With a modelling experience of just 1 year 2 months, 17 days (at the time of the interview,) a double degree student in International Relations, sociology and minor in French at USIU, no professional model training, except through fashion magazines, Youtube and fashion TV shows; you would think this is all there is to know about who Sylvia Owalla is.
We all fantasize how in our little perfect world we can jump start our careers, or see them on the go. Now imagine walking into your career without a clue. You know the case of walking into a set, and the actress is missing so you get the lead, or the vocalist just had an “emergency” and you get the mic? We see all that in movies, but that is exactly what happened to Sylvia Owalla, and in this case she wasn’t even part of the cast.
Here is Eleksie Interview or should we just call it conversation with Sylvia Owalla,
Why and how did you get into modelling?
I was going on set, like a year ago, to take some pieces to My boyfriend Kevo Abbra, meant to be used for a shoot with a director called Bobby Garcia. So when I walked in, Bobby came up to me “why are you so late? we have been waiting for you for like 3 hours, if you didn’t want to do this shoot, you should have just told us” I was so confused and told him I was sorry but didn’t understand what he was talking about. Told him I was just there to drop off some things. And he was like “you are not the model we were waiting for?” I told him no.
He then went and whispered something to Osborne Macharia, who was the photographer, and then he came back and asked me if I could do the shoot since the model didn’t show up.
I said why not! And that is how my modelling began. It was actually a commercial shoot.
Wow that is an amazing start off story. Before that had you thought of modelling or did any shoots or Runways?
I used to have an interest in modelling, I wouldn’t miss watching miss universe, miss world and all such shows, but I never thought of it like I would want to do this one day. But after that shoot I saw how they believed in me, and I decided to go for it.
Awesome, so that was like your first shoot? I need those photos.
Yes, at this point I had never done this, so I just sat there they did my hair, makeup and styling. I will send them to you.
How is the experience working with your boyfriend?
I have a portfolio, built with his help, so sometimes when there is a job he recommends me, sometimes we actually meet on projects I didn’t tell him about, as the stylist. Like the Crown project I went for the auditions only to find that he was the one doing the styling on the day of the shoot. So when credits are done some people might think that we plan to do all the projects together but in some cases its pure coincidence. He has built a name for himself; he scouts for talents and what not.
We are always professional on set or projects. Most people around us don’t even have a clue unless we tell them. They know him as my stylist.
What are the major campaigns and projects you have worked with that you consider the most significant thus far?
I have done crown East Africa, it’s not out yet they are releasing single image. There is another company in Canada who got interested in our maumbo project and wanted the same thing for their product when they saw it online.
Another one is the hub of Africa. It was awesome. So cool especially the networking bit. No sales done on this particular day, just exchanging cards, designers are given stands to showcase and elaborate on their pieces, every aspect of the industry represented, from makeup artists, Hairstylists. All are given an opportunity to show what they do. Sales are done later.
There was Africa sourcing; almost 100 companies. The show is on Saturday, Friday is scouting, Sunday evening is like a private show two models per designer. They pick their best two and put it on the run way. From there you network with like ambassadors, dignitaries, etc.
Did you enjoy the experience?
Very much, they catered for everything, put us in 5 star hotels, and paid us well on a daily wage. The runway was so big! I was panicking at first, but after the first walk, I got the confidence.
So you didn’t experience the paying challenge experienced by most models especially on away shows?
No not at all. They were fantastic treated international models very well paid them well to ensure their stay is smooth. In fact in 2008 the show was in Kenya. Maybe the industry didn’t advertise it enough but it took place here.
Your project Maumbo was featured by Gen Facio an LA magazine. Tell us about the project
Maumbo project like I said brought us another job. We were in church with Abbra, and then the podium wall was being painted, so an idea just came, we do a shoot there, like come up with a concept. Abbra then called up Victor Peace, makeup artist, and hairstylist and we decided to do a project which all of us could use on our portfolio. So it’s an all round for all of us. But for the Canadian project we worked with Osborne as the photographer.
What is the beauty about being a model?
Personally I want to have a different approach, in representing black models. We have so much potential but we are never given that opportunity. So any opportunity I get I strive for perfection. I do it so go good that I don’t leave room for regret. Like Deddeh Howard who voices black models, I was so impressed with her black mirror project, her showing that what a white model can do, a black model can also do.
She actually sent me a message today and I couldn’t believe that someone else is pushing for the exact things I have always pushed for but lacked the platform for it. She liked my photos and told me to send her my contacts. I hope she is planning something.
Your guilty pleasures in terms of food
How often do you exercise?
I don’t exercise. My weight never goes up or down no matter how much I eat. Unless I am sick then it drops. But on a normal day it’s the same. I guess it’s my genes. I just walk and take lots of water. The day I will see the need I will start but very minimal those mild ones on YouTube for like 10 minutes. Lol
So where do you fall and Do you have any limitations?
I am a high fashion, editorial and commercial model. As of now, I cannot shave my hair. I don’t think I have that feature whereby if I shave people will be like “wow”
I love editorials and so I would like to keep my hair. I wouldn’t also do a nude shoot because I think I am still vulnerable to the industry whereby if I go wrong, it might be the end of my career, so I would rather play it safe for now. Our society also has not taught us to embrace that, so it would be hard.
Modelling industry in Kenya, what is your take and all these agencies around?
