Born in Nigeria, Journalism graduate turned model Idia Aisien is proof that when you believe in yourself great things happen. Splitting her time between Lagos and New York City, the model, who stars in Maki Oh’s Autumn/Winter 2015 campaign and hosts Style 101, talks big dreams with ELLE
Describe yourself in five words.
Smart. Strong. Funny. Complicated. Deep.
Was modelling always on your dreams list?
Yes. I dreamed of walking the runway since I was 15-years-old, but I didn’t think it was possible.
How were you discovered?
While completing my Masters in New York City, I applied for a job in Brooklyn, when a friend called and asked me to come straight to Jovani Headquarters in Midtown. She insisted I ditch the interview, and as I looked around me I realised that I could take a chance on something I’ve always wanted, or work in this office, and wonder everyday what would have happened if I went to Jovani. Within minutes I was on the train to Midtown, Manhattan. I walked into a showroom, laden with beautiful dresses, as clients browed and placed orders, and that same friend told a buyer – who was one of Jovani’s biggest retailers in Nigeria – that a girl she knows wants to model more than anything in the world, and so the buyer asked her to invite me. When I met the buyer, she asked me to try on a red dress, and I hesitated, but she insisted. A talent scout also objected, because I was not a model. When I walked out of the changing room with that dress on, I was hired. And the rest is history.
What has modelling taught you so far?
It’s given me a strong sense of self-love and awareness. It’s taught me to take care of myself from the inside and out, to stay true to my identity, and to focus on my strengths.
Who do you look up to professionally?
I love Alek Wek because she changed the way the world looks at African models. She has served as a voice for refugees, and has raised awareness on the humanitarian disaster in Sudan. She is not only extremely smart and politically conscious, but has opened so many doors for young girls to pursue a career in fashion.
What was it like being the youngest of 12 children?
We had a full house and there was always a lot of love and laughter. As the youngest I was spoiled, but very lucky to have older siblings to learn from.
You graduated with a B.A. in Journalism, what led you up this path, did you want to become a writer?
As a 12-year-old scholar we learned about Nigerian journalist Dele Giwa, who was killed because he had intelligence on the country’s president. So intrigued by his story, I knew I wanted to be a voice against corruption in Nigeria. First I interned with the Punch, one of Nigeria’s largest Newspapers, then I studied Journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. I also worked for Discovery Communications and Fox 5 News, which were great experiences. I stopped pursing journalism as a profession, because I struggled with various employers trying to give me “softer” stories to cover, when I wanted to focus on Africa.
What does Africa mean to you?
Our continent has enormous potential, and we are making strides across various industries, from entertainment to fashion, banking and infrastructure. I want to be one of the people that helps Africa prove itself, and I want to break many barriers as an African woman.
What is the continent sorely lacking, and how can we start the path to correct it?
I think we need better governance and more inspirational figures. It is up to civilians in every country to take a solid stand towards electing better leaders, and in working to aid in the different causes they are passionate about. I am excited to be launching a foundation that focuses on education and poverty alleviation in Nigeria. It’s a special project for me, because I’m also partnering with various groups inside and outside the country, and my foundation’s projects are tailored to help tackle each country’s most prominent issue. This is just a personal mission and calling for me, but if everyone works towards making Africa better in their own small way, there would be even more growth in our continent.
What is your involvement with the United Nations?
I worked for the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission in the secretariat building. Our office was special because it catered to aiding countries that were developing from conflict. Our six countries of focus at the time were Burundi, Central African Republic, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone. I learned so much about how unequal distribution of wealth and resources could lead to civil and political unrest, and destroy a country’s economy completely.
Let’s talk about fashion: who are your top three designers and why?
Maki Oh is my favorite because of her designs’ originality. I’ve walked her shows and her attention to detail is refreshing. My most recent campaign was Maki Oh’s autumn/winter lookbook. I love is David Tlale because his dresses are elegant and daring at the same time, and then there is Mataano for their chic and wearable pieces.
Tell us about your television work? Was this a natural progression for you?
While on a short work trip to Lagos, a television producer approached me with an idea for a show, which I was extremely excited about, because I had never worked as a talk show host before. Within days, we began filming You Got Issues – a show I really love, because it caters to working through people’s career, love and relationship issues, and within a month I was invited to host Style 101, which is Nigeria’s version of Fashion Police, and one of the largest shows on Spice TV. Both shows have been a great platform for me, because I’ve gotten to meet so many people in the fashion and entertainment industry. I work with two of the most talented producers, so I’m looking forward to more controversial and exciting episodes. People actually stop me now and ask for tips and advice even off camera, so it’s great to see that our audience is receptive and appreciative of the work that we do.
What’s the best piece of advice you were given that you can share with other aspiring models?
Believe in yourself, because that’s when the magic happens. Believing fuels your hard work, and the more work you put in, the luckier you become.
How can people connect with you?
PHOTOGRAPHY: SUPPLIED; MAKI OH A/W15