Falling out of fashion: why African models are so last year

When the fashion world wanted to look serious, it turned to Africa. But now the trend is over, top agencies are quitting and there are questions over racist attitudes, reports <i>Meera Selva</i>
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In a beauty parlour in central Nairobi, Ajuma Nasenyana stared in dismay at the talon-like false nails being glued to her fingertips. "Do these come off?" she asked. "I'm going home in a few weeks and I want to play with my goats. My friends will just laugh if they see these."

In a beauty parlour in central Nairobi, Ajuma Nasenyana stared in dismay at the talon-like false nails being glued to her fingertips. "Do these come off?" she asked. "I'm going home in a few weeks and I want to play with my goats. My friends will just laugh if they see these."

Home for 20-year-old Ms Nasenyana is a village near Lodwar, one of the most lawless and deprived parts of Kenya. Last year, she exchanged the mud-and-wattle huts for an apartment in Paris and a clutch of photographs she carried around to agencies, looking for castings. She was encouraged by Lyndsey McIntyre, a Kenyan model scout who had spotted her at a 2003 beauty pageant and thought she had the looks that could put her in the same league as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. A year on, a career in modelling has lost some of its lustre, and Ajuma is contemplating going back to her first love: athletics.

Back in July 2003, hopes were high. The international model agency Elite had just opened an office in Nairobi and had hired Ms McIntyre to help spot fresh talent. Africa was, after all, a continent filled with tall, slim women with exotic looks and low wage demands. The fashion industry had gone stale - considered frivolous after 11 September, and hit by economic downturns in its main markets - and Africa could provide the industry with new blood that could revive it, and win lots of ethical kudos.

Western designers and fashion journalists adore the troubled life stories most African models bring with them. Alek Wek comes from the war zone of south Sudan and remembers bullets hitting her bedroom walls; Waris Dirie has written about how she was circumcised with a blunt knife, and Iman remembers life as a Somali refugee. Their history lends an aura of gravitas to the products they endorse.

But the interest has not been sustained. Elite's African business has been wound up, and Kenyan model scouts are desperately seeking sponsorship money to host the model contests and pageants that keep the new faces coming.

For many African women the interest of the international modelling agencies was a source of great pride. Model scouts made it clear they were looking for true "African looks", dark skin and full bodies, instead of a traditional European face and figure.

It was a way to celebrate a beauty that had not been achieved through skin-lightening creams and hair straighteners. "People think of fashion and modelling as frivolous businesses, but they are an essential part of an enterprise culture," Moira Tremaine, director of the fourth annual Kenya Fashion Week, said. "Last year, we got EU funding for our fashion shows because they recognised the commercial importance of promoting local designers and showcasing new talent."

Ms Nasenyana's ebony-black skin, shaved head and razor cheekbones put her at the centre of it all. But she is not as enthusiastic as she might have been. "I had never grown up desperate to be a model," she said. "I was training to be an athlete, and I told them I would much rather run." It was not an idle wish. Ms Nasenyana had been spotted by Olympic scouts at her school sports day, and had spent time at their International Olympic Committee training ground in Eldoret, western Kenya. At the time Ms McIntyre was desperately trying to get her to model, Ms Nasenyana had just joined the prestigious Leevale Athletics club in Ireland as its fastest 400m runner.

But the promise of glamour and wealth persuaded her to leave the club and focus full time on modelling. At first, the gamble appeared to pay off. She joined Ford Models Paris and hit the catwalk at fashion shows in New York, Milan and Paris. She sashayed down another catwalk as Vivienne Westwood's lead model, and was touted as the next Alek Wek, the Sudanese model who has a similar shaved head and tall, strong body.

A year on, Ms Nasenyana is still buzzing from her success, but she is fast realising that modelling comes with its own set of problems. After a hectic three months, work this year has been slow, and Ms Nasenyana has not been able to get a work permit for America, although she was signed by the New York-based Ford Model Agency. She is making plans to move to London, to continue modelling, but she will also look for an athletics club she can join to start training again. Back in Kenya to take part in its National Fashion Week, she is reassessing her future.

"I am going to give modelling a go, and try as hard as I can, but it is not my life," she said. "I want to make sure there are other things I can do too. In athletics, everyone loves me being Kenyan; they think I can work miracles."

But Elite, the model agency that first noticed her, has closed its Nairobi office and pulled out after failing to achieve the results it had hoped for. Its New York office filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February after various lawsuits filed by its own former employees and models brought it to the brink of collapse.

Seeking new talent in Africa is no longer a priority. Ms McIntyre is still there, running her own modelling business, Surazuri, but she admits times are tough. "People think of me as a person who can make their dreams come true, but right now I feel like a destroyer of dreams," she said. "I have to tell the models that this business is harder than they realise, that the money is awful and there is a real chances are they will not make it, not hit the big time."

The problem has been a combination of bad luck and a hostile industry. Modelling is a competitive industry around the world, but African models face extra set of hurdles. Fewer than 3 per cent of all models are black and fashion designers still feel their primary market is white.

Aubusch Little, a spokesman for Elite Model Management in New York, said: "The problem is not that agencies don't want black models, but that clients do not book them. They think they will sell more products with white models, even though we believe that assumption is false and outdated." Elite had moved to Kenya with the hope of finding new talent and selling it on to bigger agencies, but it soon found most agencies are unwilling to pay the premiums for African models.

"The big idea was to export models but somehow it never happened," Ms McIntyre said. "There are lots of agencies in South Africa but it is very difficult for most girls to get past immigration. They need a special certificate and a permit to live there; there is a huge amount of red tape and expense involved. And once they get there, they get paid a pittance."

Companies are often reluctant to hand out the most lucrative hair and cosmetics contracts to dark-skinned models, who are often thought to need specialist colours and lotions. "Make-up artists always say I don't need makeup because my skin is so perfect, but I wonder if it is so flawless, or they just don't have anything to suit my colour," Ms Nasenyana said.

The new wave of African models is also refusing to conform to demands made by the industry. Iman, one of the first of the black supermodels, has said she still regrets allowing herself to be portrayed as an "African princess jungle bunny" at the beginning of her career, and complained she would earn four times less than her white counterparts.

But Alek Wek refuses to attend castings that ask specifically for black models, will not wear the afro wigs or leopard-skin prints designers usually encase black models in, and insists on being paid the same as her white peers. Her attitude has won her the respect of the industry, but it has not necessarily helped other African models.

"The industry goes in waves. There are times when designers will think it is cute and hot to use black faces, but even then, there is usually just one girl who will get all the work and can name her terms," Elite's Mr Little said. "People will say, 'What do you mean, there are no black models, just look at so and so', but the presence of just one girl does not help the whole industry."

As revenue streams fall, agencies are unwilling to take on African models also because they would have to pay for them to fly to Europe or America for castings and auditions, with no guarantee of success. Ms Nasenyana said: "Designers often have fixed ideas in their head when you go to a casting, and they just can't look beyond the colour of your skin. They make clothes for white people and still think white people cannot imagine how the clothes would look if they see me wearing them. They always pick me if they want something extravagant and weird in the show, but I am not the mainstream."