By Tofarati Ige and Juliet Ebirim
It’s not every day that an international magazine which caters to a largely Caucasian audience puts a Black person on their cover. But earlier this year, a London-based Nigerian model, Ijeoma Kalu, was instantly transformed to a celebrity of sorts when her smiling face emerged on the cover of the widely read Boots Health and Beauty Magazine domiciled in the United Kingdom (UK).
Before conducting this interview, we had already seen her pictures online, but meeting her physically, she looked prettier and taller than we anticipated. The brown gown she had on was free flowing; it emphasized her height, and her sensuous curves were visible enough to turn men’s heads.
With a smooth Queen’s English and accent informed by her long stay in the UK, Ijeoma, in town on a short visit, tells us the story of her career as a model.
MODELING IN UK
With a giddy chuckle, the Psychology graduate and Masters Degree holder in Social work begins her story animatedly; almost like a kid telling her friends about a new toy factory she just discovered.
“My parents, Chief Uwa Igwe Kalu and Lolo Lovina Kalu are both Nigerians. My dad is from Abiriba in Abia State. We lived in Nigeria in the early years of my life but we were always travelling on vacation. In 1986, my mum decided that it was best for us to go over to the UK for better education. So, we relocated to the UK. I have seven siblings; two boys and five girls and I’m the fifth.
“I have always had a strong passion for modelling, fashion and girlie things. The industry in UK is predominantly dominated by Caucasians, but there is a market for black women too. Just like it is everywhere, if you’re good at something and can command attention with your confidence, you will be noticed,” she says.
She continues, “I work with some fashion houses in the UK and maintaining a specific size is an issue. You have to maintain your size for particular jobs. It’s a very competitive and cut-throat world out there and you’re conscious that someone else who has a better personality, looks or whatever, might just come into the industry and before you know it, you’re out of the door.”
Even though many will regard being tall as an advantage, Ijeoma recalls that it wasn’t always so for her. In her words, “I’ve always been a tall person. I got my height from my grand-mother, and it hasn’t always been easy. In school, I always had to sit and stand at the back so I wouldn’t tower over everyone else.
People also expect you to be bold as a tall person, but I hadn’t found my confidence at that time because I was just getting to know myself and build an identity. But now, I’m a lot older and my height is actually an asset. Sometimes, I even go out of my way to wear heels despite my 6ft height.”
Not just a model, she also has a job as a social worker. She talks about it, “It basically involves working with disadvantaged, marginalised people and making sure that they have a voice. My job also entails making sure that this group of people get the services that are due to them.
It’s been tough trying to manage both careers, but I think I’ve been able to do that. I work part-time as a social worker so I can dictate, to some degree, my availability as a model.” On how daring she can be, she says, “I don’t think I’ll be stripping off. I can do fashion magazines, showcase clothing, beauty products. However, I won’t even do bikinis.”
BOOTS MAGAZINE COVER
In March 2015, Ijeoma beat 8,500 other people to become popular and widely read Boots Health and Beauty Magazine’s cover girl. But how did it all come about? She tells the story with a sparkle in her eyes and voice. “I read about it in the magazine and I decided to send in my random pictures for the fun of it. Winning the competition didn’t even cross my mind.
Sometime later, I was asked to submit a video saying why I wanted to be in the competition, but I was on vacation and I didn’t have access to a camera, so I used my phone to record a video, just being my normal hearty and crazy self. I had a pair of eccentric earrings on and the wind was blowing in the background; it looked quite glamorous in a way.
Eventually we were short-listed for the top eight, and final four. Anyone could have won, because there were lots of glamorous-looking ladies there. I had a nice time doing the shoot; the ladies were all nice, and the photographer was extremely funny…he made me laugh a lot. The experience brought out something in me which I didn’t even know I had.”
Does she think being Black gave her an advantage? “To be very honest, no. I wouldn’t even have thought they’d want a black face on their cover. I appreciate Boots for what they’ve done.
Not only did they feature women who haven’t been air-brushed (which is another issue) because most ladies on the covers of magazines have been air-brushed and this gives a false presentation of what beauty is when they appear without any wrinkles or blemishes.”
Of course, she couldn’t have had such an experience without learning a thing or two. She mentions some of them, “I never thought I would win the competition. I was even amazed when I made it to the final four. I guess they saw God’s face in me because I prayed about it, and people also commented on my smile.
