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Modeling wasn’t the dream for Mayowa Nicholas.“I wanted to be an accountant,” she says. It took a trip to the hair salon when she was 15, living in Lagos, Nigeria, to change all that. As she was walking toward the salon, scouts for the Elite Model Look competition approached her. “I remember holding the flyer, like, ‘Okay,’ ” she recalls. A year later, she went on to win Nigeria’s edition of the competition and place in the top 15 in the world final.
Through all the shows and campaigns that followed, Nicholas’s mother has been her constant champion. She reminds her, “Mase gbagbe ibiti o ti nbo.” (“Don’t forget where you’re coming from; don’t forget where you’re going.”) When Nicholas was six, her father died. “We were living in one room—the bathroom, kitchen, all in one room,” she recalls. With “no family support,” her mother “still made sure that we went to school and there was food on the table.” That determination was what she later tapped into as a self-described “tiny girl from Nigeria trying to break into the industry.”
Navigating that world hasn’t been without its setbacks. After the Elite competition, she headed to Paris for the couture shows. She had short hair, and bookers would tell her, “We want girls with extensions,” or they’d say that her hair just wasn’t the right texture. “At that time,” she says, “a lot of Black girls were doing weaves, and I would get canceled for shows because my hair couldn’t do it.” Nicholas came to understand that “this industry is trying to change you and change how you look,” but she knew she would prevail. Mase gbagbe ibiti o ti nbo.
In 2018, that resilience paid off when she was tapped for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. “When I was about to go onstage, I actually cried,” she says, but “when I got on that runway, I remembered who I am. It all just came back, like, ‘Okay, I was meant to be here.’ ” Nicholas has also served as a face of Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana and is the first female Nigerian model to appear in a Calvin Klein campaign. “This is why I do what I do, for other Nigerian talent to know that their dreams are possible,” she says. “African models need to be on more covers. We need to be on billboards. We need to be celebrated for our uniqueness, not just to be token ‘diversity.’ ”
Nicholas’s mother has remained by her side, at times leaving behind commitments in Nigeria to travel with her daughter. “She is the only validation that I need,” says Nicholas, teary-eyed. “When my mom says, ‘You’re doing a good job, go get them,’ that’s all I need.”
Last year, when protests broke out over police brutality across America and in Nigeria, with young people taking to the streets in the two countries where Nicholas, who’d relocated to Brooklyn, had planted her feet, she watched, full of anxiety. “I locked myself in [my] room because I was angry,” she recalls. But “one thing that I’m very grateful for is, I’m in a generation that won’t take no for an answer.” With so many young people putting their lives on the line fighting for their future, some dying at the hands of police, she wants to close what she believes is an awareness gap. In her home country, seeking mental health care is “always looked down upon,” a feeling she knows all too well. “I didn’t have enough emotional support when I lost my dad,” she remembers. “Even now, I’m still reeling from it.” She hopes to change that by establishing a youth organization that would cater to those needs.
Nicholas finds comfort in cooking jollof rice and moi moi (bean pudding) with her mother or curling up on her couch “binge-watching something.” She also loves Nigerian bangers, from Burna Boy’s “Kilometre” to “Vibration” by Fireboy DML. “I always play all my Nigerian songs on set,” Nicholas says. “Everybody knows: ‘Mayowa’s a DJ!’ ” (On her ELLE shoot, she blasted her go-to: Spotify’s Nigeria Top 50 playlist.) She is, she says, “embracing everything I am: I am a Nigerian woman. I am a Yoruba woman. I’m not trying to hide it. I want you to see it.”
This article appears in the September 2021 issue of ELLE.
HAIR BY HOS HOUNKPATIN FOR ORIBE; MAKEUP BY FULVIA FAROLFI FOR CHANEL BEAUTY; MANICURE BY MAKI SAKAMOTO FOR CHANEL; MODEL: MAYOWA NICHOLAS AT THE SOCIETY; PRODUCED BY PHILIPPA SERLIN AT SERLIN AND ASSOCIATES; PHOTOGRAPHED ON LOCATION AT THE TWA HOTEL AT JFK AIRPORT, NEW YORK CITY