It is a well-known fact that each career has its own burden; lawyers are said to be shrewd, with negotiable morals; doctors are supposed to have handwriting that no one can read; models are often dismissed as dull, empty vessels living on coffee and vitamins, bothered by little apart from keeping themselves as thin as a rake.
Once in a while, a long-legged beauty struts onto the scene to shatter this stereotype. Iconic models like Iman, Kimora Lee Simmons and Tyra Banks have proven that looks, brains and ambition can combine to create a deadly combination on the path from catwalk to boardroom. This is the path that African supermodel Millen Magese is treading.
Magese is one of the faces of Africa and a fixture in the many fashion shows across the continent. She has worked with every big-time designer in Africa and recently moved to New York, where she is under the management of Ford Models.
I meet Magese at her penthouse in the plush suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg. She is back in Africa on a kind of working holiday, and as she walks me through the house into her home office, she tells me that she is in town for one day only ahead of a tour of Africa.
Magese’s story is one of stark contrast. One thing that fascinated me was the fact that Magese is actually painfully shy, even though she makes her living on a runway, often wearing nothing more than lingerie.
“Growing up, I had a huge problem facing the world. I was so shy and the idea of interacting with strangers frightened me. At some point, I remember getting into the habit of wearing the Muslim burka, covering myself like an Ethiopian woman because I felt protected underneath all that fabric,” says Magese.
“I just felt like I was too tall and awkward and my neck felt like it was too long for my body. It was my father who first introduced the concept of modeling to me. He would say: ‘There’s this model called Iman; she has a long neck just like yours and she is making waves all around the world. At that point, I had planned to study to become a human rights lawyer,” she continues.
Magese’s ambition to become a lawyer faded when her father had his first stroke and could no longer work to support their family, let alone pay law school fees.
“My immediate family consisted of me, my four brothers and sisters and our parents, but at that point, there were 15 other relatives living with us, so we were quite a big extended family. After completing my high school studies, I went straight to work as a cashier and waitress at an upmarket bar and restaurant to help ease the load of supporting the large family.”
Magese earned $25 a month and gave $20 of that to her family.
A few months into her job as a waitress, she found a job as a CEO’s personal secretary and that meant her salary took a leap from $25 to $60 a month.
“Back then, as far as I was concerned, I was working hoping to save enough money to get to university. Unfortunately, my father’s condition deteriorated as he suffered two more strokes, so there was even more pressure to generate more income to cover our ever-mounting bills. So when my family members brought up the discussion of the possibility of me entering the Miss Tanzania beauty pageant, I started to seriously consider it. I finally did enter, and I won the title,” she says.
Winning the Miss Tanzania title in 2001 meant that Magese could now support her family and take herself through university. It also became the beginning of her career in fashion. After her reign as Miss Tanzania ended, she took up an offer to move to South Africa, where she quickly got picked up by modeling agency scouts and bookers.
“My plans of moving to the United States at that point had failed after I was refused a visa. But because I have always considered South Africa to be the ‘New York of Africa’, I took the opportunity as the next best thing for me,” she states.
After finding her home with the agency, Ice Model Management, in Johannesburg, the task of turning her from a beauty pageant queen into a fierce runway model began.
“As soon I got the rhythm of this whole modeling thing, there isn’t a casting that I went to that I didn’t end up being booked for. From runway shows to magazine fashion spreads and television commercials, I have featured in ads for big brands such as Coca Cola, Vodacom, Guinness Milk Stout, JC Le Roux and Edgars, to name just a few,” she says. In the fashion stakes, Magese has become a top model and the face of fashion shows of top designers such as David Tlale, Gavin Rajah, Nigerian top designer Tiffany Amber, Deola Segoe and African Mosaic.
After her work in the modeling world took her to Milan, Paris, Hong Kong, Germany, China, Spain, India and Norway, Magese’s dream of living and working in the United States came true when scouts from Ford Models spotted her on the ramp during New York Fashion Week.
“The scouts came backstage to meet me and told me that even though they were currently not taking on any black models, they believed my look was going to sell. I met with them the following day. And I immediately signed with them,” she says.
It has been over a year since she’s been based in New York, and since then, Magese has bagged quite a number of top modeling jobs, but her biggest coup so far has been the on-going campaign she does for high-end label Ralph Lauren.
“I have just renewed my contract with Ford Models for another year, but I am already making plans to come back home and launch my company, MMG (Millen Magese Group). I am aware that a career in modeling lasts for a short time. The company will basically consist of a modeling agency, and I am also in the process of conceptualizing a continent-wide modeling competition that will be flighted as a reality TV show—very similar to what Tyra Banks is doing with America’s Next Top Model.”
The lady who has raised herself out of poverty in Dar es Salaam has the guts for anything.
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