Meet Jessi M’Bengue- African Supermodel and artist
African super models
The modelling industry is a fierce field. It’s filled with so much talent, beauty and grace but very few make it to the top. When you’re of African origin, chances of you gracing the mountain top are even more minimal. The industry is known for being super harsh on models with African origin. In fact, if I asked you to name African super models that you know about, I’m not sure you would count past the fingers on your left hand!
Born in south of France, from an Ivorian-Senegalese father and an Algerian mother, Jessi M’bengue is a successful super model who has risen through the ranks and into the sacred circle of in-demand international super models. She is the African beauty in the 2013 mega hit song: Blurred lines with Robin Thicke, T.I and Pharrell Williams. Jesse grew up in France but moved to Toronto Canada to pursue her education where she also started her modelling career.
With a journey filled with obstacles, road blocks, up and downs; Jessi managed to change her life with hard-work, creativity and an intuition that never wavers. She’s a woman on a mission, she’s dedicated to her craft and she’s living the life of her dreams. Those who know her most remark that “the first thing you notice when you first meet Jessi is how energetic and honest her personality is, she walks around with a “joie de vivre” and a vivid sense of humour”. Now based in New York and LA, Jessi recently sat down and shared her story with TAP ; the road she’s taken to become the model and person she is today. Enjoy
TAP: How did you get into modelling? How did you first get scouted?
Jessi M’Bengue: After completing high school in France, I decided to move to Canada and pursue my education. It was far but I needed a change, so I moved to Toronto, ON in 2003. I chose Toronto because I wanted to learn English and what better way to learn than complete immersion into a foreign language. With the help of my parents, I paid a year up front for a studio apartment in Toronto which, 3 days later, went up to flames with all my stuff I brought from France. I was faced with 2 decisions; either go back to France and rebuild, or stay in Canada with no physical memories of my former life. I decided to stay and my life changed. As I was pursuing school, I met the most important person that shaped my professional life to this day; Chantale Nadeau. She became my manager and my personal mentor. Being the half shaved, red headed tomboy that I was, Chantal saw something in me that I couldn’t have seen for myself. She believed in me, groomed me and helped me become the model and woman I am today.
TAP: What do you like most about modelling?
Jessi M’Bengue: The freedom to be creative, the freedom to be whoever the client needs me to be for that one day. It really is fun if you have a strong imagination like I do, and you can embody a different personality depending on the request, and I love that about modelling.
TAP: What has been the weirdest story from your modelling journey so far?
Jessi M’Bengue: There are plenty (laughs). One day I got picked up by a taxi which was not a real taxi, turned out to be a random psycho guy trying to fake being a taxi-driver to pick up models. He was actually very dangerous! I had to fight my way out of the car; thankfully I got out and was able to file a report to the police. I was traumatized, I could not enter a black car for the longest time.
TAP: Being one of the models in last summer’s big hit: “Blurred lines” with Robin Thicke, TI and Pharrell Williams, how was that experience?
Jessi M’Bengue: The experience was lovely. It really started as just a job for us the models. We didn’t necessarily think it was going to be that massive. I mean we knew the artists were big names in the industry but we didn’t really know the impact, and that it was going to be that well received. Of course there is also people that didn’t receive it that well; we didn’t think it was going to be such a controversial video. But you know it was a job, an assignment so you just do it the best that you can. The artists were very professional and everybody else on set. When we had the topless scenes, it was just the people involved that were present on set, everybody else was off set, so it was a great experience overall.
TAP: Are there any tips/secrets you received and that made an impression on what you needed to do to become successful in the field?
Jessi M’Bengue: There are none. Those clients see beautiful girls all the time, I think what makes the difference between one beautiful girl to another is the fact that you are YOURSELF and if you do OWN yourself. I mean you just have to be comfortable with your body, your story and with who YOU ARE. You don’t really have to kill yourself to fit into some standard. There are certain standards for modeling for sure, but a beautiful girl who is comfortable in her skin will find her way in whichever way it’s supposed to be for her. If you’re a little curvier and you kill yourself being super skinny just because you want to fit into certain clothes, I don’t think that's the answer. You have to be comfortable with whom you are, comfortable with your story and your path and then you will shine and get what you’re supposed to get in modeling.
TAP: A few weeks ago, after New York Fashion Week, Fashion activist Bethann Hardison launched a campaign to end “racism” on the runway. In an open letter to the governing fashion bodies, she publicly called out a number of designers who featured zero or one model of color on the runway. Models like Naomi Campbell and Iman alongside Ms Hardison went on a TV talk to discuss how troubling the lack of runway diversity is. What are your thoughts on that as a woman/model of color?
