Modelling has been an established career in much of the world for a long time. Involved in advertising, runway shows, and everything in between, models have cultivated a reputation as being well paid and respected in many parts of the world. However, in Ethiopia, modelling was not seen as a career with a future, as was the case with many creative careers. In fact, it is only within the past decade or so that modelling has started to come into the mainstream, with televised competitions, and schools dedicated to the subject. EBR’s Menna Asrat spoke with industry insiders to understand how modelling is developing.
Although modelling as a profession has been practiced globally since the beginning of the 20th century, it was not always taken seriously as a viable career path in Ethiopia until recently. In the last decade, nevertheless, due to changes observed in the societies’ lifestyle and the fashion industry modelling is becoming a feasible prospect for many of Ethiopia’s young men and women.
Once seen as a stop gap for young women in the time before they got a real job, modelling is fast becoming a sought after profession. In fact, schools have started to be opened with modelling as their main focus, catering to both men and women, with the goal of turning out trained models for advertising and fashion.
Genet Kebede manages Abyssinia Fine Arts and Modelling Training Centre, which trains models. In the past few years, the most radical change Genet has witness in modelling profession is that as many men as women have started to come into the career. “I think it’s becoming more accepted as an actual profession, not just among society at large, but by the families of the young people who want to enter the profession,” she tells EBR.
Established 16 years ago, Abyssinia trains students in disciplines like drawing, painting and sculpture as well as theatrical art, modern dance and vocal exercise on top of modelling. Annually, close to 300 trainees are attends training session in different fields. Modelling training is given three days a week for two hours a day.
For Genet part of the reason for recognition is that models are now having a wider range of choice. “Models aren’t necessarily restricted to fashion,” explains Genet. “They can do ads and take part in marketing campaigns, they can work as brand ambassadors, and they can go into the fashion industry.”
Globally, there are different types of modelling including fashion, glamour, fitness, fine art, body-part, promotional and commercial print. In fact, models are now appearing in a variety of media formats such as books, magazines, films and television shows.
Abyssinia teaches aspiring models in both runway and advertising work. Ambachew Taye is one of the models trained in Abyssinia who has been modelling for the last 12 years. In his experience, the modelling industry has changed quite radically. “It has become more acceptable to say that you want to be a model,” he says. “In the past, it used to be that there was no way that families would want their children to enter the industry. Now, people can find good work.”
But, the changes in society do not seem to be happening as fast as some would like. There are still some roadblocks that await youngsters who want to enter the industry. For some aspiring models, like 20-year-old Betelhem Abebe, a university student in Addis Ababa, it is a complex issue of family expectations and societal pressures. “I am studying at university at the moment, but I do want to do modelling at some point,” she says. “When I was younger, I would find myself drawn to pictures of models in magazines, or on television, and I found myself wanting to become like them.”
However, even though her family don’t actively discourage her, she finds them pushing her more towards her studies. “My family have said that they would prefer if I kept my focus on my studies instead of finding modelling opportunities. I tell them that I would finish my degree, but I feel that my future is definitely in the fashion industry.”
Betelhem’s experience shows that modelling in Ethiopia still has long way to go. However, worldwide especially in advanced nations it is among the highest paid professions. For instance, models like Kendall Jenner and Karlie Kloss are now the highest paid professionals in the United States by earning USD22.5 million and USD13 million in 2017, respectively. One of the pushing factors for the growth of modelling is the fashion industry, which is currently worth around three billion dollars. Louis Vuitton and Moet Hennessy are among luxury brands that helped the fashion industry to blossom.
The Ethiopian fashion industry is still growing, as is the modelling industry, according to Fikirte Addis, the owner of Fikir Design. “Some people even relate it with pornography but this is totally wrong,” she says. “Modeling is a decent profession. If we look at the modeling industries of developed countries, a model starts working as early as the age of 14 and a maximum of at 20 years old if she is very good. Bringing this trend to Ethiopia is very challenging, which in turn affects the industry. Besides the models only stay in the business for a very short period of time (from 14 to 30 years old) and when they get older (after 30 years old) they have to divert to other professions.”
Another challenge that models in Ethiopia have to contend with is the fact that they often are not paid enough to offset the challenges of the work, according to industry insiders. Even though the perception is that posing for photos takes the lion’s share of a model’s job, things like staying in shape, and knowing how to carry themselves in public is crucial. This is where schools and training centers, like Abyssinia, step in to teach potential models the ropes. Young people can learn the ins and outs of the industry is Next Fashion Design College, established in 2004. So far, the college has trained 250 students in modeling. For Sara, the owner of Next, the major challenge of the modeling industry is the lack of attention from the government. “Although we send invitations to various government bodies to attend modeling events, usually don’t come,” Sara said. Since there are between 10 and 20 student on one class and the students get train with professional models, Sara doesn’t believe that a lack of skilled manpower is an issue. Instead, she believes that low pay, and neglect have held the industry back.
Even though pay scales are not on par with those in the western world, the modelling and fashion industries even in neighbouring countries like in Kenya is growing rapidly. These industries, however, still are in the early stages in Ethiopia although the return of Ethiopian-born international fashion figures to the country in recent years and their association with international brands has started to stimulate activities. Some of these include the African Mosaique brand, established by Swedish-Ethiopian model Anna Getaneh, and the Lemlem brand, founded by supermodel Leah Kebede.
“It’s possible to say that modelling is still in its infancy in Ethiopia, which means that we haven’t seen where the industry can go,” argues Genet. “There hasn’t been much work done to promote it as profession, even in terms of gaining recognition from the government.”
One of the darker sides of the profession, as has been widely reported from various industry hubs around the world, is the pressure placed on young people to conform to a certain body standard. For many in the international modelling community, these pressures have led to unhealthy behaviour, including involvement with drugs, and eating disorders. Antonio Preti, who teaches clinical psychology and rehabilitation psychiatry at the University of Cagliari, Italy in a study published in 2018 indicated that, out of a group of 55 fashion models based in Sardinia, Italy, there was a result of anorexia nervosa reported by three models, even though 34 of them reported body mass indices of below 18 (putting them in the underweight category).
There have been few rigorous studies on the subject of eating disorders in fashion models. However, there has been widely reported anecdotal evidence of the effect of fashion designers using extremely thin models on the young women and men who consume their advertising. This led to France putting a ban on unhealthily thin models in fashion shows in 2017, requiring models to provide doctors’ certificates attesting to their overall health. France followed Italy, Spain and Israel in its actions.
Even though the Ethiopian modelling industry is in its infancy, the effects of the Western modelling industry’s emphasis on thinness does seem to be making its way into Ethiopia. Betelhem is evidence of this. “I do feel like I have to be very conscious of my weight,” she says. “Culturally, from what I’ve seen, people in Ethiopia are very appearance-conscious regarding women, even when they don’t know you. So I feel I have to be careful.”
In spite of everything, there is still a lot of potential for growth in the Ethiopian modelling industry. With the increased interconnectivity of the world, there is a lot of potential to promote Ethiopian fashion through modelling. “I think with the right support, it could bring in a lot of revenue and publicity for the country,” says Genet. “But at this point, we are just beginning.”
Additional reporting by Kiya Ali.
8th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2019 • No. 70