In the highly anticipated Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue 2016, runs an ad launched by plus-size swimwear retailer – Swimsuits for All – that has already caught mass attention. The #swimsexy campaign features top plus-size model Ashley Graham, 56 year old model Nicola Griffin and British-Ghanaian model Philomena Kwao.The London-born, New York based model born to Ghanaian parents, oozes body confidence, even in a string-bikini. However, that wasn’t always the case. In an interview with Elle Magazine US, she admits that her earlier years were plagued with insecurity. In pursuit of the hegemonic ideals perpetuated by the media, she had even tried bleaching soaps in a bid to resemble the fairer women she saw on the television.
Luckily she learnt how to celebrate her ebony appearance. She explains in an interview with i-D magazine that her confidence and her Lily Project (a mentorship program that looks to positively impact young girls by connecting them to today’s brightest minds) have played a major role in helping other black girls embrace their colour too. “I received a question on my Tumblr about how I’ve learned to love my dark skin. I remember it clearly because the girl in question listed all the bleaching products she had tried and was reaching her wits end with desperation…I told her that she should stop with all the bleaching products, [because] they are dangerous and can cause cancer. I also told her that her skin colour is unique and beautiful and she should look after it. If she was to really look at her complexion, she would see that she was a stunning beauty and that changing her skin tone wouldn’t change her life or opportunities.”Like many black models before her, Kwao is forced to take her own makeup to shoots either because the makeup artists aren’t equipped to deal with her skin tone. However, she doesn’t hold the makeup artists accountable, but rather the makeup schools and beauty brands. In an interview with the Huffington post, she said “We need to take a look at the cosmetic industry and what they’re providing as well, and whether they’re offering enough tools for makeup artists to do their job. The solution is multifactorial. If everybody does their own part in a small way we can work together to find a solution. [Even] the average girl can sit down and message or Tweet them and say: ‘Hey, what about me? Don’t forget me.’” With her modelling stamp firmly in the industry, it’s surprising that she may not have become a model in the first place. Armed with a first honours Bachelor’s degree in Economics and a Masters in International Health Management from Imperial College London in MSc, she was all set to kick-start her health management career. However a friend of hers surreptitiously signed her up for a modelling competition where Models 1 in partnership with Evans and Style 369 were looking for a new plus size model for their Face of Style 369 campaign, which she won. This led her to be signed by Models 1 in London and JAG Models in New York, setting her off on her modeling path. The 26 year old, 5’10” and Britain’s first plus-size model, has been former Miss Ghana UK in 2008, mentioned as most influential and must watch plus-size model by Vogue US, Allure Magazine and Refinery29.com. She’s also had editorial features in Essence Magazine, Vogue US, Elle US and Cosmopolitan UK, as well as being the brand ambassador for Torrid, a plus-size fashion brand, in 2015. She was also part of Beth Ditto’s eponymous clothing line campaign. As much as she’s often lorded for being an influential plus size or curvy model, she doesn’t particularly want the title.
In an interview with Paper magazine she clarified, “I try not to assign labels to myself. I think we attach too much significance on labels and ultimately, it’s all about being healthy and happy.” She also mentioned that such labels persuades the separationist mentality of the fashion industry, “I see no reason why size or colour should be a barrier against a model booking a high level editorial or a big campaign.” More so for women of colour, a demographic she feels is still being left out of the picture. Instead, she prefers to describe herself as ‘Philomena’; because she’s an individual.Where does she get this body confidence from, one wonders. According to the Elle interview, she credits modelling for helping her build her self-confidence. Believe it or not, the industry most associated with body issues, helped Kwao find her individuality and self-love, body positive perception. “With modeling, I’m forced to look in the mirror every day, look at pictures of myself every day, and just be like, ‘Actually, I thought my thighs were horrible but they’re really not that bad!’ … And I think once you get used to looking at yourself you almost overcome the fear that you had over certain parts of your body. Having to expose myself and come out of my shell made me more confident in myself.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t recognise the misconception that ‘thin equals happy and self-appreciation’ that’s perpetuated by the industry. “That’s why I praise the plus-size industry and praise social media like Snapchat, because what it’s doing is allowing people to showcase their unfiltered routines. It’s just a beautiful celebration of individuality. Beauty for me means confidence and complete comfort in yourself, disregarding whatever anyone says to you, or what society says you should be. ..It’s a feeling. It’s a state of mind that exudes radiance and joy from you.”While her career goal at the moment is to land herself a Lancôme beauty campaign and a Vogue cover she still wants to make a difference by advancing healthcare access globally. She’s publicly mentioned that if she wasn’t a model she would have probably worked with international health agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or Doctors Without Borders but she doesn’t regret the decision to go the fashion route. In fact she’s found a way to relate the two worlds, “Fashion and Modelling have a lot to do with people’s self-esteem, and self-esteem is part of mental health, which is a massive part of healthcare in general. I feel very blessed because I’ve been given lots of opportunities, I’ve been given opportunities to speak and address various issues – particularly with maternal health and women’s health – that perhaps I wouldn’t have had if I’d been sitting behind a desk in an office somewhere. But everything works together for the greater good, and I don’t regret anything.”
Model, humanitarian and advocate for body and race issues; Kwao continues to push the inclusivity message as well as the notion that beauty and brains can coexist.