Gurls Talk member Jieanne Parungao sits down with Adwoa Aboah for an in-depth conversation about inner strength and feeling all your feelings, before members of the community showcase the best of British designers in an exclusive fashion shoot with Adwoa.
I first met Adwoa at a Google Pixel x Gurls Talk event in October 2017.
I was alone that night, but meeting her was like finding a friend. That experience of feeling so welcomed has always stayed with me. When Adwoa speaks, magic happens. People open up about their own experiences and you can feel the love circulating in the room – there’s no other place you’d rather be. Gurls Talk gives us a community, but what I love is that what unites us is not only our similarities but also our differences, whether it’s where we’re from, what we are wearing or our age. I am so proud to be part of this community, and how we’re always encouraged to strive for equality. I’m always reminded of the quote by American writer Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Gurls Talk was founded by Adwoa and Holly Gore in 2015 as a place for young women to share their experiences with their own mental health, relationships and education with no judgement. Adwoa wants to try and turn the idea of what is perfect in this online day and age inside out after going through her own personal journey battling her mental health since she was 14. It’s a safe space I’m sure she wished she had growing up.
Adwoa was born in London and though she considers her parents’ house in Ladbroke Grove home, she’s spent time living in New York and LA for her modelling work – she has fronted campaigns for Burberry and Versace and has walked at Paris Fashion Week for Chanel. She is also constantly flying around the globe whether for work or Gurls Talk, recently holding an event in Ghana where some of her family live.
So when Gurls Talk put out a call on Instagram asking for someone to interview Adwoa and star alongside her in a cover shoot, I jumped at the chance to speak to her as both a role model and as someone at the forefront of a beautiful movement.
I’m a digital design student and the shoot is the first time I’ve been on a set, let alone a cover shoot, so when I arrive I’m on edge but still very excited. It’s a fast-paced atmosphere and we’ve got to be choppy; with rollers in our hair, manicures that still smell of polish and shuffling around in vivid outfits, we nervously wait our turn in front of the camera. But Adwoa, so used to the chaos, calmly steps in and out of wardrobe, always smiling, giving us words, and squeezes, of encouragement.
And then suddenly it’s my turn to sit down and talk to her for this special issue of Stylist…
What point in your own journey made you feel like you needed to create Gurls Talk?
I feel like I’ve needed Gurls Talk my entire life and I think that’s probably a major driving force behind why it’s the last thing I think about before I go to sleep and the first thing I think about when I wake up. It’s everything I have ever wanted and everything I have ever needed and I just believe, in a non-cheesy way, this is what I was meant to do for everyone else and myself to make me feel nourished and happy.
What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through your experience with Gurls Talk?
My perseverance. When you’ve had such a lack of self-worth, anything you achieve after that is always an accomplishment. It’s waking up on time, getting out of bed, being there for a friend… all these things surprised me because they were things I took for granted.
How do you define personal growth?
I find I’m growing as a person when I’m asking myself more questions. When I’m questioning society, my place in society, how I can do more, how I can have a happier life and a life surrounded by good energy and challenging myself. It’s not being stuck in fear, I suppose.
What grounds you the most when everything feels overwhelming?
I definitely need time to myself because so much of my work as part of the fashion world is based around being around people. What I do to really try to ground myself is to get back to a daily mundane routine and taking time to myself whether it be reading a book or going on a trip by myself or surrounding myself with people who I can be unapologetically myself with.
What authors inspire you currently?
Gurls Talk also has a podcast, what’s your favourite thing about that?
It’s exactly what Gurls Talk stands for in terms of having intimate conversations where we can and should be able to talk about what’s going on in our lives. Another thing I love about doing the podcast and what I think is really beautiful is most of the time it’s me and someone I don’t know. Our community is filled with different types of people who don’t know each other but feel safe enough to put our hands up and share our truths. I always leave the podcast with something.
You have a big following which includes 768,000 followers on Instagram. Is there pressure to stay on top of things as more and more people look up to you?
Yeah, of course. I think you have to have that. There is a certain amount that’s sometimes unhealthy but there is a certain pressure needed so I can continue this journey. If it was easy, you’d get lazy, you’d get complacent and there are things that need to be done; things that me and my team think about, like what we should do and how we could take Gurls Talk to the next level.
You recently spoke on a panel for International Women’s Day alongside Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. Something you discussed was how to include men more in the conversation to achieve equality. Why is that important?
Oh, it’s so important, it’s important we talk about global feminism. It is imperative that men are involved in the conversation and educated on things we are going through as women, but also a space of confidentiality has to be created for them where they can share things we as women might not understand. We’re making changes but the real massive changes are only going to happen if everyone is in the conversation and I don’t want to leave men behind in what we’re doing.
What do you think needs to be done for men to be included?
I truly believe that women cannot be the voices for men in order for them to feel like they can talk about certain things. More men have to come forward and talk about things honestly and break through that glass ceiling of ‘It is fine to say this and that’. I’ve seen it work with Gurls Talk: one girl puts her hand up and before you know it everyone feels safe enough to now talk about these things, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t work with men.
When do you think you first became conscious that the world isn’t always an equal place? How did it feel?
I think sometimes you get confused when you’re younger. I’m not sure if you’re conscious of it or you might feel the energy of things not being fair and not understand why people are like that. Sadly, I spent a lot of time wishing I looked like someone else. It was something that infected my brain, whether it was relaxing my hair or wearing make-up, but it never worked. You are who you are and I was never comfortable trying to fit in and now I [refuse to] be anything but myself. When I came back to London from boarding school, I started to meet people who I saw myself in and who I liked, which meant I could like myself. If they can be like that, so can I.
Does the modelling world feel more equal now?
