Certain women don’t even have to speak to communicate with you. You feel their effervescent presence as soon as you enter their space. It’s what differentiates a woman who truly knows herself from others. This compelling, strong energy is what supermodel Adwoa Aboah exudes. We first met at the Sunken Living Room in Spring Studios, home to the biggest fashion shows in New York City—a fitting space for meeting this powerhouse of a model in, to say the least.
The room is decked out with a red carpet and red velvet couches that sink into the floor. The moment I stepped foot into this opulent space, I held my breath for a few seconds. It’s this thing I do when I’m nervous, which only happens when I’m about to meet someone I truly admire. Aboah was standing there in an all-white Armani pantsuit coupled with vintage-inspired rings on every finger and draped in gold necklaces. She greeted me with a big smile, flashing her signature tooth gem. Pure dopeness encapsulated her entire demeanour.
Aboah and I sat down to talk in celebration of her being the face of Sì Passione from Giorgio Armani, a fire-red fragrance she described to me as “feminine and masculine, yet sweet, flowery, and girly. It embodies every part of what it means to be a female, and I love that the campaign is full of strong women.” It sounded like Aboah, a 25-year-old London native, was describing herself. Aboah is more than a model—she’s an activist who uses her work in and outside of the fashion industry as a force for good.
Her stunningly freckled face has graced major campaigns with Revlon, Marc Jacobs Beauty, Versace, Chanel, Miu Miu, and more. And she made waves when Edward Enninful, the first black editor of British Vogue, appointed her as his first Ghanaian cover star. Considering the painful history of the lack of representation in major magazines, seeing Adwoa’s face on this cover was a win for women of colour everywhere.
On top of her monumental work in the fashion industry, she founded her own nonprofit organisation in 2015, Gurls Talk, a safe haven for young girls to discuss topics surrounding mental health, sexual identity, race, and more. After overcoming drug addiction and struggling with depression, Aboah made a decision to foster this community of young women, which she calls her “tribe,” to lean on one another for support.
She’s the epitome of a role model, defying societal standards of beauty and living life on her own terms while helping others along the way. She uses her voice as a vessel to speak her truth, which is raw, genuine, empowering, and unapologetic. Her platform means so much in the rocky racial climate of our society. She’s inspiring everyone to just do what’s right for them, even if others deem it unconventional. This is why my nerves were high seconds before meeting her—my respect for her dedication to authentic representation runs deep.
However, the nerves quickly faded when we eased into our conversation. She shared her honest thoughts on diversity, mental health, self-confidence, and more.
How did Gurls Talk come to be, and what inspired you to create this community to give back?
There definitely wasn’t a space like this when I was growing up. We’re the safe space to talk about more stigmatised, taboo subjects. It’s my baby. When I first decided to talk about everything and my journey with mental health, it was a forever decision I made. It was a responsibility I felt I owed to my community. There’s an unloading of burdens, and I think you find a place in which you’re able to relate to other women who are going through the same thing or maybe have been and really understand.
With that, you feel less alone. I thought I was the only other person who felt sad all the time, and then I met these other girls who feel the same emotions, and who go up and down like me. Our platform and what we’ve created with Gurls Talk is a lovely mixture of seeing the funny sides of certain situations but also taking them seriously. My girls dance, shout, stand on their chairs, and are so supportive to one another and everything I’ve ever done.
Our last Gurls Talk event was completely intersectional, and it really advocated how lovely all the ladies are. When I’m walking around, it happens more and more when women come up to me and tell me how much Gurls Talk means to them. If I’m with friends, they’re like, “You always have the coolest girls coming up to you.” It’s my tribe.
How do you prioritise your mental health?
I definitely have to take a moment for myself every day. I need my own space, and I need to be able to process things. I move really fast and work sometimes probably too much. I think living in Brooklyn and not in the city is really great for me because when I go home, it’s my time. I definitely exercise a lot, but that’s because it sorts my head out. If I have a free day, I’ll be at the gym. Like lots of other people in the world, I suffer from anxiety, and I need to be able to quiet myself and concentrate on something else.
You’ve shared before that growing up in London, you weren’t always comfortable in your skin—you wanted to look like all the other girls around you, who were white with blonde hair and blue eyes. I read that you wore braids and a hat for two years because of these insecurities. How did you get past this?