We don’t usually see Black and plus-size ladies on the covers of magazines, but this has shown that we’re also beautiful. Now, I feel more confident to apply for photography jobs; I’ve even built a portfolio since then and I’m taking my modelling career more seriously.
I have a blog now: www.allthingstallandplus.com as well as a Youtube account:Trendzunik and my Instagram page: @ijaykheavens where I talk about my own idea of beauty and fashion which is that it should be quite fluid. One doesn’t have to be a size 0, or a particular skin colour and tone before you can be termed beautiful. I can be the size that I am, and show a kind of beauty that many women can identify with.”
Even though we like to think otherwise, racism and other forms of prejudice are not dead in the world. Ijeoma attests to this by saying, “I think discrimination is everywhere, though it’s not like what it used to be many years ago. It may not be that overt, but it’s still there in some ways. However, I choose not to focus on that because I believe once you’re talented in something, your colour, size or shape should not matter.”
NIGERIAN FASHION INDUSTRY
IJ, as she is fondly called by loved ones, quickly confesses that she doesn’t know much about the fashion industry in Nigeria, but she says she’s ready to learn. Her words, “I don’t know a lot about the fashion industry down here, but I believe it’s growing. Nigerian ladies are so fashionable and gorgeous, and I think they lead in Africa.
However, just like with everything else, there is still room for growth. I’m yet to see larger ladies on the runways and fashion pages. In the UK, plus-size ladies are really having a say. There’s a lady, Tess Holliday who is size 24, and she’s making so much money these days. It’s all about how much confidence you have in you and your body, and people love her.”
She also hints that she’ll love to be a part of the industry. She says, “If given the opportunity, I’ll absolutely love to come down here. I’ve seen some of the fashion designers here, and I think their works are amazing. But I think it’s quite difficult to break into the market as a larger lady because I’m size 16.
I remember I was here a couple of years back; I saw an advert and went for the casting. The person I met there couldn’t believe I was the model; she thought I was a designer because of my size. Her words were, ‘But you can’t be the model, you’re fat.’ So I think there’s a missing gap in that area.”
Considering such obvious and blatant discrimination she faced, how does she think a re-orientation can be achieved taking into cognisance that many African women are plus-sized? She tasks the media on this. “I think the media has a huge role to play. By showcasing women of all sizes, they will send a message that beauty doesn’t have to do with a particular shape.
Designers should also make outfits that will cater to a large spectrum of women. The UK is making an advancement in that area, and a couple of years ago, we saw the first plus-sized ladies on the runway. In the modelling industry, anybody above size 12 is plus-size, though there is debate on whether the term ‘plus size’ should be removed because at the end of the day, a model is a model.”
Will IJ be returning home to Nigeria anytime soon? Yes, she says. According to her, “I think I have a passion to do something in Nigeria specifically because I do think it’s lacking here. Something that has to do with re-educating our ladies to be confident in themselves regardless of what they look like – skin, colour, complexion and so on.
Let them value themselves so they can strive to be better people and achieve great things, because their confidence comes from within. They don’t need somebody to praise their standard of beauty, because your standard of beauty may not be what the world sees as beautiful, but within yourself, you’re confident.”
MEN, MARRIAGE, MOTHERHOOD AND MODELLING
Ijeoma says she’s single at the moment, but what qualities must a young man possess before he can apply for the keys to her heart? “Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, even though I know everybody says this, but because I’m a born-again Christian, I have to be with someone who really knows God. I’m quite open in terms of who I date. It just has to be somebody who shares the same values and beliefs with me. He could be from anywhere in the world.”
She feels marriage doesn’t necessarily have to end her modelling career. She quips, “It’s possible to continue, it depends on the kind of modelling that I do.
If I’m doing something that requires a specific size, once I’ve had a baby, the female body changes. But if I’m doing something that requires just a head shot – I can manage to keep my face looking good by eating well, keeping hydrated, having a good skin care regimen and working out. All these can help to lengthen ones career.”
But some female models who have babies choose not to breastfeed so as to maintain their firm boobs, will she tow that path too? She is vehement in her response. “I’m a traditionalist in a lot of ways and in that as well. Even though I have to live my life, I also have to do what’s best for my baby. When I become a mother, that will be a priority for me, giving my child the best even if it means breastfeeding.”