How I (accidentally) Became a Model and Influencer
“How did you start modeling?”... “How did you get into the industry”... “I want to pursue a career in modeling but I’m old”... “How do you balance both school and modeling” ...“Wait why are you still in school, I would’ve dropped out” ... "How did you grow your followers" ...“Any tips?” ...
These are a few of the most common questions I receive everyday through DMs and emails.
Let me start off by saying this: Modeling was NEVER a part of the plan...
As long as I can remember, I always just knew I wanted to make an impact in the world. When I was younger, I remember wanting to work in finances like my mom did and/or wanting to be an engineer like my dad; neither were my passion. As I grew older, I noticed how great I am in the sciences. I also knew I wanted to work in the health field. So to me, the only logical thing was to become a doctor. I had full on support from my family and friends. While away in college, I worked hard and studied even harder; joined many student groups; accumulated many community service hours; studied abroad every summer/winter break; and graduated in 3 years (at the age of 19) with my Bachelor of Science in Human biology—cum laude.
I had all these plans, dreams and goals ... then reality hit me. When I started shadowing physicians (necessary for my medical school application) I realized that it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stand the sight of people in pain; I couldn’t handle seeing flesh; and needles and knives were traumatizing. Needless to say (pun intended), I had a change of heart. I moved back home to my family in NYC and took a (well deserved and needed) break to figure myself out.
While in the city, I started working at Abercrombie & Fitch as a model where I later (within a month) got promoted to assistant manager. I was in a whole different world than my field of studies, but I figured I should explore all of my options. The job wasn’t satisfying. I realized I couldn’t do retail, but bills had to be paid. Furthermore, it was during that time that I started test shooting with different photographers (just for fun). I should mention that while in college, I used to walk in fashion shows. I believe that’s the reason why photographers would reach out for test shoots. However, I realized how much I enjoyed being in front of the camera. Even though I was doing it for free, I was having fun AND getting cute pictures for the gram (for my 2000 or less followers). During this time, Tumblr was also at its PEAK (this is important).
Where the story begins....
There was this one photographer (@villainoire) who reached out to me for work. I kid you not, I kept canceling on him (I’m sure for valid reasons) multiple times. It wasn’t until late April of 2015 that I decided to stop playing and shoot with him. Papa (yes, that’s really his name) and I vibed instantly as photographer and model. As a result, we had some great images—which we posted and went on with our day. For months after that, we didn’t shoot but we kept in contact.
One day, in August that same year, someone sent me a DM on Instagram telling me I was viral on Tumblr. This was confusing seeing that I had no Tumblr account. He went on to send me the link and, lo and behold, there I was....the pictures Papa took of me back in April had over maybe 20,000 notes. Unfortunately, neither Papa or I was tagged. I went through the comments and noticed many “who is she” “who is the model” “what’s her @." That was ALL the motivation I needed. I sent the link to Papa and I told him “Yo, look. We gotta do this again. This time let’s post it on Tumblr ourselves so we can credit ourselves”.
Boom, September comes and we had a beach shoot (assisted by my little sister, hayyy sis). We did as we planned and the photos went viral on Tumblr. Because we were tagged, pages with big following started reposting the photos and giving us credits. This opened many doors for me...I was being seen. My followers instantly started growing and more photographers started reaching out to me. To keep the momentum going, I just kept shooting & creating content CONSISTENTLY. By the end of the year (December, 2015), my Instagram audience grew to 10,000 followers.
I started getting paid gigs, and that’s when the fun begun.
It was NEVER my plan to be a model. I mean, I am 5'4" (so yeah not that tall); I'm over the age of 21 (kind of late to get into modeling?); and I come from a culture (and religion) where this kind of career is not supported. However, I was making money doing something that I genuinely enjoyed and made me grow confident. Although, looking back, everything was chump change; but you have to start somewhere, right? You learn and you grow. Once I got that “K” in front of my followers count is when brands start noticing me. Needless to say, I started getting free shit (no money) in exchange of a post. I didn’t really care that it was unpaid posts because I was getting free clothes; and accessories; and hair; and makeup that I would’ve otherwise PAID for anyways.
By the end of the year 2016, my followers grew to ~60K. It was literally the year of the viral contents for me. At that point, I learned a lot about the industry (both modeling and brand partnerships). I had signed up to a lot of influencer apps that connects "influencers" with brands for paid work. Furthermore, I also increased my modeling rates to reflect both my experience and my following (yup, that’s right).
It wasn't until the year 2017 that I started reaping some of the fruit of my labor. I grew as a model and as a content creator. This was the first year I started working with well known brands and companies. It was also the first year I started working with Outre hair, which had been a goal of mine to see myself on packagings. I was able to build a relationship with them and as a result we worked together many times (I love my Outre family); we even shot the MYLK campaign (that everyone still see in stores to this day) that summer '17 although it wasn’t released until 2018. Moreover, during that year (2017), I signed a contract with a startup marketing company SHADE to manage me. This opened even more doors for me: it connected me to many more brands (ex: the Aaptiv (exercise app) ad that I’m featured in and is still advertised today was booked by them), and provided me with many different opportunities that got me PAID PAID! On my free time, I still got with different photographers to create content. I was consistent, and my followers kept growing. The more that happened, the more I got exposed to the industry (yes, they are watching!). By August that year, I was at 76K followers. However, that's also when I started going ghost with content creation because I was enrolled in graduate school.
Wait, What?!? *Soulja Boy Voice* graduaaate? graaaduate school?! Yeah let’s rewind....
