Portraits of Philomena Kwao for I-D magazine

Last week I had the pleasure of working again with the wonderful Philomena Kwao. Here are a few of my portraits of Philomena and the interview she did for I-D magazine:

​10 things you need to know about philomena kwao

This London-born, New-York-based beauty is challenging beauty ideals with her curves and close-cropped hair, appearing in an anti-Protein World campaign and speaking up against racism and for diversity.

Philomena Kwao is proof that beauty and brains aren’t mutually exclusive. After picking her brain on how both the Taj Mahal and Venice are sinking, the history of Easter Island and the Cuban Thaw, we get down to business discussing the state of the modelling industry and how she’s challenging society’s beauty ideals. You see, Philomena may have a face that could launch a thousand ships, but – as is drummed into everyone in the industry time and again – even if you’re beautiful, it’s not easy being a model. Especially if you aren’t a skinny, blonde bombshell. But times are a-changing. With the rise of plus size models Ashley Graham and Myla Dalbesio, social media campaigns like #DropThePlus and our blanket outrage at the “Are you beach body ready?” Protein World ads, alongside the appearance of Lineisy Montero and her natural, black hair on the Prada runway and Jourdan Dunn speaking out against racism in her Vogue cover story, the fashion world is beginning to embrace all shapes and races. 25-year-old Philomena is the beautiful embodiment of everything all those campaigners stand for. Oh, and she’s got a first from Imperial College London in MSc International Health Management. And she’s got her own charity endeavour called The Lily Project, where girls and boys can ask questions online, about issues that are bothering them, and mentors on the other side of the screen will give advice. If that’s not enough, here’s 10 more things you should know about Philomena Kwao…

1. This is what she would be doing if she wasn’t modelling…
“I would be working within the government to improve the NHS or alternatively I would be working for an international health agency such as Doctors without Borders working to improve the quality of health and access to health in developing countries.”

2. If she could change one thing about the fashion industry, this would be it…
“I would change the separationist mentality of the industry, especially at editorial and campaign level. I see no reason why size or colour should be a barrier against a model booking a high level editorial or a big campaign.”

3. Her model role model is also an avid campaigner…
“I absolutely love Liya Kebede. She is a stunning, incredible woman that is using her beauty and her voice to speak up and work towards improving the rights of women and children everywhere, specifically within maternal health which is an area I’m also very passionate about.”

4. She’s got some solid advice for when you’re feeling down about your looks…
“We all have down days, and honestly that is ok. But it’s not ok to not be your own best friend and cheerleader. Whenever anyone says they’re feeling down about their looks I always remind them of the beauty in individuality. There is no one on the planet who looks like you or has your unique features so you celebrate them and don’t put them down. I’m a big advocate of the extraordinary or the different and I believe everyone is inspiring because we are all different. Confidence comes from understanding that you only have one life so make the most of it! You can’t compare yourself to anyone! Be You and Love You.”

5. She believes beauty comes from being comfortable with yourself…
“I feel most beautiful when I’m home in my sweatpants watching cartoons. At times like this I feel like I can be unguarded and uninhibited. That feeling of total comfort within myself makes me feel most beautiful.”

6. One of her most memorable encounters with The Lily Project was when…
“I received a question on my Tumblr about how I’ve learned to love my dark skin. I remember it clearly because the girl in question listed all the bleaching products she had tried and was reaching her wits end with desperation. She wanted to try out an injection or something before she saw my picture and decided to message me. It touched me because I remember not always being so confident in my size or my skin colour. I wanted to be lighter like all the celebrities and beautiful women I knew as I didn’t see one black female celebrity who was dark skinned and beautiful.

I told her that she should stop with all the bleaching products, not only are they expensive, but they are dangerous and can cause cancer. I also told her that her skin colour is unique and beautiful and she should look after it. I love watching how my skin has a rich golden hue to it and hers did too. If she was to really look at her complexion, she would see that she was a stunning beauty and that changing her skin tone wouldn’t change her life or opportunities. I also showed her things that helped me. I watch YouTube a lot and YouTube beauty gurus such as Jennie Jenkins and Chanel Boateng really helped me understand the beauty in my complexion.”

7. The most rebellious thing she’s ever done was…
“Shaving off all my hair! Everyone around me thought I was having a Britney moment.”

8. This is how the casting in a blockbuster of her life would go…
“I’m not sure if there is an actress yet who I think best channels me, I would probably pick an unknown or up and coming actor. My romantic other, Shemar Moore or Lance Gross (in my head lol).”

9. The most mind-bendingly beautiful place she’s ever been to is:
“Sayulita in Mexico. I love learning new things and dwelling into other cultures and Sayulita was so unspoilt and untouched it was magical. I was surrounded by beaches that lined the thick forest and local people and food. Imagine going into a local restaurant and eating fresh fish that was caught a few minutes ago or wandering through the forest with indigenous Mexicans explaining the rich culture of their history… MAGIC!”

10. She has high goals for her modelling career.
“Of course I dream of the ultimate heights of modelling; a Vogue cover, a beauty campaign (Lancome would be a dream), an international mainstream campaign for a store such as H&M, United Colours of Benton or GAP, but it’s bigger than that. Ultimately I would like to use my voice to advance healthcare access around the world.”



Text Felicity Kinsella

Photographer Michelle George

Make up: Vera Antwi Kwarifa

Model Philomena Kwao at Models 1


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Posted: May 18, 2015


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