America Isn’t Ready For Adesuwa
From Nigeria to Maryland, to the catwalks of New York, Paris, London, and Milan — home is where the heart is for this model.
The Golden Age of the supermodel may be long gone, but it’s still possible for a model to break through (and maybe drop her last name). But she has to be everything: a face, an activist, an actor, a creator.
While it seems easier than ever to summon fame thanks to Instagram, viral videos and the like, the offline world of modeling is as competitive as ever; go-sees are endless and days are long. And it’s what makes people like Adesuwa Aighewi stand out.
She’s 26 years old, 5’10”, and though she speaks with an American accent, is of Nigerian, Thai, and American descent. In the modelsphere, she’s the whole package, and has become ubiquitous on runways, editorials, and more. But, ultimately, she’s just like you and me.
Bespoke jumpsuit; Tory Burch Tory Sport Ruffle Sneaker, $225, available at Tory Burch; Vintage jewelry.
Despite a global pedigree, Adesuwa, now stationed in New York City, is American by birth – thanks to her mother’s ingenuity and determination to give her kids every opportunity. For her two sons and Adesuwa, she traveled from Nigeria to Maryland to give birth, guaranteeing all of her children birthright citizenship, and then back to Africa to raise them. When Adesuwa was 13, her older brother died and her family moved back to America for good; it changed the course of her life forever. After skipping a few grades, she enrolled at the University of Maryland to study medicine when she was 16. “I wanted to make sure that my parents didn’t feel so sad he was gone, so I spent years trying to be him. Everything he would do, I would try to do,” she tells Refinery29. Her brother had hopes to become a doctor; Adesuwa stifled her desire to study art and enrolled in chemistry, pre-med. “In the first semester, my teacher called my parents in and said, Hey, I think your daughter is depressed. Because I never talked about my brother dying. We were so close, we were like twins.”
By trying to be her brother and not herself, in a sense, she sunk deeper into depression and, after a brief internship at NASA, she eventually switched gears. “The idea of depression to an African father doesn’t make sense. Mental illness in the Black community is like a unicorn; there’s no word for it,” she says. According to Adesuwa, death happens so frequently in Africa that reacting to it is considered indulgent, a first-world privilege. “My dad was just kind of like, get over it. To be like, I’m depressed, I need to go see a doctor or I’m really tired from work so I’m gonna take a day off — that kind of thing doesn’t happen in Africa because everyone is trying to survive.” When she was 19, a junior in college, her friends sent her photos into a modeling agency. Unlike some models, Adesuwa’s ensuing career paced like a slow-burning candle. The photos worked and gained her a few test shoots. Then came what she calls the “weird-stuff-for-free” gigs.
“On my first job, they paid me the same amount of money for one day that I was making all summer doing research [on HIV/AIDS and global warming]. So, I thought I should try it out,” she says. Though they’re “tight” now, Adesuwa claims her parents disowned her several times and still don’t understand modeling. “They were like, ‘Okay, you want to be stubborn? Go ahead. But when you’re poor, come back home.’ My mom’s worries were that if I was so poor that I had to become a waiter, I had to come home. To them, modeling was like Playboy.” But, to Adesuwa, modeling was a chance to say goodbye to her brother and hello to herself. “I thought I could take the time to figure out who I was, and who I wanted to be, since my brother passed. And since I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore, it was a cool way to make money and figure myself out.”
Then she nabbed Target and some editorials in independent magazines. But then Chanel and then Vogue. And then the cover of Numéro, the cover of i-D, and the cover of T. Now, you’re better off trying your luck at finding a runway Adesuwa isn’t on than logging all of her show appearances. So, is she famous? Compared to the rest of us, yeah. But Adesuwa knows progress is gradual. And she plans to keep it that way.
“Some girls take off quickly, but they don’t last. Fashion is insane. Nobody outside can understand it until they get in. Imagine you’re in school, you just graduated, and then you’re going on three flights a week, not sleeping. You never have an ‘off’ day. If you feel sad and don’t feel like being bubbly, too bad — there are no days like that. You always have to be on-point,” she says. She notes she’s witnessed more than one mental breakdown on jobs. “It’s not normal what we have to do. Some of these girls are as young as 16; as a kid, you’re treated as an adult and they hold you to the same standards as an adult, so they don’t realize that’s a fucking child they’re putting clothes on. It’s a really bizarre world.”