Initially, my family wasn't supportive with my modeling...they just wanted me to go to medical school. However, they realized my love for it and started noticing how much of my time I am investing in it. I had to sit down with my mom and speak about the do's and don't. As long as I wasn't jeopardizing my morals and values, then she was ok. Eventually, I gained my family's support in my modeling (when the money started coming in LOL). Nonetheless, they still wanted me to pursue higher education. For 2 years following up to 2017, my family have been questioning me about school. “When will you start”... “You’re getting comfortable”... “You’re wasting your time”... blah blah blah. I kept insisting that there is no way I am going back to school until I was sure of what I would be studying. I refused to waste 2 years (or plus) of my life doing something I didn’t genuinely care for. Nope, no way. During the month of April 2017, I visited back home (Guinea) and did some humanitarian work. While there, I saw things that broke my heart—I knew right then and there I was going to do something about it. Like I said earlier, I’ve always wanted to make an impact in the world, while also working in the health field. Reality checked me, and I knew I couldn’t do direct patient care. Making that trip to Guinea literally lit a lightbulb in my head. The country practically have a nonexistent healthcare system, and I plan to change that—I want to be a healthcare administrator. A job in the health field, while making an impact, AND not having to deal with direct patient care?! I KNEW, I just knew this was it! The first step in achieving that goal was to go back to school. Soon as I came back home that April, I applied and got accepted into graduate school. I will earn my Master of Science in Healthcare Administration this May 2019, inshAllah.
Going back to school slowed my content production.
Aight so boom, I was BUSY. I didn’t know how to balance it all. I wanted to assimilate back well, so I mostly just focused on school. After that first semester, I got more comfortable. I eventually figured out a schedule that would work for me.
In 2018, although my number of followers were stagnant due to inconsistency on my part, it was the best year of both of my careers (modeling and school). I finished my first year of graduate school with a 4.0 GPA, and around the same time got signed to a modeling agency (EMG Models NY). I know you’d want to know how I got signed but if I gave details of every little thing that got me where I am at today, I might as well opt for writing a book and not a blog LOL. Maybe I can write my “how I got signed” story on a new blog post (just let me know in the comments below), but I digress. This post is already longer than it should be so let me wrap this up. By the end of 2018, I had worked with brands that I could of only DREAMED of working with (if you know, you know). I might've not posted much last year but I was GRINDING my ass off. I accomplished all of my goals PLUS MORE. God is so good, all of the time. I am thankful, I am so grateful. I am praying that 2019 keeps the same energy, because my dreams and goals for this year are so big that it’s scary. Nonetheless, I’m also a FIRM believer that what’s meant for you (what God has written for you) will NOT pass you by. Starting of the year being featured in Essence magazine, was all the head-start that I needed. I will be sure to check back in at the end of the year.
Just to be clear: modeling IS A JOB; content creation and social media influencing IS A FULL-TIME JOB! A LOT of sacrifice goes into this work field. The journey is not always easy and there is always constant pressure to deliver. I want to end this post with a few tips (and lessons I learned) for those who are looking to either start or level up in this industry.
1- Set goals for yourself, short term & long term.
2- Research, research, and research! Don’t let anything (age or height) stop you because there’s a lane for all of us. You just have to do your research.
3- Invest in yourself: build a portfolio, create content, go to castings.
4- NETWORK & promote yourself. I can not emphasize this enough but this is so important. As cliche as it might sound, opportunities don't happen you create them. So put yourself out there, & network. I was able to book many jobs through networking.
5- Be Authentic and genuine. Do not follow the masses, be you! Because you know what, that’s what will set you apart. If you look like everyone and/or create content like everyone else, why would a brand want to work with you? Create your own lane, and own that shit!
6- GRIND! Create content and stay CONSISTENT. 2018 was my slowest year of growth in followers due to my inconstancy. In 2019, I decided to change that. I went from 82K to 91K followers in a MONTH! So yes, you need to be consistent because whether we like to admit it or not, your IG following definitely plays a role in getting you booked (more often than not). When you go to castings now, they literally ask for your IG handle.
7- PRAY. If it ain’t from the source, I don’t want it. Speak, work and pray it to existence.
8- Be patient and persevere because success does not happen overnight! I started this journey in 2015 and it wasn't until last year that I fully started reaping the fruits of my labor.
For those trying to balance school and modeling and/or influencing...
Time management is so important. I have a schedule for myself where I try to get my school work done early on during the week (my classes are on Wednesday). Sometimes, I do my school work ahead of time when I know I will have a busy week. For the most past I use the end of the week to create content + have a social life (because you don’t want to go mad). Lastly, when I’m on set for long hours, I always bring a book or my laptop to do some work/readings when I’m not needed on set. When I'm on long flights, I write. I am currently writing this blog post while I'm on a (last minute) 7 hour flight to LA for work. BALANCE!
For those who aren’t influencers and want to know ways they can support their peers...
It is so so so soooo easy to show support. A simple like, comment, and/or link clicks. It’s easy, it doesn’t cost anything, and it means a lot. Brands always ask for analytics for sponsored posts, which means every interaction counts! For example, even if I don’t plan on purchasing a product someone is promoting for a brand, I show love; I try to comment something about the product; and when they put a swipe up link, I swipe up and scroll for like 2 secs—so I can increase their “link clicks”. #TheLittleThings
I know this was long, but I tried to be as detailed as possible. Even so, if this helped at least ONE person, then I am happy. THERE IS A ROOM FOR EVERYONE. I WANT US ALL TO WIN.
Let's get to this bag, the world is ours.