A 17-year-old Oluchi Onweagba won the inaugural M-Net Face of Africa model search TV show in 1998. She was whisked from Lagos to New York and within a year had graced the cover of Vogue Italia and shot with Steven Meisel. Since then she’s landed covers of i-D, Surface, Pop and Elle and campaigns for L’Oreal, Clinique and H&M; been a Victoria’s Secret Angel and a Sports Illustrated pin up and walked for everyone from Chanel and Donna Karan to Xuly Bët and Tiffany Amber. Along the way she has picked up a business degree, become a parent of two with her husband, Italian designer Luca Orlandi, and set up modeling agency O Model Africa in South Africa. And now she has put this wealth of experience into masterminded her own model talent show, Africa’s Next Top Model. The first cycle took Tyra Banks’ internationally successful franchise across Africa in search of girls who, like Oluchi 15 years before them, could make it internationally. Now preparing for the next installment, Oluchi (whose name aptly means ‘work of God’ in Ibo), shares a few pearls of wisdom with KISUA.
On Africa’s Next Top Model:
My genuine passion for ‘fashion Africa’ inspired me to do the show. After so many years in the business, I wanted to help other models and entertain Africans with what goes on behind the scenes in the fashion industry. It took several months of hard work to produce the first cycle and at the end of episode one I actually got emotional and cried on the show, which surprised me. I rarely cry. The eventual winner Aamito from Uganda is beautiful, smart, determine, driven and committed. She’s currently getting her work papers to relocate to New York. And I received fantastic moral support from Tyra and Iman, who were both proud that I took the initiative to make the African version possible.
On what it takes to succeed as an African model:
There is no magic really. You simply have to look uniquely beautiful and have the right posture and measurements. You also need a great agent who believes in you more than you believe in yourself.
On African fashion:
I am very excited about the current interest in African fashion. The fashion industry has a history in Europe and the US and now finally it is being taken seriously in Africa as well. I champion designers in each country and love to explore new talents coming through. It is very important that African designers become globally successful.
On her career:
Aside from Africa’s NTM, working with American Vogue has been my proudest moment to date. That was special. Right now we’re in pre-production on cycle two of the show. It will be bigger and more structured. I’m also exploring some personal projects.
Words: Helen Jennings