The celebration of models having their own opinions is definitely something that makes me feel more happy and proud to be part of the fashion industry. Obviously it still has parts based on what you look like, but I think there’s a massive change going on where you talk about the position you hold in the world and what you’re doing, and seeing different colours and shapes get to the top.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you were growing up that would have changed things?
There are so many things… I think being honest about relishing all the feelings we feel as humans and how amazing and liberating it is to actually feel. I suppose I’m saying I wish someone had told me it was OK to not feel good all the time. I wouldn’t have felt so frightened to navigate through feelings and brushed them under the carpet because I would have been aware that it was fine to not feel happy all the time.
It’s fair to say you have come very far in your journey, both within yourself and with Gurls Talk. Are you the type to give yourself credit or do you shy away from it?
I should probably give myself a bit more credit, but I’m a massive critic and probably my biggest critic. I just always think I should do more and that’s something that drives me but can also trap me. It’s something I’m still learning, to be nicer to myself and [celebrate] the accomplishments.
What has been your biggest milestone so far?
Everything to do with Gurls Talk. And speaking at International Women’s Day was a massive milestone – being seen among those astounding and inspirational women.
Recently, you collaborated with Barbie for their 60th anniversary and got the chance to create your own Adwoa doll. What was the message you wanted to communicate while making it?
Initially what came to mind was the part that Barbie played in my life. It was both positive and negative in the sense that it was my childhood but it created insecurity in myself about what I wanted to look like and what I’d never look like. My Barbies all had the typical blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin, so what I really wanted to convey is the need to celebrate diversity and the new ways our society should be looking at beauty.
And also that anyone that doesn’t have a reference of themselves to look up to can look at my Barbie and see that these things are possible. I wanted to portray how detrimental it is for one’s self-esteem if they are shown something that is out of reach.
You’ve done so much already, what else do you want to achieve?
I want to do more – and I don’t think I can be the face of it – but I want to start questioning the role mental health plays in men and start building a team that can really start making a change in giving men that space. I’d like to do a TED talk and do more writing.
Over time, change happens within everyone but what is one thing you think will never change about yourself?
Probably my resilience. When you go through certain tough times, it’s almost like your crutch pushing you forwards every single second of the day because to me nothing will ever be as bad as that time. So now I cherish and I move forward, excited by everything coming my way and the people I have that I’ve been grateful to meet and work with. You build a tough skin and that tough skin is definitely here to stay.
Who runs the world?
Meet members of the Gurls Talk community as they showcase the best of British designers with Adwoa…
Suharvi lives in Leeds and wants to be a creative director for a magazine. Her favourite TV show is Game Of Thrones and her feminist icon is Marlene Dietrich. She says Gurls Talk “allows everyone to talk about taboo issues and gives women a voice”.
Suharvi: Coat, £2,950, Richard Quinn (bergdorfgoodman.com); top, £245, Richard Malone (libertylondon.com); tights, stylist’s own; earrings, £140, Jakhu (jakhustudio.com); shoes, £440, Charlotte Olympia (charlotteolympia.com)
Nuha lives in Oxford and says appearing in the photo shoot with Adwoa was “one of the most surreal things to have happened to me”. She loves Nando’s, Bob’s Burgers and her favourite emoji is the red heart: “Sending love, always.”
Adwoa: Coat and bib, both price on request, Simone Rocha (020-7254 4390); jewellery, Adwoa’s own
Nuha: Coat and belt, both price on request, Matthew Duffy (notjustalabel.com/matthew-duffy); jewellery, Nuha’s own
Londoner Megan has ambitions of being an actor. Her feminist icons are her friends, who “inspire me every day to be a woman who is defiant and indestructible” and she thinks Adwoa is “badass, empowering and kind”.
Megan: Tunic, £360, and trousers, £460, both JW Anderson (jwanderson.com); ring (middle finger, right hand), £460, Lemuria (lemuriajewels.com); other rings, stylist’s own; shoes, £375, Mother of Pearl (motherofpearl.co.uk)
Nicole from London’s favourite TV show is Friends and her feminist icons are Michelle Obama and Natalie Portman. For Nicole, Gurls Talk has helped build her self-confidence and “made me feel like I belong at a time of insecurity”.
Sarah from Croydon loves Italian food and wants to study neuroscience at university. She says Gurls Talk is “an amazing community where girls of all ages can uplift and support each other”.
Jieanne from Surrey loves Jorja Smith and The 1975 and her favourite colour is black “because it goes with everything”. Taking part in the photoshoot was “Nothing less than incredible. I’ll always remember it.”
Jieanne: Top, £540, and skirt, £730, both Preen by Thornton Bregazzi (preenbythorntonbregazzi.com); headpiece, £350, Simone Rocha (020-7254 4390); shoes, as above
We’re celebrating Stylist’s 10th birthday in 2019 – and to honour the occasion, we’ve asked 10 of our favourite women to guest edit an issue of the magazine. Adwoa Aboah is our second star guest editor; see everything from her special issue here.
Fashion: Nathan Klein
Photography: Keziah Quarcoo
Casting and creative direction: Adwoah Aboah
Hair: Charley McEwen at Frank Agency using Living Proof
Make-up: Celia Burton at JAQ Management using Mac Cosmetics
Nails: Sophie Harris Greenslade at Emma Davies Agency using Chanel Le Vernis in Bleached Mauve and Chanel La Crème Main Texture Riche
Fashion assistants: Sian Wilkinson, Medhini Kar, Ann-Marie Thompson, Merissa Boyaram
Adwoa wants to support up-and-coming as well as established British brands. For more information or to order bespoke pieces, please contact the designers.
All photography: Keziah Quarcoo