Catching up with 90s it girl

Emma Too was once one of the most recognised faces and names in the region’s modelling industry. In her 40s now, and still looking fabulous, she leads a quiet life, her modelling past, just a distant memory.
With her ethereal beauty and striking presence, Emma was the stuff of many 90s’ men’s dreams. Long-limbed and graceful to a fault, an appearance by the model at any event was a scoop for the organisers.

Until she quit.

“I quit to get married, but obviously that did not happen,” she laughs lightheartedly.

“I also had a horse-riding accident and I am lucky my head wasn’t smashed. Only my ribs were hurt but it was time for me to consider a long term career,” she says.

And now, instead of the catwalks, you will find her knee deep in dirt sculpting the outdoors into the stuff of dreams.  

“Modelling was something everyone said would suit me, not something that sprung from within. I was always a landscape designer at heart, and always felt more at ease doing that than working the runway. Even growing up, I had my own little garden and thought I would end up being an architect, designing spaces.

While in many ways her beauty opened doors for the wide-eyed innocent little girl she was back then, the beauty queen tag is something she does not fancy.

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“What I struggle with at this point is getting people to take me seriously. To look past my modelling career. Sometimes I am the only female in the field and those who recognise me can’t separate who I used to be and who I am now. That has cost me some jobs. She describes an incident where, during a negotiation, the lady in charge asked her if she was once a Miss Kenya.

“She then told me that she was going to call me about the project later but the call never came through. On construction sites, the men I work with will insist on calling me ‘Miss Kenya’ rather than with my name. Funny though, I have never been a Miss Kenya, I was the Face of Africa, Kenya, she says with a laugh.

Emma’s voice has a deep throaty quality, and when she laughs, it peters out into a musical lilt.

Sometimes pretty hurts

She also hates the assumption that models are not the sharpest tools in the shed.   

“They think that when you are/were a model, you are dumb, so even when I get a job on merit, people sometimes assume that I can’t until I do it,” she says.

But it has made her dig in her heels at work. Nothing like a woman bent on proving people wrong.

“I have had to work doubly hard, and just let my work speak for itself. It meant doing work for free at first, just to prove that I could do it and I have found that word of mouth works very well when your work is good.

In a way, being judged a bit more harshly worked out because it means I am conscious of things around me. Good thing about my job is that when you do it well, you win people over.” 

And something she is particular about, other than the aesthetic value she offers to her clients, is the safety of her creations.

“I am very conscious about the material people use and I always decline when it is too dangerous. For instance, you can’t use a wall tile on the floor, which happens a lot because as a nation we are not a very conscious about safety.”

Safety means a lot to her, and her voice takes on a wistful quality as she explains an incident that almost killed her mother.

“I was 10 when I watched my mum slip and fall down a flight of stairs. She landed on her spine, needing so many surgeries. For a while there, she couldn’t speak, walk or use her hands. Well, she still uses the wheelchair to date. Watching a once vibrant person, one who ran multiple businesses and kept a day job reduced to a shell, was the hardest moment of my life.”

And that is why she will often turn down a job if her only options compromise the safety of people using the facilities.  

Her mother, she says, is her greatest influence.

“She speaks several Kenyan languages and never forgets people and finer details about them. She is a people person, always receiving guests every weekend, whereas I can stay in my house for 30 or 40 days without a guest. I am an introvert.”

Hard to believe that she was an introvert when she was in the dailies every other day at some event or the other back in the 90s and early 2000s.

“I was a very timid person when I got into modelling the first time. I was very shy and could not express myself. Very nervous and anxious and I think it is because I was not exposed to a lot of people.

“I grew up at a time when parents believed that locking you up would keep you out of trouble. When I got the chance to get out, it was scary because I was used to being indoors and all of a sudden I am out. One day I am at Mandela’s party, meeting him, the next I am in London meeting actors. Things I could never have imagined happening to me.”

Her parents separated when she was young; when her mother was expecting their youngest brother. She is the eldest of three children; two girls and a boy. She does not remember her father but from what she has learned, he died of cancer.

Many years have gone past, but the ravages of time and age are undetectable. Other than a little extra padding to what was once a very lithe frame, it is like time stalled for two decades. And when I mention to her that little enviable fact, she laughs it off.

