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Malaika Firth: ‘It’s a frickin’ roller coaster’

Supermodels seem to pop up overnight. Nobody had heard of Cara Delevingne, then there was a puff of smoke and she was as familiar as a road sign. You were walking along, living your life in happy ignorance of Jourdan Dunn, and suddenly the sidebar of shame was inconceivable without her. What happens between those two points can be mysterious to outsiders. Is there some kind of factory where your common-or-garden catwalk strutters turn into Vogue-covering titans? Are they made, or do they make themselves?

Watching Malaika Firth throw rangey shapes in a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I wonder whether I am witnessing part of the transition. In the glare of the lights, camera clicking, she is animated by some fierce and unusual energy, obviously the dominant power in the room. The last shot done, she flips back into her own clothes and strolls over. (Her mufti is a black leather jacket, pink hoodie, grey top, black tracksuit bottoms and high-top Adidas with a kind of rainbow flourish around the sole.) Off-set she shrinks to a more human scale and checks her phone. “I’m off to have an exam,” she calls over her shoulder to the platoon of comb- and lipstick-wielding assistants.

Malaika’s career so far suggests that she is at the pointy end of a rocket to superstardom. Her story sometimes makes it sound like nothing could be easier. In 2011, aged 17, she watched The Model Agency, a documentary about the Premier agency, on Channel 4, and thought it looked like the place for her. She had been interested in modelling for a couple of years beforehand. Her mother, Jecinta, rang up Premier’s founder, Carole White, to arrange a meeting. History doesn’t record whether pound signs actually flashed in White’s eyes when she saw Malaika’s unmistakable feline features and mantis limbs, but she signed her on the spot. Jobs for Asos, Burberry and HM quickly followed, and catwalk work all over the world. In 2013 Malaika became the first black model for nearly 20 years to star in a Prada campaign. The last woman to do that? Naomi Campbell.

“It is a frickin’ roller coaster. I wish I had known how much pressure there would be,” Malaika says. “I’d have been able to prepare myself better. From the outside it all looks so easy, but the days can be frickin’ long, and sometimes you see some girls at the end of the shoot thinking, “Oh my gosh I’m tired.’” But I am learning day by day. There are worse things, man, come on!”

Malaika photographed wearing clothes and shoes by Miu Miu. Photograph: Michael Schwartz/Observer

Although she has no doubt had to “grow up fast”, in the favourite cliché of those industries where youth is strip-mined to oblivion, Malaika is still only 21 (she celebrated her birthday on 23 March), and you can tell. Her speech is enthusiastic almost to the point of naivety; ‘frickin’ her preferred curse-swerve. Most articles about her mention her race high up, partly because it is impossible to allow her hypnotic complexion to pass unremarked.

“People are allowed to talk about my race,” she says. “I like it. I guess I see myself as a kind of junior ambassador – I should pat myself on the head for that,” she jokes. “After that Prada campaign when I was being compared to Naomi Campbell I was so happy. She’s a legend. And if things aren’t changing in fashion, they need to.” The Prada campaign was shot by Steven Meisel, the reclusive photographer who also shot Vogue Italia’s controversial “All Black” special in July 2008. “Obviously, I feel that fashion is totally racist,” he has said. “The one thing that taking pictures allows you to do is occasionally make a larger statement.”

Malaika herself things thinks things are changing, albeit slowly. “I see a lot of new black girls on the runway. When I began there was just Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, but now there are more girls coming up. There should still be more diversity – it’s like, don’t just try, actually frickin’ do it. We all have the same blood.”

We don’t all have the same faces, however, a fact one becomes cruelly aware of in her company. Malaika’s genetic good fortune came courtesy of her father, Eric, of British, Seychellois and Ugandan descent, and her half-Kenyan, half-Swiss mother, Jecinta. Malaika was born in Kenya and lived there until she was seven, when the family moved to Barking, east London. Eric worked as a French polisher at the Four Seasons hotel. When Malaika talks about her family you get a glimpse of her ambition, but also of a rootedness that might save her from her industry’s worst excesses.

Navy gingham dress and trenchcoat both by Bottega Veneta; boots by Jimmy Choo; and socks by Falke. Photograph: Michael Schwartz/Observer

“I don’t come from a posh or high-class background. We lived in flats in the ghetto, our version of the Bronx,” she says, mindful of her American context. “There was some knife crime, some racism. But I was kind of blind to that stuff. I’ve always been friends with white people, black people, whoever. We weren’t poor, but there wasn’t a lot of money. I shared a room with my sister and my auntie. I struggled getting by in school, with £2 for my lunch. When the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) came out I was so excited – £20 a month! I appreciate everything that has happened. For me to have this career is life-changing for my family.”