She reached her own breaking point while leaving the No. 21 show in Milan last season. A pair of raw leather shoes had peeled the skin off the back of her foot. As she lined up to walk again, this time for the finale with her shoe “overflowing with blood,” she mentally prepared herself to walk with the same amount of aggression — the shoe still digging into her skin. “As soon as we got off the runway, I ripped the shoes off, ran to find my driver outside, put a hoodie over my face, because I was crying and didn’t want anyone to see, and street photographers are chasing me,” she recalls. Adesuwa knew some of the street style photographers personally, so she politely asked them not to take her picture. “They don’t care,” she insists. One woman continued to follow Adesuwa to her car, trying to get the shot she needed. She did — and she published it.
That unfortunate incident aside, Adesuwa refuses to let the pressures of her industry break or compromise her. “I’ve been a bad bitch this whole time. I didn’t change.” she explains.
In addition to modeling, there are a few other things that make Adesuwa tick. She’s on a mission to destigmatize America’s interpretation and views toward Islam (for the record, she’s Buddhist), to promote unity and art and Africa, and she’s got a lot to say about diversity in fashion. All of this means books, film, and more. She’s working on a children’s book about a young Nigerian boy who sets out on a year-long journey through the desert, rivers, and the bustling city of Lagos in search of his family, too. Her directorial film debut Spring In Harlem, focuses on the beauty — not race or religion — of Muslim women. She shot her friends in traditional Islamic garb, including hijabs, walking through the streets of Harlem. The short was released via LOVE and saw Adesuwa steaming hijabs at 5:00 am (“Do you know how goddamn hard it is to steam polyester?”). The experience taught her the technical side of her job, giving her a real appreciation for all that goes into photo and film shoots “Everything I would want on set, I did. I was like, I’ll never be a brat on set ever again because this shit is hard.”
“I’ve never dreamed in film before, only books and letters,” she says. Fashion crosses hairs with music and film, and Adesuwa plans to take full advantage of her platform. “I remember the first time I was on a set where I met a female director. And I was like, That’s so sick! Like, I could be her. I could have a voice without being judged. Because everything I have a passion for is in Africa. All the woes I experienced in Africa — those things to me seem so tiny compared to all of the problems that I’m aware of. ”
Though she has no problem checking her biracial privilege, and uses film as an outlet for that, Adesuwa sees the flaws in fashion’s current diversity push, too — specifically in designers of color. “It’s starting to get a bit redundant. There are changes here and there, but I don’t think there are significant changes in terms of the ratio of talk versus action,” she says. “In fashion, yes, there are more Black people on the runway these days but I think it’s based on monetary value. People are realizing what the Black dollar is and its value. That’s why you see Virgil [Abloh] at Louis Vuitton — people are realizing that Black people make the culture and the culture is what sells.”
“The people who are benefitting from the changes need to put other Black people on [their teams] and not just beef with themselves,” she says. ”Virgil should hire more Black designers and realize that we’re there because we’re worth it — but take the opportunity to help your fellow brethren shine, too. Because we are the culture — we’re the ones people steal things from.” It’s the kind of criticism Abloh has heard before.
Adesuwa is one-of-a-kind, and she credits that somewhat to her deepest love: “In Nigeria, we don’t think in a community mindset; we don’t have one thing uniting us, like television where we’re all watching the same shows and wearing the same clothes. There’s none of that. Everybody is an individual.” But Adesuwa does see herself as part of a much larger picture. And while she lives her life in pictures, her mind is in space — dreaming, formulating, drawing a world in which things like fashion, race, politics, and religion don’t collide but coexist.
As she readies herself for a Chanel fitting, she embarks on an unfinished, pragmatic thought about realizing her biggest, most ambitious plans: “It’s like, why am I here? What is my purpose? Is it really posing? People say I’m paving the way in fashion. But what is that — ‘paving the way in fashion’? Nobody really cares about what ideas you have unless you have accolades. And the fastest way to get that is through American fame, so here I am.”
Her ultimate end game and destination, she says, is far from the runways of New York, but it’s where, with some hard-earned recognition and money, she wants to continue her work in cinema, art, and humanitarian efforts. “Nigeria is so nostalgic for me because that’s the only place I’ve ever felt is home,” she says, smiling and, one could imagine, envisioning a future beyond mere supermodel-dom.
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we're feeling on the inside — and the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.