Mary Esther Were lost her mum when she was 4, her father re-married but a few years later, he lost his life to diabetic-related complications. She narrates about her relationship with her step-mother and how she stumbled on modelling as a career.
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It all began after Ngara Girls High School where I studied. That plain period just before campus or college when students enroll for quick courses like computer studies or French classes to keep busy. Or better, they are sent to visit an aunt or live with the sister for a while.
I was in Nairobi, and yes, I was in one of the French classes in town. In-between classes and home, random people started asking if I was a model or if I wanted to pursue modeling. It started as one offs, then it became frequent and I got curious, I started wondering if modeling was something worth looking into.
One day while I was in town, I met a man who introduced himself as a modeling agent. He wanted to know if I was working with any agency. When I told him that I was not a model, he gave me his contacts and asked that I pay them a visit. I told my mother, who was hesitant about it. She said that I should try it out but that she would have to come too.
So, I called the man and we went to his office and talked about the possibilities and had a photo shoot, after which he said he would get back to us. A few weeks later, we’d not heard from him, then months passed without a word.
We soon realized that this was a fool’s errand - either he was a bogus agent or his agency was bogus. This was 2009, my first foray into the modeling industry and my first burn - one of many - that I will tell in a short while.
I waded deeper into the modeling world by taking part in FORD International Model Search 2009 where I participated in borrowed (from my mum) three-inch heels and came up among the finalists. This was followed by Face of Africa in the same year with similar outcome. I joined Daystar University in 2010 and graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Electronic Media.
In 2011, I took part in Miss World Kenya. This was when the real education began. I was learning that self-awareness and self-confidence were key; looks, poise, eloquence and a vision. Miss World Kenya was very tough, we were many contestants. I had to call off my semester in school. The whole thing took a while - about a month and a half and at some point, we lived in Oak Place Resort.
We had no outside contact, no phones except on a few Saturdays when we were allowed to call home. I love my space, but this experience forced me to be an extrovert. We woke up at 5 am every day, went for a jog, then aerobics and then breakfast. After breakfast, we had about two hours to socialize and then classes.
Did you know that there is a Miss World Kenya wave? No? They teach that in the classes. They teach catwalk. They teach etiquette, like eating habits - odd things like how to drink without leaving your lipstick on the rim of the glass.
They teach you how to weep with grace. Right. They teach how to sit (chin up, back straight) and how to stand and they teach about a queenly gaze.
How to scratch your hair in public. They teach public speaking. They teach how to smile, and how to be fierce. And of course how to wave, Miss Kenya style. I didn’t win it.
I was among the finalists but something great also happened; it was during the finals that I realized that my family was fully behind me. The idea of pursuing a modeling career is still perceived as shady in Kenya.
Like you have to be a lady of questionable character to survive in modeling. My mother, two sisters and three brothers were probably not fully on board until the night of the finals when they saw me and it dawned on them that this could be good and that something good could be in it for me. The experience they had that night as they watched changed their minds.
And talking about family, home is in Nyanza, some place called Kano Kabonyo. I lost my birth mother when I was four. For a while it was just us and our dad. Then he met Angeline Were, re-married and sadly he too passed on when I was 11 years old due to diabetes complications.
He actually passed on when my last born sister was an infant. Since then, it has been us and our mom. She has seen us through what most people would have run away from. She is an angel. Really, she is awesome.
What about the industry and the people in it, are they awesome? Well, some are. You have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for genuine awesomeness and honesty in the modeling industry. There are a lot of fake agents and scrupulous modeling agencies that are out to get paid and run without doing much for the models.
There are projects you work on and then the organizers or representatives disappear. There are delayed payments. There are agencies that breach contracts.
Agencies that will shave off a portion of your payment from what a client is paying just because they blackballed you out of the contract signing table. Oh, and then there are male agents who believe that they can take advantage of you, offering jobs for sex.
The best way is to walk away from such people. They can delay your journey or your success, but they can’t stop it. I actually lost Sh500,000 and a chance to represent Kenya in an international pageant that was to be held in Canada. It turned out that the local representatives were all fake and they took off with all the funds after the final show.
Until Miss World Kenya, I did little shows around Nairobi. Runway shows, a few fashion spreads for the local dailies and the like. Modeling was still a side hustle for me. After Miss World Kenya, I started thinking that there could be something greater out there for me.
So I joined Strut it Africa, a modeling agency that I worked with exclusively for three years. This was me going into modeling professionally. I did several runway shows, several photo shoots for leading magazines and several fashion spreads for the local dailies.
It was during this time that I was crowned Miss Green Planet Kenya-2012. And in 2014, I made it as a finalist in Miss Commonwealth Kenya.
The modeling industry is a defined industry. It is weight specific, height specific and build specific. For runway, 5’6 and above goes for height, slim and trim or svelte work for build and 65kg is the ceiling on weight. Because you don’t have to open your mouth on the runway, no one really cares what you are made of.
Of course there is the little matter of skin pigmentation, no bleaching- you are either naturally dark or naturally light. Extreme birth marks are a definite no, just as are cellulite or tattoos. Your body structure has to be proper and elegant.
For beauty pageantry, because if you win you will become a sort of ambassador, you have to be a person of quality, integrity, well-mannered and cultured. And for both, your face has to be pretty.
To keep the weight and the build in check, there are routine workouts (weekly or daily) with a partner or a trainer. Most models hold gym memberships.
We have to understand our body metabolism so that you know what to eat and what to avoid or what to regulate. Drugs and alcohol are no-go zones if you want to keep your figure and appearance. I do take wine occasionally.
I hear some girls smoke to stay slim, I think this has the same effect of draining you physically and emotionally like the drugs and alcohol. Abroad, models are known to go on body cleansing hunger routines or purges. Here in Kenya, most models just skip a meal. Nothing extreme.
Modeling is a demanding job. You’ve got to put in the hours. Most jobs are actually evening events. They run late. Then there is traveling, for out of town jobs. And there are jobs where the preparation alone, for the model, can take days.
In the end; I believe that all a gifted person needs is an opportunity. A chance to show what they can do. African models need more opportunities in the international space. I will have to do something about it...
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