Kenya’s Next Top Model
For young aspiring female fashion models in the U.S., the words “Top Model” stir up a series of images — lights, camera, and model action. Exotic destinations, high fashion designers, industry experts, spectacular runways, intense catwalks, exposure, and celebrity. Last but not least, a winner with a striking personality and an attitude to match. “Fierce” is the Top Model buzz word.
The brainchild of former supermodel Tyra Banks who is also the show’s executive producer, America’s Next Top Model allows 12 hand-picked young models to pursue their dream, jumping through a series of hoops to win the glamorous grand title. The girls compete for a $100,000 contract with Cover Girl cosmetics, a portfolio with Elite Model Management and a six-page fashion spread in Seventeen magazine which they also get to grace the cover of. For young models trying to claim a place in the industry, this knockout package accompanied with the endorsement of one of fashion’s most successful icons could not get any better.
This year, Kenya boast’s her first contestant on the beauty show — nineteen year old Sandra Nyanchoka. Born and raised in Nairobi, her passion developed early — she competed in fashion shows at Yaya Centre as a child. At the age of twelve, her parents and six siblings moved to the U.S., making their new home in Rockville, Maryland where she now lives and studies. Sandra was a finalist from the Washington, DC Metro area auditions.
At nineteen, Sandra is beginning to turn heads worldwide. A natural beauty with a pearly white smile that actually dazzles, a stunning profile and a body for days. Her slim figure and height are ideal model features, her dark complexion a striking bonus. Her career so far has led her to do catalogue as well as billboard modeling. As a Top Model contestant, she is catapulting her way onto the catwalks of New York City and anticipating runways in fashion capitals around the world. At a tender age, Sandra is making big strides towards claiming a spot alongside other African beauties in the industry such as Alek Wek, Oluchi Onweagba and Ajuma Nasenyana. The show has the potential to propel her into major fashion success.
With the show currently in its 12th cycle, Top Model’s success has been enormous. As a result, a number of franchises in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America and Africa have subsequently followed. Ghana’s Next Top Model premiered in 2006 and was followed by Nigeria’s Next Top Model in 2007. The inaugural series of West Africa’s Next Top Model, to be hosted by Nigerian supermodel Oluchi Onweagba, is scheduled for 2009 and set to include contestants from Senegal, Cote d’Ivore and Senegal.
The premiere episode was met with much excitement, anticipation and enthusiasm from Kenyan followers who were keen to see one of their own debut on the hit reality television show. Many were indeed excited, however, Sandra’s presence was met with unexpected backlash. Some judged what they saw as “arrogance” and “overconfidence,” calling it negative and detrimental. Some even retracted their initial enthusiasm. However, those who refuted these claims issued a reminder that this is television, a reality television show at that, where the contestant’s primary goals as well as the production and network’s greater interests trump everything else. All in all, in the dog-eat-dog world of modeling only the strong survive and in the words of designer Karl Lagerfeld, “there is no justice in the fashion business.” The show itself has been met with its share of criticism over the years for a range of reasons.
The question that emerged in my mind after watching the initial episodes of the show and observing the feedback was what it meant to be a ‘model’ Kenyan. Is it fair that we entrust one person to represent the entire community of Kenyans when they find themselves in the international limelight? As Kenyans, are we mandated to act as ‘good’ ambassadors for our country at all times? If so, by what standards? Or do we only accept our Kenyan icons when they are a charming Barack Obama or inspirational Wangari Maathai? If there is such a thing as a positive representation of ‘Kenyanness,’ then the standard should apply consistently even at the local level, and not only when the rest of the world is watching. Any critique of what it means to be a ‘positive’ Kenyan representative should at least demonstrate that these issues have been considered.
Best wishes to Sandra in her Top Model stint and bright career ahead as a rising Kenyan model.
*This post was cross-published in the online magazine Kenya Imagine.