Jessi M’Bengue: It’s true it’s not easy as a woman of color. It’s there but I don’t necessarily want to continue feeding those talks. I’m an African woman, that’s who I am. I’m also an individual; I’m a person before I am a woman of color or model of color. Diversity doesn’t really exist but not just in modeling, in everything in general. Model is just one aspect. Those talks will never finish, because I don’t think as people of color or of ethnic background, we are well represented in anything; so rather than talk about it, I rather work hard so I can change something. Unfortunately, me by myself I can’t change much, so hopefully many of us will stop talking about it and instead thrive to make a change and make the difference.
TAP: Your also a musician, a songwriter and poet. How is that working for you?
Jessi M’Bengue: I’ve been writing poetry since I was 10 years old. Basically I realized early in life, that writing is the key for me to be able to go through my life and remain sane through the ups and downs. I document my life through my writings. It became songs recently when I mastered the universal language, which is English. It’s mostly a way of self-expression more than anything else. I’ve been told a few times, that I should share it to the public, I’m working on finding the perfect way to share it with others because so far it’s a meant to accompany me throughout my endeavors, like a prayer pocket. I’m working on a way of sharing it with the world, then, hopefully people will understand a little more of me.
TAP: How often do you go back to Africa?
Jessi M’Bengue: From when I was 10, I used to go back once a year. Then I stopped going when I was about 17-18. But I go whenever I can now to visit my father who lives in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
TAP: Do you have any plans in the future to work or do a project there?
Jessi M’Bengue: I have many plans and projects. But again I don’t talk about them, I just do them. So follow me. (Laughs)
TAP: What are some of your guiding principles? Religion, superstitious?
Jessi M’Bengue: I don’t have any guiding principles or religion. My father is Christian, my mum is Muslim. I was raised in the crossroads between both religions. If I do have a religion, it’s the religion of love. I try to respect myself and respect others as I evolve. I try to be understanding of myself and understanding of others. It’s not always easy. Constant change and constant evolution is the way to go. I try to find love and spread love in everything that I do.
TAP: If you were stranded on a desert Island what would you bring?
Jessi M’Bengue: A spiritual book. Anything about spirituality, it doesn’t have to be associated with religion, although I love reading the bible and the Quran. Anything that is associated to a loving and merciful energy.
TAP: Tell us one thing about yourself people might find surprising.
Jessi M’Bengue: I’m absolutely extreme. I can be very much out there, and I can be very much like a priest. I have an extreme personality. The goal in my life is to try to find a middle ground.
TAP: Do you like to shop?
Jessi M’Bengue: I don’t like to shop at all. I think that’s another surprising thing (laughs). I can spend months and months without shopping. I’m not a fan of crowds and shopping in general. If I do see something that catches my eye, I’ll buy it but I would never make a Saturday afternoon to just shop.
TAP: Do you have a favorite clothing item, and if so what is it and why?
Jessi M’Bengue: I like black. Black everything. I love colors as well, but my favorite is black. It goes with everything and is very classy and elegant.
TAP: Sum up your style (fashion) in three words?
Jessi M’Bengue: All black everything, red lipstick and blonde hair. (My style at the moment)
TAP: How do you enjoy your time off, away from work? What keeps you happy?
Jessi M’Bengue: Silence. I like to spend time in the quiet nature. Again in the extremity of who I am, I can thrive amongst people and be the center of attention and I love it; but just as much as I love that, I love to be in nature and have no noise around me for days sometimes. I often book trips for myself in Jamaica, one of my favorite destinations, in the blue mountains where I can essentially lock up for days and I love it. I’m a mountain person more than I am a beach person. I love California for that, the nature. South Africa as well.
TAP: What kind of music do you listen to?
Jessi M’Bengue: Anything that makes my heart beat. Again in the extremity of my personality sometimes I need to hear lyrics that are poetic, beautiful and inspire me. Other times I don’t care about the lyrics, I just like the beat, a heavy beat that is going to make my heart jump. It could be house or trap music. It just depends on how I feel.
TAP: Any favorite authors? Why?
Jessi M’Bengue: Paulo Coelho because he is a spiritual being and he inspires to the good of the common people and I love that.
TAP: Is there a special someone in Jessi’s life? Kids one day?
Jessi M’Bengue: There are many special someones in my life starting with my family. Now, if you’re talking about a man, I’ve had someone very special for a long time but we unfortunately had to split ways. Such as life sometimes. I wish to meet him or the essence of him again in another time, if God allows. And yes, if God allows me to have kids, I’ll definitely love to have kids and plant the seed of positivity into beautiful, brand new souls.
TAP: What are some things you’d like to do – career wise or giving back to the community?
Jessi M’Bengue: By helping models/artists who need advices or pointers for their career or anything that I can relate to, they can reach me at: email@example.com. My goal in life is to help everybody climb and reach their full potential. If I can do that, I think I would have lived a life that is worth it. Somebody helped me someday; I’m so thankful that she saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. If I can return the favor, it would be the full circle for me. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, especially our brothers and sisters back home, I’ll try to help as much as I can, I’m truly passionate about helping.
Interview By Winnie Mills
Pictures by Quazi King