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Beyond The Catwalk

Published 7 years ago
By Forbes Woman Africa

It’s raining heavily the morning Oluchi Orlandi arrives at the Nike Art Gallery in Lagos for the photo session with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. The Nigerian-born supermodel has traveled from New York, where she lives, and the rain-soaked welcome has lifted her spirits.

She steps in and instantly fills the room with raw energy. There is a moment of quiet reservation, the lights and camera go on, and then there is magic.

It is clear Orlandi, 33, has faced the camera for years, she is a natural in front of it. She struts, sways and smiles for the lens, embodying grace, all six feet of her.

She was only 17 when she first came face-to-face with the camera – and became an instant sensation.

This was in 1998, when ‘Oluchi’ became a household name in Nigeria following her win as M-Net’s Face of Africa. The popular show on the South African TV channel brought her success and fame, and a life she never dreamt of.

From the fashion runways of New York to Milan, showcasing lingerie to haute couture, this African beauty has traversed the globe, gracing billboards and the covers of international magazines such as Elle and Italian Vogue. She has been the face of campaigns for Victoria’s Secret and Gianfranco Ferre

More recently, Orlandi has added another feather to her cap. She now owns rights to the reality television show Africa’s Next Top Model, a show she brought to Africa in November 2013. As the African version of the globally-televized America’s Next Top Model show hosted by Tyra Banks, it has successfully completed its first season on the continent. The next season is currently being filmed. Orlandi is Executive Producer, head judge and host of the show.

Supermodel. TV hostess. Businesswoman. She has donned many hats. Orlandi says she has had an entrepreneurial streak from childhood.

Ordinary childhood

Growing up in Lagos with four siblings, raised by her mother, a nurse, and her father, a civil servant, Orlandi recalls being a tomboy who loved to play ping-pong in the street with the boys.

It was an ordinary childhood. “We had a normal routine of home, school and church. I remember being very entrepreneurial at a young age though. I’d generally sell and think of ways to bring additional income home. It was entirely my initiative and I wasn’t pressured into anything by my parents,” says Orlandi.

Continuously seeking new projects to invest in, she bought her first property, as an investment, at the age of 23. She recalls not sleeping for a month, worrying about the mortgage she had to pay off.

When the first season of Africa’s Next Top Model was aired, following young supermodel hopefuls from across the continent, it enjoyed note-worthy ratings, creating an appetite for more in viewers, and quelling Orlandi’s long-felt desire to create a better understanding of the modeling and fashion industry in Africa.

For this, she had to step out of herself, and reexamine the industry she had been a part of for almost a decade-and-a-half.

“I have seen this industry grow and metamorphose over this time. It is progressing at a fast rate but the general public has such a limited view of it. There is minimum insight to the enormity of this industry and its existing opportunities. I had a small team that worked day and night to bring it all together. We had designers, fashion editors, creative directors on the panel. It was a joy to put faces to names people had known and introduce their craft to the continent on a different platform. I wanted to bring all of these elements to television and bring the industry to people’s screens.”

Orlandi’s ambition is two-fold: to create awareness about fashion and also a platform for women. It is to modeling that Orlandi owes everything to. After all, it thrust her into the limelight and opened doors for her.

“I’m forever grateful to a corporate platform like M-Net that provided an opportunity like this to young African women, as I believe the continent doesn’t do enough for our women and their aspirations. Today, I appreciate this platform more than anything. For me and many other young girls that were given that opportunity, it is indelible and has shaped my views differently today. As the years go by, it has become my driving force to make a mark in the industry. All I ask myself these days is: ‘How can I give back?’ I don’t think I’ve done anything at all in comparison to what I should and could be doing and this quest has become my unrelenting drive.”

Though tall and slender, Orlandi never thought she would become a model. As a high school student, she wanted to be a banker, or an air hostess.

“I had a stronger banking aspiration though. I just thought it was glamorous. I loved the professional, powerful look of women in suits.”

But it was a family friend, a fashion designer she had become close to, who influenced her. The friend talked her into taking part in the modeling competition that was to change her life.

