Adwoa Aboah is ridiculously beautiful, but that is not what makes her the most in-demand model of the moment. Sure, the razor-sharp cheekbones and the blown-glass lips don’t do her prospects any harm. But there is something in her gaze to camera that makes her beauty seem as if it’s not the most compelling thing about her. It is this that has raised Aboah – face of a new Gap campaign, muse to Donatella Versace, booked for the catwalk by everyone from Christian Dior and Chanel to Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang – above the modelling rank and file.
My first appointment with Aboah is cancelled because she hasn’t yet got out of bed. So far, so supermodel. But when we finally speak, it becomes clear that this Linda Evangelista moment is about as far as Aboah goes in terms of conformity to the modelling tradition of aloof, enigmatic beauty. After our interview, she has a busy day ahead. First, a meeting with Dr Lauren Hazzouri, a psychologist specialising in young women’s mental health. After that, it’s off to Gurls Talk, the online platform she founded to enable discussion about mental health, body image and sexuality, to plan an upcoming event. Forget castings and go-sees: Aboah is changing the rules of how a modern model makes it big.
Earlier this year, Aboah stepped up from being the insider’s favourite face on the catwalk to being a major industry player when she appeared on the March cover of American Vogue, one of a lineup of seven models of differing skin tone and body shape. It is easy to mock this as a virtue-signalling Vogue stunt – the strategic placement of a hand that appeared to shield the Vogue readers’ delicate sensibilities from Ashley Graham’s size-14 thigh was a bit of an eye-roller – but the weight of glossy magazine history stands as proof that Vogue’s group model covers are markers for cultural shifts in the industry. Peter Lindbergh’s portrait of Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington for the January 1990 edition of British Vogue was the image that consecrated the supermodels’ status as the goddesses of their age. The 2009 American Vogue gatefold cover of nine young models, with a coverline that read “the Real Lives of Models: Boyfriends, Babies, Closets, Catwalks, Diets, Dramas” made official the modern obsession with off-duty models. And this year’s cover, which placed Aboah and Graham alongside Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner – “The Beauty Revolution – No Norm is the New Norm”, read the text – signalled the moment the mainstream aesthetic finally embraced diversity.
The American Vogue cover matters because, until recently, fashion industry voices speaking up for diversity tended to be filed under “alternative”, and therefore sidelined. Things are changing. Today, Adwoa is on the line to talk about an advertising campaign for Gap in celebration of the white T-shirt, in which she stars in a video directed by Edward Enninful, the superstylist who will take the helm of British Vogue in two months’ time. The film is remarkable for the fact that, in an industry where diversity can often mean one token black model, non-white faces outnumber white in a studio full of models, actors and singers, including Yara Shahidi, Alek Wek and Wiz Khalifa. The message is serious but the mood is light, verging on silly, as the cast sing along to Sunny by Boney M. Diversity, says Adwoa, was explicitly the point. “There was something powerful in having a group of people on set with such different backgrounds,” Aboah says. “On set it was an incredible energy, a camaraderie that came from the idea that we are all fighting for the same cause.”
Aboah has known Enninful for years. As the daughter of uber-agent Camilla Lowther, she is fashion aristocracy – Cara Delevingne is her best friend – but the campaign was the first time she had collaborated professionally with the stylist. “It was an amazing experience. He’s just lovely to be on set with, because he’s still got that excitement about what he’s creating.” Aboah is excited to see what changes Enninful will bring to Vogue. “I love Vogue, and I have huge respect for the team there. But, as a magazine, it doesn’t represent what the country is now, or only a very small part of it. And I hope that Edward is going to make it something that represents all the amazing things about Britain. Vogue should be about giving a voice to all different cultures. In 2017, there is more than one way to be beautiful, and more than one way to be cool. And when you put an image on the cover of Vogue, that means something that goes beyond fashion.”
Aboah has a deep, gravelly voice and talks slowly with a self-assured seriousness. No end-of-sentence upswing, none of the girlish faux-intimacy endemic among young female celebrities. I notice this, and then I check myself for noticing it, because it makes me realise how unusual it is to engage with a 25-year-old woman who does not feel the need to temper having a strong opinion with being adorable, whose instinct on facing a camera is to tilt her chin upwards and issue an indomitable glare rather than a winning smile. Aboah, wise beyond her years, is passionate about the very real diversity problem still highly visible in the fashion industry (among the seven models who booked the most advertising campaigns this season, only one, Mica Argañaraz, was non-white). “People can get so lazy with their casting,” she sighs. Is it just laziness, I wonder, or something more pernicious? “Sometimes it is worse than laziness. Sometimes I think people just don’t care.”
