Adwoa Aboah: “Once I had done the work, I became the work-obsessed, high achiever that I am now.”

The supermodel turned mental-health activist on how conquering our TV screens is her next challenge

By Sirin Kale

21 February 2022

t 29, Adwoa Aboah is one of the most photographed women in the world. Her trademark spirited smile (usually recognisable by a glinting tooth gem) has graced the cover of every major magazine across the globe.

Alongside dominating fashion campaigns and covers, Aboah is the founder of Gurls Talk a nonprofit which aims to destigmatise mental health conversations while fostering a supportive community that gives girls a voice. Aboah has spoken frankly about her own personal recovery journey and her treatment for depression and addiction problems that began as a young girl at boarding school. Today she speaks to Sirin Kale via Zoom from Los Angeles – she resides between London and California – about how she finally showed up for herself and the joy it is bringing…

Sirin Kale: Talk to me about your acting projects, what are you working on? What are you excited about?

Adwoa Aboah: “So I have got a few things coming out that you'll hear about soon enough (editor, Aboah revealed on Monday that she is set to star in the next season of Top Boy), they are secrets, but it's been really exciting. I mean, acting has always been a part of my life. Kind of a first love, just because of school and the way it allowed me to make friends and figure out something that I was good at. Then later on, in university, I did my three-year degree in theatre. Then after that, I suppose it always felt like something else got in the way. Not in a bad sense, I think it's just the way things work. But when I first started acting, I was a very different person. I didn't have the head that I have on my shoulders now. So I was a bit all over the place, I wasn't really taking things that seriously. I had other priorities, which were, you know, the teenage ones: going out, taking drugs. So, those things all got in the way of something that has always been really important to me.

Then later on my modelling career took off. I had a good head on my shoulders, and I had done the work. And I had become the kind of work-obsessed, high achiever that I am now. So acting is something that I've been putting my attention into, and I just knew that I wanted to give it a shot. Now that I've kind of moved away from that irresponsible person, I just wanted to see what it was like. I knew I was obsessed, I knew I needed to do it properly.

Is there anyone in particular that you'd love to work with? An actor or a director or screenwriter?

Who would I love to work with? I'd love to work with Steve McQueen. I'd love to work with Michaela Coel, that would be amazing.

Is being in a big blockbuster movie a goal?

Don't get me wrong, you can't really say until the day you might get an offer like that or you audition for a role like that, but I've never been obsessed with getting a blockbuster to be honest.

What are your thoughts on the current state of representation on our screens, what would you like to see more or less of?

Storytelling has been done in a really nuanced and far more multifaceted way recently which I really love. My family and I are massive TV watchers. There have been some people that have been doing a great job of telling different stories and putting new perspectives to the forefront of people's attention instead of just reusing the same old stories and the same old kind of people.

What would I like to see more of? The bits that I'm watching and seeing myself in for the first time. It is those TV shows that you see, and you're like, ‘Oh, my God I could be in this or I can relate to this’. That's why there's so much beauty in that and in all areas of life, whether it be fashion, or film or TV or whatever it might be, it's that one moment where you're able to see yourself within something and what that does in terms of your confidence and where you see yourself in society. So I just want to see more of the bits that make me feel included, I suppose.

And so obviously, you've been so successful in the fashion world, and you did come from a family that had quite a lot of connections in the fashion world. Do you feel like that helped your career in fashion?

I think that's a good question. It would have been a lot easier if those connections had got me closer to getting the career that I wanted faster. But the fact is, it just didn't. The fact that I knew a lot of people in the fashion industry just really didn't [help]. I think one would think it might have got me in the door quicker than it did. But it doesn't work like that. I suppose getting an agent was, probably… I had an upper hand in that sort of way.

But I modelled for a long time, and I didn't get my big break for quite a while. All the work, all that I've accomplished has always felt like mine. You know, my mother and father are great confidants and I'm able to voice concerns and have those two people who understand the industry so much. So I suppose in that sense as well, the support, and having a family that really understood it and helped me navigate it was obviously so incredibly helpful. But getting the jobs: that was me.

So to move into film, it feels the same, it feels just like another challenge, though, a bigger one. I've been really looking for that next challenge.

Moving on to Gurls Talk – which is so incredible. You obviously have this amazing direct pipeline into so many young women around the world through Gurls Talk. What at the moment, do you think is the biggest issue that's impacting young girls and young women?

