success is far from secret. Her exquisite features have the fineness of an Ingres portrait and with her full lips, her looks are vaguely reminiscent of Campbell's. Dressed in a brown woollen cardigan and elegant brown trousers from Joseph, she also looks the part. Her designer togs may seem out of place in Pierrefitte, but she is not letting a few magazine shoots and catwalk shows go to her head.

When I ask her sister if modelling has changed her at all, the reply of "Not at all" is accompanied by a look which suggests that I must be out of my mind to think otherwise. Indeed, Adia has retained not only her working-class accent, but also a refreshing lack of pretension. Her conversation is tinged with self-deprecation and humour. She is sassy, street-wise and extremely smart.

In the taxi, she mouths off about the government's treatment of immigrants, and racism in general. "People say that there is a place for blacks in fashion, but it's a lie", she asserts. "There will always be a problem. People make such a thing out of the fact that Naomi is so horrible, but she's no different from the other girls. It's just that she's black." She laments the fact that her colour means that she is offered little work in France, and tells the story of a casting director who looked her up and down and then spat out with venom: "What is this thing in front of me?"

Yet, it is her African origins which are also responsible for her level- headedness. Her Malian father and Senegalese mother both came to France in the Seventies, but Adia was essentially brought up in a village in Mali by her grandmother. "It was in the middle of nowhere. There was no TV, no electricity, no running water," she says. "When you have lived in Africa and seen how people live, you can't have the same behaviour as the other models. I couldn't go around saying: 'I have my villa. I'm going away for the weekend in my jet.'" When I suggest that it perhaps has more to do with her personality than with her background, she disagrees with great sincerity. "It's just a question of logic".

Nor does she dream of superstardom. "I'll just keep working until I have enough money to buy myself a house," she says. When she does, you can bet that it certainly won't be in Monaco

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