“I didn’t know what to expect. She took me to the auditions and my life took a 360-degree turn from there. It was a room of over a thousand girls all gunning for the title of Face of Africa. I was lucky enough to progress from stage to stage, eventually winning the title.”

Orlandi represented West Africa at the finals in Zimbabwe – and when she won, there was disbelief, and tears.

“I remember the night before the final stage, I just couldn’t sleep. I knew I had two other strong competitors. When my name was called, it took me a few minutes to believe it and I just broke down.”

Culture shock

That was the launch of a sterling career but it was no cakewalk. Orlandi’s parents didn’t buy into it instantly as there were reinforced stereotypes about the modeling industry they weren’t comfortable with. They soon warmed up to the idea as time went by. This wasn’t all. It was time to face a world alien to her in many ways. Getting used to it was not easy.

“I suffered a real culture shock when I arrived in New York and was very homesick. I had never lived away from Lagos. I missed everything about home and wanted to be there. I went back home after a few months and was later convinced to return to New York for the sake of my career. Things got better from there and I learnt to make [New York my] home.”

While her career flourished and her calendar brimmed with bookings, Orlandi couldn’t miss the fact that her studies suffered. She had only completed high school when she made the move.

“My life had taken a very fast pace and my education had been affected. One thing I learnt from New York is that you can have anything you want if you work really hard. My education was still important to me and so I enrolled at New York University and started taking weekend classes for an associate degree in business. I later went back for two years to earn another [degree].”

She managed to juggle her studies and career, but starting a family threw a new set of challenges.

“I really struggled. I went through some emotional ups and downs and depression as I had to make a decision between my career and building a family. I was at the top of my career, working on Victoria’s Secret and pregnant with my first son – they had no idea at that point. This posed a threat to my career. I went through it all however and when I had my son, I had to say to myself, ‘you have to keep it going, there are women who have gone before you and have survived the patch’. I adjusted my view.”

Today, Orlandi is married to Italian fashion designer Luca Orlandi and is the proud mother of two children, aged seven and three. To upcoming models, she has a word of advice.

“Take advantage of every single minute. Don’t be culture-blind. Use fashion as your platform to see the world. Have a voice and understand the woman that you are. Don’t be scared to take risks.”

Orlandi is taking new risks now and constantly challenging herself.

“Back then, as a fledgling model, I was just focused on myself. It was all about me. Now, I am my biggest critic. I punch myself everyday saying ‘there must be more you can do Oluchi’,” she says.

Orlandi is very optimistic about the future of African fashion.

“I talk a lot about South Africa as they have been more structured and highly consistent in their approach than any other country on the continent, using magazines and varying portals to showcase the strength and magnitude of this industry.”

In 2007, Oluchi partnered with the Shine Group to launch O Model Africa, a South Africa-based modeling agency dedicated to selecting and developing African models.

Yet, she feels more needs to be done.

“We need to praise ourselves more. Nobody will do it for you. We should stop idolizing the West so much and start celebrating and marketing ourselves better. I am an African woman and I know beyond doubt that the only way to build a better Africa is to embody, think and celebrate our own grand feats.”

And to achieve her goals, Orlandi has a simple philosophy, which she reveals before wrapping up for the day: “If you’re good to life, it’ll be good to you.”

Oluchi Unplugged

Jan Malan

“The first time I laid eyes on Oluchi back in 1997, I knew she would become a star. Oluchi is an incredible businesswoman; she instinctively crafted and honed her career without losing herself in the glamor of it all. Oluchi has become a dear friend and compatriot and she is the one who guided me on the pitfalls of doing business in New York City,” says Jan Malan, Head of Production at Umzingeli Productions, one of Africa’s leading show producers.

Duro Olowu

“Oluchi is great to work with. Super smart and funny too. Her beauty is effortless and so she has a fantastic way of giving her best without it looking forced. And she understands the camera and clothes too, you can’t get better than that,” says Nigerian-born London-based designer Duro Olowu, who has worked with her.

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Related Topics: #Art Gallery, #Camera, #Lagos, #Lights, #Model, #October 2014, #Oluchi Orlandi, #Phootoshoot.