In Remotest Kenya, a Supermodel Is Hard to Find
April 22, 2003
By MARC LACEY
To all the curators in the world / Our duty!
BURA, Kenya – Lyndsey McIntyre, a scout for Elite Model Management, had visions of the supermodels Iman and Alek Wek in her head when she arrived in this remote village near the Somalia border, where she had heard the girls were tall, slim and striking. A new African supermodel was what she was after, someone with a breathtaking new look. The recruit had to be at least 5 feet 9 inches tall. A slinky figure was required, as were straight white teeth.
“If I’m going to pull someone out of the bush, she has to be the type who when she walks into a room people’s jaws hit the floor,” said Ms. McIntryre, a 37-year-old British blonde who has spent most of her life in Kenya.
For a local girl from Bura, deep in the bush, it would be the opportunity of a lifetime, she figured. But just try explaining that to the Orma people who live here. Predominantly Muslim, the Orma live in an isolated area in thatch-roof huts. They herd cows and camels in temperatures that soar well above 100 degrees. The very idea of “model” is little known here. Orma girls grow up wearing flip-flops, not heels. Their fashion is the same every season: colorful robes that billow with the breeze and shield virtually every bit of flesh. They are camera shy, too. Some believe that photographs steal their souls or take years off their lives. Pull out a camera in Bura and virtually everybody scurries for cover. But for Ms. McIntyre, a former model herself who just opened the Elite office in Nairobi, those obstacles were the least of it. She discovered that it was a long way from Bura to the nearest fashion runway. As it is, Africans make up a tiny percentage of the models who strut the latest Western fashions or gaze out from the pages of magazines. Only a select and stunning few have achieved international status. Iman, a Somali, was spotted by a fashion photographer as she walked across the University of Nairobi campus. Alek Wek, a towering Dinka from southern Sudan, was seen by a modeling agent at a street fair in London, where her family had sought refuge from the war back home. There are other stories of African models being discovered randomly in markets, on beaches, just living their everyday lives.
Ms. McIntyre was eager to increase her chances. So when she got a tip about a particular place full of beauties, she was willing to hop in her Subaru and go there on a scouting trip, even if that place happened to be Bura, a small village in one of the most unsafe areas of Kenya. Her hunt began well enough. The Orma trace their heritage to Ethiopia, and even anthropologists who have studied them remark that they are a physically striking people. Ms. McIntyre was duly impressed.
“They have the most amazing bone structure,” Ms. McIntyre remarked upon rolling into the village.
Before she knew it she was surrounded by elders, and she tried to explain in rough Swahili what had brought her here. She asked the men if they had ever seen Coca-Cola advertisements, which seemed to bring some recognition. The pretty girl holding the Coke – that was the person she was looking for. Ms. McIntyre avoided using the term model at all, for fear that the men might think she meant prostitute. But she played up the great wealth that such a girl could bring back to her village.
She said she wanted very tall girls, very slim girls, very pretty ones. The village elders nodded enthusiastically, seeming to understand. She returned the following day, eager to survey the prospects. But instead she was met by more elders. They wanted to hear more about her search. Again, she explained. Eventually, to Ms. McIntyre’s delight, someone gave a nod, and a group of young girls, covered from head to toe, came striding through the bush to a clearing. Ms. McIntyre lined them up and looked them over. The lone contender was tall and striking, Ms. McIntyre found, but had a lazy eye. When Ms. McIntyre raised her camera to document the girls, one of the elders quickly intervened and asked for a payment. There appeared to be some confusion as to whether she was producing a Coca-Cola advertisement right on the spot. Ms. McIntyre refused to hand over the $50 fee and moved on to investigate her next tip.
The headmaster of the local high school had told her that he had one girl who might meet her requirements. After some detective work, Ms. McIntyre found the family of a man named Ibrahim and made her pitch, concerning his daughter, to Ibrahim’s wife and a family friend. Nearby a young girl looked on shyly. Ms. McIntyre found her tall but far too plump for the runway. So she pressed the women for other recruits. The women were concerned, however, that a local girl might be made to advertise alcohol or cigarettes. “Our religion doesn’t allow that,” the wife said. Ms. McIntyre assured her that would not happen. Still, the family friend was not convinced. “We’d lose our culture if we did this,” she said, turning her back and walking away with the others.
“I think this is going to be an uphill battle,” Ms. McIntyre said.
Religious concerns aside, there are still other obstacles that make it tough for Orma girls to leave the village for the limelight. The girls here become women far earlier than elsewhere in the world. They are married as young as 14 or 15, and they begin having children right away. Even as young as 12, Orma girls can be reserved for a future husband, as long as he gives her parents some cows. The girls are expected to milk the animals and then go to the town center around sunrise to sell the milk in plastic jugs. They are responsible for raising the children, fetching water and preparing meals, not to mention building the homestead. Eager to provide a more glamorous option, Ms. McIntyre carried along a dog-eared fashion magazine, Femina, from South Africa, to show a group of mothers in one village how glamorous their daughters’ lives could become. She laid it on the ground and flipped the pages. Cindy Crawford was on the cover. There was a feature on Hollywood’s toughest divorce lawyers. Another article was about kissing. “Pucker up with a little gloss or seal your lips with rich velvety color in this winter’s plum shades,” it said.
The women stared at the pages but failed to produce even one of their daughters, all hidden away. With no prospect in sight, Ms. McIntyre remembered something a friend had told her: in the local culture, parents with twins sometimes shun one of the children because of their superstitious ways.
“If only we could find a twin,” she said.