I’m on my way to meet Joan Okorodudu, the “godmother of the Nigerian modelling industry” who is single-handedly placing Nigeria and Africa on the global fashion map. Joan has invited me to her home in the trendy Ikoyi district of Lagos, which doubles as her office and the nerve centre of her modelling agency ISIS.
The walls of the corridor that lead to her office are covered in photos of her models, posing for fashion shoots and parading down catwalks. But there is also a series of shots from Nigeria’s Next Super Model (NNSM), the programme she launched in 2007.
“This is impressive,” I say. “It shows you are really determined to push for change on the African fashion scene. What motivates you?”
“I want to show the world that great things can come out of Africa,” says Joan, who was the runner-up at the Miss Nigeria beauty pageant in 1981, the same year she graduated from Boston University. “We may not become a fashion capital like Milan or Paris, but if we take the time to sit down for a minute, we can turn the Nigerian fashion industry into a new New York.
“More importantly, it’s about showing Nigerians and Africans the potential of the fashion industry on this continent. Since I launched NNSM in 2007, it has become the main point of reference for young Nigerian models trying to break into the industry. What is more, it has been picked up by Fashion TV, which not only broadcasts the show every year but has also started featuring more content from Nigeria.
“In addition, this year I have signed a three-year contract with Vogue Italia to launch Vogue Talent for Africa, a project that I believe will be really groundbreaking and provide a massive boost to the image of African models. These are things I’m proud of. They all form small – and sometimes bigger – steps in the right direction.”
“Your modelling agency ISIS is helping dozens of models make their dreams come true. But it seems to me it is more than just a modelling agency, you also coach your models, is that right?”
“Yes, and I believe this is very important,” says Joan. “You know in Nigeria many young models believe the only way to succeed is to sleep their way to the top. Often they end up taking drugs and even turning to prostitution. I show the models who come to ISIS that they don’t need to go down that path, that they can become a super model through talent, discipline and hard work. I counsel them and make sure they are not exposed to the ‘traditional’ traps that many models here fall into.”
“Over the years you have also become a role model for young Nigerian and African girls. What inspiration do you think young girls can draw from your career?”
“I think my path shows that hard work pays in the end, but also that you need audacity and tenacity to succeed. You won’t get there by cutting corners. You may face challenges along the way, but if you stick to your principles, it pays off in the end.
“I want to give young women hope in what can often be a hopeless situation. I want to show them that change is possible: a girl from a disadvantaged background can achieve things she would never have imagined, like travelling to cities like Paris and New York, owning a car and meeting VIPs. That is a transformative but also deeply empowering experience. I am not afraid to step on people’s toes in order to help young people achieve their dreams.”
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