“Maybe I do not look like I have aged that much, but I have added a few kilogrammes. I was very skinny back then. I prefer the way I look now,” she says.

Her genes definitely have a role in that too, because, she has a pretty much a basic skincare regimen.

“My mother looks very young. And my grandma died with barely any wrinkles despite being in her eighties,” she quips.

She is quick to add that dieting is not something that she has ever had to do.

 “I have always been conscious about not eating junk, but even during my hey days, I never really did anything extra. I once tried to go on a crash diet but I fainted one day,  so I said never again,” she says.

“My only crime is that I only started drinking water recently and I really do like sugar and salt. Over the years I am beginning to feel the effect on my knees. I started working out a couple of weeks ago, three to four days a week.”

I will marry when God wants me to  

While she will not reveal whether she is dating or not, she has a bit to share about relationships.

“The best advice I ever got? I went to a wedding and I was in the bridal lineup. One of the things one of the older ladies told the bride was, ‘Don’t do anything you are not ready to do the rest of your life together.’ Be yourself and don’t try to pretend to be something you aren’t because you can’t sustain it,” she says.

And marriage for her depends not on her, but a higher power.

“I am a strong believer that everything that happens to me, God has willed it to.  As for having children and a husband, if God wills it, well and good. If it does not happen, I have made peace with it. Not everyone is supposed to end up in that direction. God plans for everybody, and things happen for everybody at different times. I believe my happiest moment is yet to come.”

In matters love, her happiness takes priority, and she will not conform to the pressures of society.

“I think my happiness is more important than the pressure I would receive from the society expecting me to live a certain way because at my age I should be married with children and all that. You should not be with someone who does not add value and respect and value you.”

Kenya's leading model Emma too in a past photograph. [Courtesy]
This is a lesson she has learnt all too well.

“I went through a stage where I struggled to stay in bad relationships. In my 20s I was in very toxic relationships. I wish I knew then what I know now but I think they moulded who I am and I am better at it now because of that but there is that aspect of that time that I wish did not happen, but my mistakes have been my lessons,” she says.

Even her friendships have evolved over time.

“I used to be a believer in having many friends but in recent years, that has changed. I came to realise that there are people you allow into your life that are toxic. There are people who will be smiling at you but say negative things behind your back. I have learned to disconnect from such people. I would rather keep a small circle of friends that will add value and build me,” she says.

What makes her happiest, however, is working outdoors. “I get the most sense of fulfillment when I am landscaping and seeing the transformation. I enjoy shopping for the plants, choosing them one by one. I get thrilled about it. I enjoy buying plants even when I don’t need them and keeping them around my place. I just enjoy nature in general.

And with that, she is gone to dip her green fingers into yet another project, but not before leaving me with one little landscape tip I could use for my little abode.  

“When you buy a plant from a nursery, make sure you put the plant outside to climatise to that shade. You cannot take it from outside and then take it right inside. It will go into shock and dry up. Oh, and some plants like a bit of moisture on the leaves.”

When I am sad…

I have a tendency of locking myself up in my house. My phone will be off and I don’t want to talk to people. I also like to travel. I get out of that environment and go to a place where I like, like to my home in Vipingo, walk around the beach and if I have money, do a bit of shopping therapy.

 In my future, I see…

…me designing and building my own house! That will be the ultimate thing for me. I think in my other life I was an architect. Sometimes I will look at a building and go, “This could have been done this way.” I have the eye, maybe I just lack the training.

  If life has taught me anything it is that…

You don’t have to be happy to appreciate where you are in life. You just need to have an appreciation of what you have, where you are, because life is really short and all can change in an instant, and then you have lived your not being happy because you felt that something else should have happened or you should have been somewhere else.

Best thing about modelling was…

It made me appreciate other cultures, other worldviews, and also appreciate what we have back home. It also allowed me amazing opportunities, such as being at Nelson Mandela’s birthday.

Colourism?

As a model, I only experienced colourism during a short stint in South Africa, when agents booked models according to colour, and, not surprisingly, black models came last. It was three to four years after the end of apartheid, so that was just how the world worked then.

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Emma TooModelling