I am a freelance because the agencies, forget why they got you. They let you hustle on your own; most of them are not there yet. They should have departments like editorial, Commercials etc.. Have like training. Models don’t know where they fit in. When you know where you fit in, you work around that. You will find a model who is 5.5 on the runway just because she has a pretty face and is slim.
We can have the right people to open up a work shop for like 3 days to train models. Because models don’t know what is required of them, and then things don’t work out and they have to make some life choices that they are not proud of. Designers and make up artists can advice too. Like a model coming to a set with a ton of make up on her face.
If we are all aware we will also speak the same language.
Some Local fashion designers don’t value models, they don’t pay. Some of us this is all we have, fine I have my small business, but as much as am doing this for passion it should be able to pay my bills. You go to a show, after paying uber it’s done! You can’t model forever so why not make money out of it? I know some people who are still following up on some runway cash they were supposed to be paid. 10k for almost 2 years!
But not all the designers though, like Anyango Mpinga pays models well and on time, and you feel motivated. But most tell you it’s for your portfolio. For how long are you building a portfolio? If it’s a feature that puts you somewhere, it builds your brand so you can’t demand for money. But you want me to do a shoot for your designs, an editorial that is part of my job.
Who have you worked with in Kenya? Stylists, designers, photographers?
You work with the big shots. lol
That is the thing. When you work with a big name you get good opportunities. I don’t do this ati save money go to the studio and take photos for my portfolio. Your portfolio is the people you work with, the people you network with. The moment you work with someone like Osborne, he posts it and gives you credit, that is enough to get you an opportunity.
I like to ask about modelling representation and equal opportunities; has that affected you in any way?
I have not been directly affected; I know and ensure everyone knows what am pushing for. So anyone who approaches me knows what I represent. But I feel bad that most big shots, who have worked with big brands, are denied opportunities in high end fashion magazines.
I use the hashtag #globaldiversity but I would also like to talk about black being diverse. People out there think that to be a black model you have to be peach black. Like most top models are really black, south Sudanese mostly. Black is a mixture of so much. Black models matter and black models does not necessarily mean black black. We have different shades. There is black diversity. I could be black but brown, black but caramel, black black but at the end of the day we are all black.
Don’t use two black models in a show with 50 other white models and say we are represented.
Modelling can be tough just like most professions, is there a point where you have felt like quitting modelling?
Sometimes there is always a boom in a social period in life. Sometimes you get to do so much work, and then there is the lagging period, where nothing is coming through, so in that desperation you may end up doing something that does not even suit your brand. At such times the best thing to do is try and network, market yourself and put your brand out there. Then ideas come and we bounce back!
So when am not working am in school. I also have a small events company that I am running. During such times, I do more research, follow people work, and get inspired.
What/who has been a major factor/contribution in your journey?
The people I work and network with, like Corrine Muthoni whom I call my god mother. She advices, me and the fact that she has been in the industry for long, makes sure I don’t have to go through the same things her and others went through. Others are Kevo aAbbra, Valerie, Victor Peace just to name a few. These are people we have the same vision. Sharing the right vision with the right people help to build each other.
Who would you like to work with or get featured by?
I so want to work with Elle, Vogue (any vogue whichever comes first), Cosmopolitan. I want to be featured on Marie Claire, I really like how they have been in the industry for so long and represent woman hood. I would also like to walk for Victoria’s secret even if its once and I don’t come back again. The Ugandan on VS was amazing and showed me I can also do it. It’s about knowing the right people. That is my long-term goal but not so long term like 2 years max.
I would also like to work with Island Boi Photographer. He does all the big names. He only shoots black models. He is so amazing, but more often you would pass his work without even knowing. He portrays black confidence, black beauty and black elegance.
I don’t know how but I will work with him!
Any local designers you would like to model their designs?
Anyango Mpinga, katungu Mwendwa, Kori a Ugandan designer, her collections got a standing ovation at the hub of Africa. Every model was jealous of the models walking her designs.
A lot of models are coming up what key aspects would you advise them on
As a model you have homework to do, how you carry yourself and handle your business matters. You need to make use of online presence and know that everyone has their own walk; you can’t walk like another person.
Secondly if anyone calls me they know they have to pay. So it all depends on what brand you are trying to push for. Some of us are just eager to do work, so you don’t even demand for your rights. Like if ten of us tell a person this is how I charge, but then the 11th person settles for anything, it makes it hard for other models. Being busy does not translate to you growing as a model.
Do you have any projects coming up?
I am hoping to do a personal project in regards to what I push for, the black diversity. I am still thinking of the concept and preparing for it. I also don’t like free stuff because then people will feel like you owe them and expect you to do free things for them as well. It also motivates the people am working with. They also end up calling you for jobs that pay.
That is great we are waiting to see what you come with. It’s a good concept.
I hope I can do this soon.
At what point will you feel like you are done! You have achieved something, you can walk
When I walk Victoria Secret, I will be like “am good, if anyone needs me you know where to find me”
Anything you would like to add?
I would like to empower women. African women we have not been socialized to think that we should be confident. I am also interested in educating people through telling stories of our native, culture and history through fashion and modelling.
Thank you Sylvia Owalla for granting me the interview; We had amazing conversation it didn’t feel like an interview at all. Wish you all the best. Continue making us proud.