Afiya Bennett is on a defining mission to exceed the notion that models are simply a pretty face in front of a camera. Since jumpstarting her career on Oxygen's The Face, she has appeared in worldwide campaigns from Nike to Fenty. But the hustle and glamour that comes with building a lasting fashion career is merely a side attraction on her journey to fulfilling her ultimate goal: representing female empowerment through her luxury fashion brand, The Afiya Collection.
I had the pleasure to meet Afiya and speak to her about the day in the life of a professional model, the debuting of her hat line The Afiya Collection, and what it means to use her ever-growing platform to shed a positive light on female empowerment in today's age.
Check out the exclusive interview below.
- 21Ninety: Has modeling always been your desired career path?
Afiya Bennett: Believe it or not, modeling was not. I grew up as a dancer and playing sports — volleyball captain to be exact! I also have always had this love and passion for animals, so somehow someway I thought I was going to be a veterinarian. But modeling came about when an elderly couple from my church mailed me an ad for a local modeling school. And at that moment, the idea of actually becoming seemed like something I can pursue. So I went, my parents took me — my dad said, "I'm going to pay for it" — and I went. For me, I think going to modeling school gave me the courage and the confidence to say, "Wow! You can you use differences in being taller than everyone to be great and to succeed."
- 21N: Reminiscing back to your time on [Oxygen's] The Face, can you recall a teaching moment with Naomi Campbell that still resonates with you today?
AB: Being on The Face was probably one of the most important times in my life. I was 18, I was raw, and it showed me how far ambition and being persistent can take you. And I still carry those tools with me today. For me, I remember being on the show and there was a running challenge and — like most tall people, whether we're knock-knee or we have scoliosis or we're just bow-legged — I don't run straight. So [laughs] my legs kind of caved in as I run and Naomi's like, "That's not it! That's not how you run. That doesn't look good." And I was frustrated and so flustered because she's telling me to fix my run. I'm like, "Well, I can't change the way I run — this is the way I run [laughs] — how do you change the way you run?" So she pulled me aside and said, "There will be times that you will be on set with a photographer, and a photographer will tell you 'That's not it'. He might not say 'Change to this,' but he'll say that what you're doing is not it. And you'll just have to change." So, what that means is sometimes Plan A is not always it. Plan A might not always work. And you have to be ready with Plan B and Plan C. What's the next the move? For me, I've been able to take that [advice] and apply it, whether it be on set as a model or whether it be with my business, and always saying to myself "Okay, modeling is Plan A. Hosting and being a presenter and personality is Plan B. Having my own business is part of Part A and Plan B." So just always being prepared for the what's next.
21N: Exactly. And I guess also being coachable is a great learning tool, like when a photographer directs you to do it this way or that way.
AB: One hundred percent! And not taking it so personally. Also just not getting so flustered on set because you can get frustrated and ask yourself, "What's wrong with what I'm doing?" And in actuality, you want to look at the picture. If you switched it up like this, [your work] would come off so much better. And by not taking it personally, but saying, "Okay, just change." Ask yourself: what else can I bring in front of the camera?
- 21N: So you mentioned your modeling career and your business brand, can you describe a typically busy day in the life of Afiya Bennett?
AB: The typical day for me is crazy, I swear it's constantly changing. A lot of times I'm in control of where I'm shooting. For instance, I might be shooting for Nike in Portland or in LA or in Chicago, or even in New York. Those times I fly back to New York, my team then may tell me that I have a red carpet appearance at this certain time. Or I might be shooting in New York and may after to leave immediately after shooting to attend a red carpet event. When that's not happening, I try to participate in charities. When that's not happening, a lot of time I'm coming home and working on my business. I made a commitment to myself: if I had one extra, what would I do with it? And I would invest it in myself and in my business. As a model, we spend our entire lives building other people's brands. But at what moment do you take your time and invest it in yourself, in your brand, and in your career? When do start to see the value in that? So for me, whether it's building my brand at an event or whether it's building my brand with my company or just... work! [laughs] Being a model, the life of Afiya consists of a combination of both — investing my time in others and investing that same time back into myself.
- 21N: What drew you to Wilhelmina?
AB: Wilhelmina has been ahead of the curve way before any other agency. The had the first curve division, the first fitness division, they represented Naomi Sims who was the first Black model on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal in 1968 and the cover of LIFE magazine in 1969. Wilhelmina has an amazing reputation. They also represent Nicki Minaj, they represent Shawn Mendes. So I think that, for me, at this point in my career I'm more focused on building my brand. And Wilhelmina not only supports me and these endeavors, but they add to it. I'm very adamant about being more than just a model and want to bring more to the table. It's amazing that I have my own business and that I participate in charities, and Wilhelmina is very supportive in the way they help me grow in all those areas. You have to be built for that. You have to say, "I want to be this brand". And for me, who they are as a company is aligned with the woman that I see myself growing into and the woman that I am today.
21N: That's so important, especially since modeling is not going to last forever, I think that's amazing that they benefit in helping you expand in all these different industries.
AB: One hundred percent! And they've shown that they can do it. There are a lot of agencies that say "Oh, we can do that for you," but who have you done that for is the question.
