This 21-Year-Old Top Model Talks Racism In The Fashion Industry

Photo: Courtesy of Premier Model Management.
Based on Malaika Firth’s winning combination of focused determination, fresh-faced beauty (thanks to her British, Kenyan, Swiss, Ugandan, and Seychellois mixed heritage), and radiating warmth, it’s no wonder the Kenyan-born, East London-raised model is fast becoming one of the biggest names in the business. Dreaming of a career in modeling since she was 14, Firth, who started out doing e-commerce shoots (so did Cara Delevingne, FYI), is now nominated for the coveted Model of the Year title at tonight’s British Fashion Awards, the U.K. fashion industry’s biggest event.

After she was signed on the spot after walking into Premier, campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger, Marc Jacobs, Burberry, and H&M swiftly followed, and the 21-year-old has hit the catwalk for every brand worth talking about, from Louis Vuitton and Chanel to Victoria’s Secret. Perhaps most notably, in 2013, Firth became the first Black model to star in a Prada campaign since Naomi Campbell did in 1994. No biggie. We met the new-gen supermodel at her agency to talk style, social media, and staying grounded.

Congratulations on your nomination for Model of the Year. It's pretty remarkable that two out of the three nominees are Black models. How does that feel?
"I feel ecstatic, and it's just so exciting to finally get that recognition from the industry."

Have you encountered racism in the industry, and are you tired of constantly being asked about racial diversity, or the lack thereof, in fashion?
"Yes, I have, when I was younger. It made me angry and frustrated, but instead of letting it pin me down, I try to always stay optimistic. That's the only way we can move forward.

"I think we just need peace, love, and unity in the fashion industry, and then everything will turn out okay. I don't think it should matter about skin color. I feel like I am helping bring out more girls with my skin tone."

If there was one thing you could change about the industry what would it be?
"I think it's fine. Once everyone just respects each other, and if you love what you do, then it should just be easy."

But what about very young, teenage girls on the catwalk and in campaigns?
"I think as long as they have support behind them, if it's their mum or good management, then it doesn't matter what age [they are]. If it's your hobby or your life, as long as you like it, then I'm sure people around you are going to support you."

Modeling can be a very brutal business. Did it damage your confidence when you first started out?
"No, I was quite shy and quiet when I started, but I've always had confidence in modeling. I love it. I think through modeling I have much more confidence in my everyday life and in myself."

Has modeling changed the way you dress and the way you approach fashion?
"My style is quite simple. I just pick and choose what I like. I'm not fussy in what I wear. I like The Gap and Topshop. Topshop is my main place; this jacket is from Topshop. For high fashion and designer brands, it would be Louis Vuitton and Burberry. I like to mix it up."
Photo: Courtesy of Topshop.
What was it like working on the Topshop Christmas campaign, being such a fan of the brand?
"It was cool. It was fun working with the girls [including Bella Hadid and Imaan Hammam]. It just felt like a laugh, and I think that's how, if you love your job, it should feel. It shouldn't feel hard."

Who has been the biggest role model in your life?
"Definitely my grandma. When I go to Kenya, she is always happy and smiley. She is also a fantastic chef, and I love her food. What more could you ask for?"

There's a constant conveyor belt of new models, but what do you think makes a supermodel?
"I feel a model is maybe just a girl who is trying it out and seeing how it is, but for a supermodel, it's their life. You have to be in it and fully committed."

What do you do to look after yourself mentally and physically?
"I stay close to my family and keep my faith in God. Physically, I try to get enough sleep and drink plenty of water. I try to avoid anything with too many chemicals or ingredients. I prefer to make homemade face and hair masks. It’s amazing what you can make with the things in your kitchen!"

I have lost a lot of friends, but they weren't meant to be in my life. My true friends are still sticking by my side.

How have your friends reacted to your career and your success?
"Some of them are really excited. They'll be like, 'Oh, I see you there, Tamara [Malaika's real name]!' They're happy for me. I have lost a lot of friends, too, but they weren't meant to be in my life. My true friends are still sticking by my side. I have support from my family and I'm so close with them. Then I have my agency, so it's all good."

How do you feel about social media and having to offer up a part of yourself to your thousands of followers?
"I think I've grown up and learned what to put on Instagram. Before, I was sharing too much, but now, I've tried to make it more professional and cleaned it up a bit. Clients go on Instagram, and if they like your page then they'll want to work with you. I have to make it really presentable. So many young people look up to us and see us as confident, and we have to maintain that image so they can grow up being confident, too."

What would be your advice to an aspiring model?
"Keep your mum by your side, stay grounded, and be friendly. If you really love it, nothing's going to stop you. And keep God by your side."

You travel so much and have lived in London, New York, and Kenya. Where do you call home?
"I love the beach. I love trees and I love wildlife. So if you put me somewhere sunny, where there's a beach and sand, I'm comfortable."

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