Growing up and looking back at these moments like wearing a hat for two years and wearing braids because of my hair insecurities, I saw that it was traumatizing when I was younger to have to live that way and be so uncomfortable in my own skin. I don’t know if I really got through it when I was younger until I hit rock bottom. I stopped wearing a hat, but then I started relaxing my hair. My hair was never perfect for me because I wanted it to be what it would never be like.
I wanted a fresh start, which inspired me to cut my hair. I was always doing stuff to fit in until I stopped giving a shit and started doing my own thing. I can’t care too much about what people think because that’s so detrimental to how I live my life. I get stuck when I think about other people’s opinions too much, but it’s amazing not to care. The women I find inspirational are the women who stand in their power and really don’t care about what people think.
You’ve said that seeing yourself in a magazine has never made you feel better about yourself because if you don’t like being in your skin, it doesn’t matter how many times people tell you you’re beautiful. What’s your experience been like with self-love?
I’m definitely proud of myself. But I come from London, where we all don’t talk too much about our accomplishments because we don’t want to be deemed cocky. But moving to America where everyone is more supportive of each other has helped. My self-love comes from other things though. My confidence comes from all the work I throw myself into. I definitely don’t look at a billboard of myself and think: I’ve got it all together, but I’m happy.
Your British Vogue cover was iconic and meant so much to women of colour everywhere. How does it feel to be such a powerful example of representation?
It’s quite scary sometimes. But it’s one of the things I’m most grateful for. However tired I am, it’s the thing that really powers me to keep doing my job, experiencing new things, and saying yes more. I’ve got to do it for my community.
What’s your message to women who are struggling with loving themselves?
You can’t run away from anything. I did that for a long time, and it always just comes and catches up with you. It’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to be up and down. Right now is a time when things seem so stressful and scary, but I can promise them that with hard work, they’ll wake up and feel more confident. They’ll feel more capable of everything that’s coming their way.
You’ve mentioned that there isn’t enough diversity in beauty, and it’s detrimental to self-acceptance. How do you want to use your platform to bring awareness to those issues?
I always have a constant dilemma going on in my head on whether all of this work I’m doing in the fashion industry aligns with all of the work I do outside of the industry. But actually, showing face and being a part of this amazing campaign, that in itself is moving forward. I hope that a girl will look through a magazine and see my face and know it’s possible for them.
You can see changes. Look at that amazing cover Edward did for British Vogue. Iconic. You would’ve never seen that. I never looked through a magazine and saw images like that. If I’d seen that when I was younger in school, I would’ve thought, “I’m beautiful and maybe I can get there one day. I could be on the cover of British Vogue.” All of these amazing things that are happening to me are things I would’ve thought are completely inaccessible.
What are your thoughts on the state of the beauty industry when it comes to diversity and representation?
The youth really needs to be taken into account in these conversations. They’re really paving the way for change. With different positions of power, like Edward becoming the editor in chief of British Vogue and more diverse photographers who are putting their imagery out into the world, change is happening. Even though social media can be poisonous, it plays a massive part in how much power certain people who would’ve never been listened to are now being heard. There’s definitely still lots of work to be done. No one should ever believe that diversity is just a trend; I know that I’m definitely not going to stop talking about it.
What do you do to lift yourself back up when you’re not feeling like your best self?
I’m very honest with my team, and that’s why I’m really lucky to have an understanding and emotionally mature team around me that gets that I like to be present. I like to walk on set and be there, and not just be this walking zombie. I want to be able to talk to everyone from the set designer to the makeup artist and to the photographer. I have to be very honest with myself and know that I’ll feel bad if I can’t put 100% into my job. I’m a high achiever and the biggest critic of myself, so I like to do things as well as I can do it.
What’s your beauty secret? What are your favorite beauty indulgences?
I love a glossy eyelid, a face mask, and lavender oil. I wear face masks all the time. There’s this GlamGlow SuperMud Mask ($86) that I love. It’s one of the face masks I get instant gratification from and see an immediate change in my skin. I also wear a lot of oils, like lavender oil. I always use a mixture of things. I’ll layer on cocoa butter with my oils and then put on my Aesop deodorant ($35), so I always smell like a million different things. I don’t want people to think I’m not eco-friendly, but I’m quite shower-obsessed too. I’ve cut them down to two a day. I used to have loads. My nighttime routine is more elaborate. At night, I always wash, cleanse, moisturise, and put on a bit of tea tree oil if I have an acne spot. ■
Read more about Adwoa’s inspiring journey here.