21N: How do you define female empowerment?
- AB: Female empowerment means taking the limits off — taking the barriers off for women. It also means encouraging the next woman and uplifting her. For as long as I can remember I've been told "no." For as long as I can remember society puts restrictions on what we can do or they have a way of telling us who we are. As women, we have to be very clear on the woman we want to be. We cannot be afraid to be that person. So yes, you're a mom. Yes, you're a business owner. Yes, you're an educator. You are all these amazing aspects of a woman, you cannot be afraid to be that. Also, it's about supporting women. Supporting that woman and her endeavors, giving that back and passing that forward.
21N: I agree. It's exciting to be a woman right now with the #MeToo movement gaining more and more traction. I imagine this is was what it was like in the '70s when the women's empowerment movement first entered the mainstream.
AB: That's I'm saying! Especially now, whether it's Michelle Obama releasing her new book or whether it's Oprah and how she has been the forefront of women for as long as I can remember. So I think the time to be a woman, and more importantly, opening doors for other women is definitely now.
- 21N: Speaking of opening doors, you mentioned that you volunteer your time to various charities, is that why you are so involved with the Make A Wish Foundation?
AB: So a year ago I sat down with my team, and they asked me what was important to the Afiya brand. And for me, it was great because I have this platform as model, I have this platform on social media, I've been on television, but what does that mean if I'm not using my platform to spread positivity? There are so many people that have platforms but aren't doing anything with it or doing anything to pass [positivity] forward. So my team presented different charities and asked which charity do I see myself working with. And I saw myself aligning best with Make A Wish. Make A Wish grant wishes to terminally-ill children. But that does not always mean that the child is dying, it just means they are very ill. That is the biggest misconception about Make A Wish. I had always been involved in a lot of charities — my Mom is an AKA — and one of the biggest principles of AKA's is doing community service. So helping those less fortunate has always been a principle that was instilled in me. Make A Wish, in particular, is very personal to me because I lost a sister. My older sister passed from a terminal illness, and her death has always been a touchy topic no one ever talked about. For me, joining Make A Wish as an ambassador was a chance to address my sister's death in a positive way. I underwent their training, doesn't matter if you're a model or not, they make you go through the formal training. Then the opportunity came up for me to host their gala this past summer, and it was amazing!
- 21N: Where did the inspiration to design military-styled caps for The Afiya Collection stem from?
AB: Sometimes some of the most innovative ideas come when you're least expecting it. I took a business trip to London, and I saw these hats that I thought they were amazing. And though they are not a popular hat in the states, but I loved them! I came up with the idea to make the style my own and align myself with these hats. I think it's very important to not only be in fashion but to also have an eye for fashion. And so that's exactly what I did. I told my Mom — you know you have to run everything by your Mom [laughs] — she thought it was great. I told my financé, and he thought it was great. There's always that "what if" when you're diving into becoming an entrepreneur. But my financé mentioned if I don't do this, then someone else will. So he kind of gave me that push to say, "Do it!". When we were about to launch, he said, "Just launch! Just start! You can do it! And we will learn along the way." But you have to start — you have to overcome that fear of just starting. It's about not being afraid to be apart of the learning curve. So what started as a trip to London turned into a business idea. Turned into my baby. My business is my baby.
- 21N: Do you see yourself designing garments for The Afiya Collection in the future?
AB: We've been going back-and-forth with that this. I'm not opposed it, but I do think that it's important — there's a saying: You don't want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none — so I think that it's important that I master this and finish this collection by adding baseball caps and possibly fedoras. I'm not opposed to clothes, I just need to get this off the ground first.
21N: Baby steps.
AB: Baby steps! But we're on the horizon, [adding clothes] has definitely been a part of the conversation. But I have to see it, the same way I saw the idea to start designing my hats.
- 21N: You mentioned your fiancé, Lloyd Dickenson. At times I would imagine it may seem like you both are in a long-distance relationship, given both of your modeling careers, how do you and Lloyd manage to overcome missing each other and keeping the love at a high frequency?
AB: Believe it or not, Llyod is more than just my fiancé. He's also my manager. So that's a nice piece of the pie. In this industry, I've found very few people who are as passionate and as committed to my career as I am. And I definitely think he is. And that's one of the reasons that I love him because a lot of the times we feel, as women, to choose between one or the other. Sometimes we may feel like that we lose ourselves in a relationship, and I don't feel that way with him. He encourages the woman that I see myself becoming and the process it takes to get there.
21N: Do you have any advice for Black girls or women striving to break into the fashion industry (whether it be through the doors of modeling or through fashion designing).
AB: My greatest piece of advice would be to not give up. For me [throughout my life and career], the no's have fueled the yes's. I was told "no" so many times, but you cannot be afraid to have a vision for yourself. Just because someone else doesn't see that same vision of you, doesn't mean that it's not going to happen. When I first started modeling, the representation of Black models in the industry claimed that there was no room for me. Imagine, this 15-year-old little girl with a dream, and someone says, "Oh honey, there's no room for you." Well, what do you mean there's no room for me? I refused that. You have to be persistent and not allow a few "no's" be the reason your dream goes unfilled.
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