Adwoa Aboah: "We’ve all got to be strong and take a stand"

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Shannon Mahanty
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Rex Features

Stylist meets Adwoa Aboah, the incredibly candid model and activist who embodies 2017’s defiant spirit.

Power. That’s the most used word of the fashion community in 2017. Not ‘Gucci’, ‘slogan T-shirts’ or even ‘Rihanna’, but simply, ‘power’. According to sartorial search engine Lyst - which trawled through more than 30,000 articles written over the course of this year – ‘cult’, ‘woke’ and ‘statement’ also made it into the top 10.

A coincidence? Probably not. In the past 12 months, we’ve seen the explosion of Eighties power dressing thanks to Céline and Balenciaga. Designer Prabal Gurung sent ‘The Future is Female’ T-shirts down the runway. Fashion’s biggest publishers vowed never to work with disgraced photographer Terry Richardson again. 

And then there’s the rise and rise of model and committed activist Adwoa Aboah, who spent more time this year educating young women about mental health than she did walking the catwalk, and who has now partnered with Google in a campaign that spotlights those who challenge conventional ways of doing things. 

Her win at The Fashion Awards earlier this month (she beat off stiff competition from Winnie Harlow, Kaia Gerber and both Hadid sisters for the prestigious model of the year title) begs an important question: is 2017 the year the fashion world grew up, got a conscience and changed forever?

“We’re finally realising how powerful fashion can be in terms of putting out the right message,” Aboah tells Stylist, in her distinctively husky voice. Inclusive, opinionated and fiercely passionate, the 25-year-old Londoner embodies the industry’s changing face. 

This year alone she has walked for Dior, Moschino, Burberry and more, starred in countless campaigns including H&M and Miu Miu, and appeared on the cover of a slew of magazines, including the first British Vogue under new editor Edward Enninful. With angular, freckled cheekbones and beguiling eyes, there’s no doubt that Aboah is beautiful – even more so because she never looks like anybody else in the room. As a model, she isn’t a blank canvas or an enigmatic muse; instead, her personality shines through in her mismatched gold jewellery and grade-one red-brown buzz cut.

It’s been an epic year for the British-Ghanaian model, but Aboah’s not afraid to speak up about the tougher times. In fact, it’s her honesty and courage that make her so admired by her 467K Instagram followers. Aboah’s hardships have been well documented.

Throughout her life she’s struggled with mental health issues, and serious bouts of depression and addiction led to an attempted suicide in 2015. By seeking help and speaking up, she inspires others to do the same. Her collective, Gurls Talk, which started as an online space two years ago where women could share stories and seek advice, has now evolved into a massive global community, spanning everything from workshops and events to live streams with a registered psychologist.

Queen Latifah once said, “I don’t want to be a supermodel; I want to be a role model”, so contradictory were the two aspirations of looking good in clothes versus doing something meaningful to inspire younger generations. Now, Aboah is leading a movement and proving that in this new era, the two are no longer mutually exclusive. 

And if that doesn’t sum up the spirit of 2017, we don’t know what does…

You just won model of the year at The Fashion Awards. How has the role of being a model changed?

When I started, it was just about being a model, [you didn’t see] a true depiction of who that person was. Now, as models, we are so much more than just a face to be photographed. I have lots to say and [models are] celebrated for having an opinion.

Today, models can share their personal lives that were for so long pushed to the side. I feel more important than just being the person in the photo. It’s an exciting time to be a model. I’m lucky that a lot of jobs I’ve done recently put out a really great message – whether that be through [sustainable jewellery brand] John Hardy or with Google’s #AskMore campaign, which is one of the first times I was able to be creatively involved.

One of the themes you explore as part of that campaign is the idea of image, and what counts as ‘normal’. How did you learn to feel comfortable in your own skin?

I think about where my life was in 2014, and where it is now – obviously, it’s ten thousand million times better – but I still struggle with self-love and self-care. I work on it daily, through exercise, seeing my therapist and making sure I don’t isolate myself. I’m also very realistic: it doesn’t have to be a great day every day. I was on a shoot the other day with a bunch of girls and none of us was feeling confident, but the first step is talking about it and voicing those concerns. 

Everything is going so well [for me], but there’s a lot of pressure that comes with success. It’s a weird mindf**k being in the public eye and being celebrated for who you are. You see all these other girls who are completely different to you. Should you become like them or stay like yourself? It’s a weird mental dilemma.