In 2015, the year she appeared on her first Vogue cover, shot by Tim Walker for Vogue Italia, Aboah founded Gurls Talk. The following year, during which she was prominent on billboards in adverts for Calvin Klein underwear, she spoke openly about overcoming addiction, and about a history of depression that began in her early teens and reached its nadir with a suicide attempt in her early 20s. With her disarming frankness, she is the poster girl for a generation all too aware that life isn’t always pretty.
At the age of 13, Aboah started boarding school. Lonely and isolated, she began a teenage experimentation with drugs that escalated into addiction to ketamine. At university, depression led to what she has described as “self-medicating” with drugs, and her deeply concerned parents sent her to rehab in Arizona when she was 21. But, on her return to London, the intensity of her rising profile as a model, combined with continuing struggles with depression, fuelled the addictions and led to another stint in rehab, during which, in October 2015, she attempted suicide. She spent four days in a coma. Since then, treatment for depression, bipolar disorder and addiction have helped her find equilibrium. Recently, as part of the therapeutic process, she and her mother made a powerful film about the experience, and about the challenges of communication about mental health even within a loving family.
Because Gurls Talk is founded on the principle of open communication, Aboah felt that honesty about her own problems was essential. “I didn’t have loads of followers when I started Gurls Talk. I had no idea I would ever be doing as much modelling as I am now. Would I still have been so honest if I’d known that I would be in this position? I hope so. I think that honesty is why Gurls Talk works. I see on the site how one girl being really brave and honest leads to someone else opening up. Girls need that connection and it has to be authentic.” It is impossible to avoid the A-word in conversation with any woke millennial. Authenticity is a huge deal to Aboah’s generation, yin to the yang of Instagram, “this fake life that we try and project into the universe”.
Instagram is a central issue for Aboah. Gurls Talk is striking for being an attempt to use social media to project positive, affirming, accepting messages about female identity, in the context of an environment where much of the visual culture of social media promotes a narrow and unrealistic ideal. Aboah has become a spokesmodel for racial diversity, but her rise in the industry is not simply about skin colour. She also represents a broader shift – to the mainstreaming of alternative aesthetics, of a burgeoning sense that young women are starved of representational variety in fashion media.
It was when Aboah shaved her head, several years into her modelling life, that her career really took off. “It was a kind of a fuck-you to the industry, even if I wasn’t conscious of that at the time. I didn’t warn anyone, I just walked into my agency one day with all my hair shaved off. But they loved it. I love it, too – I’m definitely in no rush to grow it back.” She talked about the haircut experience in Teen Vogue: “I’ve learned to appreciate looking unique, and not having long, blond locks … at last. That in itself is the most important achievement,” she wrote. At 1.72m (5ft 8in) she stands out as several inches shorter than models with whom she shares a catwalk. With her red-tinted buzzcut and freckles, vintage-Portobello-mixed-with-Adidas wardrobe, Aboah’s look is in direct opposition to the lash-fluttering date-night sex appeal of model tradition. She can do the chameleon-model thing when required – see her April cover of Vogue Mexico, all sultry poise and Sade eyebrows – but it is remarkable how often her personal off-duty style, with its streetwear influences, makes it into her editorial photos. Even in American Vogue, Aboah appears in a Rodarte mesh T-shirt whose sporty vibe is close to her own off-duty look, accessorised with the same piles of brassy gold curb chains she often wears in her Instagram shots. She embodies the way designers Alessandro Michele of Gucci and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and Balenciaga have used their catwalks to broaden definitions of beauty and cool to include a new celebration of outsider chic. The geek, the goth, the nerd and the misfit are fashion’s new muses.
Even with the power that comes with being as in-demand as Aboah is, modelling can be tough in that “it is a life where you are always on standby. You have no control over your schedule, which makes it really hard to have balance in life, to see your friends or have a boyfriend.” But it gives her a platform, “and there’s no way I could not use that. It’s not about having an opinion on every single thing just for the sake of it. I know what my causes are. And I care about them, so I’d rather get out there and talk about them than just play it safe.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010