This, it turns out, is no mere figure of speech. With the spoils of her work so far Malaika has bought a flat in Lower Manhattan, and last year gave Eric the money to build a house for the family in Kenya. “His face just lit up when I told him what I was doing. I paid for the materials and the labour and he designed it himself. The whole family live near to each other. It’s beautiful.

“It felt good because at first he was against me modelling. He’s quite protective and I think he was worried I would end up becoming a prostitute or on drugs. It is so easy for girls to end up like that. But now I’m killing it and he’s just like, ‘Look after yourself.’ He’s so proud of me. But I had to give something back, man; they raised me right.” Although she drinks, and seems to enjoy New York’s clubbing scene, she doesn’t do drugs or smoke, perhaps helped by her Baptist faith. “The world is getting worse and worse and I think the only thing that could keep us together is God. I’m not perfect, but I want to grow in my faith.”

Jacket by Christopher Kane; cropped top by 3.1 Phillip Lim; and micro shorts by Milly. Photograph: Michael Schwartz/Observer

Home is Kenya or New York – maybe Los Angeles, one day. “Everywhere’s home. I’m like a gypsy!” she says. She has not been back to Barking since she “blew up” – the family has all moved to Kenya, so there are no ties to east London left. “I only had one or two friends in sixth form anyway. I was bullied a lot at school. People were like – ‘Tamara, she’s so shy, she’s so boring, I don’t want to talk to her.’ But – ha! – now look where I am. I see people’s comments on Instagram, talking about how well I’m doing. When I think about stuff like that I just think: ‘Thank you, God.’”

Hang on – Tamara? “My real name. When I was starting there was another model called Tamara, from Russia I think. I chose the name Malaika myself. It allows me to have a persona when I’m at work. But when I get home everyone calls me Tamara, or Tammy, and I’m like, ‘Yes, call me that more.’” She has a 23-year-old sister, Mary – “I’m sure she’s jealous,” she jokes – and a brother, Christian, 11. “He so funny – he loves what I’m doing. He has these pictures of me and shows all his friends at school.”

She relaxes by drawing – she has a sketchbook with her – and thinks about acting one day: “To model you have to have more than a look; you have to be able to give a photographer a personality, an idea, which is kind of like acting,” she says. She lives with her boyfriend, Nate, also a model. He met her as Malaika, but he has learnt to call her Tamara.

In 2015, of course, modelling is not just modelling. Social media allows these women to sell a lifestyle, an idealised existence of parties and celebrities that goes far beyond a billboard ad. You need as much personality as pout. Malaika has 110,000 followers on Instagram and 7,000 on Twitter. She posts inspirational quotes about how to live, as well as the more usual fashion shots, and puts up videos and pictures on Snapchat, too.

Blouse by Louis Vuitton. Photograph: Michael Schwartz/Observer

“I like Snapchat because a lot of girls out there are fond of this industry; it’s nice for them to get an insight. I don’t mind because I remember sitting down on YouTube and watching Joan Smalls and Jourdan and thinking: ‘I want to do that.’ But I’d like to get paid for it. Whenever you do a shoot they say: ‘Can you Instagram this handbag?’ or whatever – we should get a pound per post.” She laughs at the idea, inconceivable in an industry where Instagram is no less a requirement than electricity or coconut water.

Still, perhaps she has a point. With online presence, after all, comes the spectre of online abuse. There are no doubt plenty of keyboard lurkers out there who feel that being beautiful, famous and online is an invitation to whatever mud they fancy slinging. But Malaika is sanguine about the trolls. “I haven’t had much of it yet. It may start coming now because I’m getting out there and being seen more. But if it happens I just tell my boyfriend and he’s like, ‘Leave it.’ I think: ‘At least I’m working on something and have a life. You’re just sitting at a computer. Where are you, and where am I?’”

Make-up by Hung Vanngo for CK One Color Cosmetics at The Wall Group, assisted by Yuko. Hair by Danielle Priano at Tim Howard Management using R+Co. Photographer’s assistant Sloan Laurits. Fashion editor Jo Jones. Fashion assistant Hannah Davidson

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