The fact of the matter is they're all the same issues that we both probably had. It's very interesting, and I see this a lot because we have this ambassador programme, every month we meet, and we talk over a different subject and it's really interesting, as someone who's a lot older than them, that we are still speaking about the same things. Sex, love, boys, family, body, mental health – it's all the same things that we were probably dealing with as well. They just have an amazing ability to articulate it far, far better than I was able to, their emotional intelligence and their ability to verbalise it in the most amazing way. They're leaps and bounds ahead of the way that I used to speak about it. I didn't even have the language at that time.

We concentrate on mental health first and foremost. So that is the backbone to everything that we do at Gurls Talk, whether in the podcast or – well, we haven't been able to do the workshops or the events but that is something that we talk about a lot.

I think, especially with everything that's happened over the past two years with the pandemic, I don't think we've even seen how detrimental these past few years have been on girls and women's well being and mental health.

How is Gurls Talk evolving, what are your ambitions for it? It's evolving so much. It started as an Instagram account and it's now a fully fledged nonprofit. So that is insane. I love that it has beautifully evolved into a community-led organisation. We did our events and we realised that our outspoken and wonderful community were really leading the conversations in regards to what we were going to talk about as an organisation. So we really just moved with that. And we saw that our events in Ghana and Poland on abortion rights and, and sexual abuse in schools and universities, they were the ones that were like ‘this is what we want to talk about’, and we just facilitated that.

So that's something that will always be the backbone to Gurls Talk and the kind of setup and structure of our events and workshops. In regards to where I want to be? I want to be in school, that's all I want. To be in schools and in the classrooms or after school, in the classrooms. I want to be there for those important years of a girl's life where they need that extra cushion and that extra safety blanket and that safe space. I would love for Gurls Talk to be a part of the academic fold.

I wanted to ask you about self-esteem. How did being in the fashion industry impact your self-esteem? And what tools and do you have to boost your self-esteem when you're feeling low?

It didn't play a very good role in my self-esteem. I had this rose-tinted idea of what modelling was going to be. I thought it was going to make me feel better about myself. If I look back at it, and it's been a long time now, but I'm sure there was a part of me that thought if I get this recognition obviously I’ll just feel better about myself, obviously, I’ll just like myself, because everyone else will think I'm this amazing, stunning human, you know, but it didn't work like that.

And the industry was so different then, it wasn't intersectional like it is today. So I couldn't understand why I didn't feel there was a space for me in the industry at that time. So that was quite hard. There was a lot of rejection. The rejection was obviously not getting the job but there was also a rejection that you couldn’t even speak of. I couldn't even decipher, or deconstruct it, because it was obviously a racial rejection that I didn't even understand myself.

I didn't understand why all my contemporaries, who had started off with at the same time, were doing so incredibly well and being supported. I internalised that. And actually, now being older, I understand it a lot better. It had nothing to do with me as a person but I obviously thought at that time that it did. Yeah, so it didn't have an amazing effect on my confidence. And it did make me insecure, not insecure in the ways that you might think it wasn't necessarily like, I need to be really thin, it was just like, I don't belong. What am I doing here?

How do you build up that self-esteem? How did you get out of that?

I did a lot of work on myself and realised that the validation had to come internally. I had to rep myself, and like myself, and do the work.

I want to be the face for someone like myself. I want to be the face that someone might find in a magazine that I was always looking for. I want to show someone the possibilities and that they are there. But the insecurities are always still there, they're not the same ones, but we're in an industry where we're continuously comparing ourselves to each other, you know, and then also we've got Instagram to add into that whole mess as well.

I think you also have to just be realistic about it. I also was very honest with myself about the fact that it did play a detrimental role on my confidence, and then I learned to deal with that. Now when it does affect me, when my ego gets bruised, I just check myself and I sit with it and then I move on.

I'm honest with myself, about when I'm feeling insecure about something I verbalise a lot more. But I like myself, and I didn't like myself then, so it's a bit different now. I think back then I was really trying to be what I thought everyone thought was attractive, you know? I was trying to evolve in the wrong way, in a way that was not even possible at all. So now I don't do that. I evolved into the person that I am. So that rejection, whatever those insecurities are they just hit differently, they don't hurt like they did when I was trying to be someone else.

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