When you first started Gurls Talk, did you envisage it might be the multifaceted project it is today?

I had no idea! I’m still shocked when someone tells me they know about it. I had an idea [while living in LA], I told one person and they were like, “You should just do it. You don’t need to be taught how, you have experiences and you have the stories. Share it and see what happens.” I found something in Gurls Talk that I really loved, and that made me happy. I didn’t have a plan, I just knew it was something that got me out of bed in the morning.

What does the idea of a role model mean to you?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. If I’m going to be a role model and start talking about mental health then it has to be a continuous [commitment] that I make every day. I have to live and breathe the posts, the hashtags, the marches. Everything I do in my life should work towards that, it shouldn’t be a contradiction to what I stand for.

Tell us about your wonder women – who has inspired you this year?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Always. She’s a hero. Pink – I’m obsessed with her because she speaks her mind, she uses her platform to spread a bigger and better message, whether that’s through speeches or social media. Rose McGowan for speaking out, I love [actress] Yara Shahidi, Ashley Graham is amazing… they’re my women of the year.

You’re very open about topics such as mental health and addiction, have you always been like that?

No, it was something I learned to do. Now I’m really open – maybe too open – but I never used to know how to talk about anything, or show emotion. I was taught that I had to start trusting people a bit more. I had to stop being a liar and putting up a facade to protect myself, because it was actually really damaging. 

As soon as I learned to do that I started to see the benefits. My life and my relationships with others changed, and I became healthier and more confident. I started to be less insecure about what others thought, because I was being truly authentic.

How did you learn to reframe your way of thinking?

With a lot of great professionals, a lot of therapists, a lot of treatment centres. What was really important – and kind of where I stole the basis of Gurls Talk – was the group conversation I had in treatment. These men and women who were from my age up to 40 would call me out on things and question the way I was living. We all worked together to work on ourselves; it was really those people who got me here from a place of fear and pain. In that room, it didn’t matter where you’d grown up or how posh you were or what school you’d gone to. It didn’t matter about the experience or the circumstances, you were just able to be very open, and you were given a space in which you felt safe enough to share things without any shame or any judgment.

You recently spoke out about having an abortion earlier this year. One in three women will have one in their lifetime, but it’s still a taboo subject. What do you hope to change by being vocal about abortion?

I’m really open, but that was one thing I felt deeply ashamed about, and didn’t tell anyone. I recently started writing again [Aboah has spoken of using writing as therapy in the past], and when I was asked to read at a poetry event in New York I saw it as a great opportunity to share my story through an art form. It was really beneficial for the shame and guilt and sadness I had surrounding it. I felt like I was unloading a burden. Abortion is definitely something I want to continue to work on. I come from a community that would never judge me, so I had to really look at society and where that guilt comes from.

This year we have seen the fashion world embracing feminism. Why now, and what does it mean to you?

It’s happening now because the youth are really taking over, and I think anything to do with the youth sells. If feminism or activism is [adopted] with a great heart, that’s fine. I think that’s what the younger generation want, and if anyone’s going to keep up, they’re going to have to cater to that need for authentic and honest feminism. People can smell phoney from a mile away: no-one has any interest in anything that’s done for the sake of it.

We’ve seen brands get it wrong, where, in trying to embrace diversity, people have felt tokenistic. As an ambassador for diversity in fashion with the British Fashion Council, what do you think we can do to treat everyone as a fully realised person?

Diversity, feminism, everything – it has to be part of the everyday conversation. We have to stick to that idea of having different sorts of women and body shapes and colours and everything in campaigns; I hope it just becomes the norm. 

The world has changed and it’s important to depict beauty in all sorts of different ways. I feel hopeful. A lot of work needs to be done, but there are people at the forefront who aren’t scared of speaking out.

In the fashion industry – as in Hollywood – brave women have been speaking out against sexual harassment. How do we stop this culture happening again?

I keep hearing people say, “This is such a shame” and, “When is this going to stop, so many people are being called out for their bad behaviour.” No, no, no. That is not the attitude I take. I say, the more people who get called out, the better. The more we push out that negative energy, the better. 

We’ve all got to be strong and take a stand. That means really looking into our morals and not the paycheck. We should be doing this for our children’s children, for the girls in schools now who want to be models and actresses. You have to be courageous.

Adwoa Aboah has partnered with Google to create the first film of a series – shot entirely on Pixel 2. See below for the preview.

Image: Rex Features