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Model and activist Naomi Shimada tells us why dancing is an act of radicalism

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Stylist Team
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Model Naomi Shimada on Notting Hill Carnival, dancing and body confidence

The model and activist chats to Stylist about the joy of getting down and why dancing is so much more than getting sweaty.

You can’t pigeonhole Naomi Shimada. You’re probably already acquainted with the 30-year-old, even if you don’t know it. You might have walked past her beaming face on a poster, for one of her many campaigns for Nike or Monki. Maybe she caught your attention twirling Elizabeth Olsen in H&M’s viral Spring/Summer campaign video earlier this year. 

Or perhaps your introduction was via one of her many Instagram videos that show Shimada joyfully twisting her body around at dance classes – posts which partly led to her placing in the H&M ad and have earned her legions of fans on social media. It’s the dancing that’s also snagged Shimada a place in this year’s Notting Hill Carnival parade, showing off her moves on the joint Red Bull/Mangrove float that marks Mangrove’s 40th anniversary at the annual celebration of all things Caribbean.

Shimada has modelled for ten years, but it was only in the last six that her work has been concentrated in the sphere categorized as ‘plus-size’ – which means anything over a size 12 (the UK average dress size is a 14). Half Japanese, half Dutch-Canadian and with stints living in Tokyo, Spain and New York, Shimada’s global perspective and demand for real diversity within the fashion industry has had a huge hand in making her one of the most recognisable models around right now.

But it’s the sheer joie de vivre with which she approaches her work and play that seems to have most struck a chord with people. Stylist sat down with the model to discuss confidence, choreography and why you should always pack wet wipes for Carnival…

Your dancing videos are hugely popular. When did you start doing it?

Two years ago this October. I was feeling unfit and knew I had do something – not just for my body but for my mind. I also knew I hated the gym. You can never commit to something if you don’t enjoy it so [there] was no point getting a gym membership. [Dancing] is like going to the club. It makes me feel good.

Your dancing has appeared in H&M campaigns and now you’re going on a float at Notting Hill Carnival. Has making those videos helped your career?

Yes, even though I never started posting videos because I thought it would be good for my career. I thought it was important to document a journey. Dancing has changed my life. It clears my head, my body is physically strong and it gives me a routine. I still don’t get choreography most of the time but I think people connected to my videos because there’s something about watching someone that isn’t perfect at something but they’re trying. 

Would you ever want to lead a dance class help women boost their confidence?

I don’t think I should be the one to lead it to be honest; I’m not a professional. I know a lot of people who can give women that experience but not necessarily me. I’m definitely open to speaking about it though and [helping] people find their own paths. 

You’ve got a platform now as a model. What do you want to do with it?

I think it’s important to normalise all body shapes in every space and not make it a thing. [The modelling] industry right now likes ticking off boxes; I’m sure you see it as much as I do. I tick the mixed race box, the bigger than a size four box, I’m loud, interesting, I dance – there’s so many different boxes I tick. But if you want to put me there, I will do something good with it. That’s one of the things I love about Carnival – there is nothing better for making other women feel comfortable than seeing what real bodies look like.

Carnival’s also a real opportunity for different communities to come together.

This is just as much a part of London as f**king Big Ben. It’s so easy to be unaware that all these communities exist in London when people are following a capitalist way of life and the idea of self all the time. Post-Grenfell I think it’s even more important important to be caring of the communities we live in and be with other people. Dance is so much more than exercise, it’s a formative way of bringing people together, creating community, creating friendship, creating an understanding of each. It’s so anti-establishment actually; it’s an act of radicalism. 

What does dancing on a float mean to you?

It’s my actual dream. It came true. If someone offered me the choice of a magazine cover or to be in Carnival, I would pick Carnival. 

What days do you go to Carnival? 

I usually start on the Saturday night. I go to Panorama [the annual steel band competition]. It’s the kick off to Carnival and it’s a really chill start. Monday gets very intense now although it’s really nice just before everyone gets wasted. On Sundays I always go down early to get breakfast but as the day goes on, the food gets s**t. I have my full bum bag kit with me: wipes, anti-bacteria gel, portable charger, toilet roll, face mist. Then I find a good spot to sit and watch the parades. It’s so great.

What tips would you give to women going to Carnival this weekend who need a shot of confidence?

Find a fun look that works for you. Research the music, don’t miss the parades and stick with your friends. 

Catch the Red Bull Music x Mangrove Float at Notting Hill Carnival on 27 August 

Interview by Billie Bhatia, Words by Moya Lothian-McLean 

Images: Getty