Whether you saw contestant Afiya Bennett on season 2 of The Face, or caught photos of her slaying editorials and red carpets, it’s clear Bennett is more than just a striking face.
In this exclusive interview with ESSENCE, Bennett shares her journey from New York native to fashion diva, and gives advice to those looking to follow in her model footsteps. O and she also gave us the scoop on her dreamboat fiancé!
Check it out!
Tell me about your name ‘Afiya.’ Is there a cultural or religious connotation/context to it? Where are you from?
For as long as I have known, and according to my mom, Afiya means ‘beautiful, spiritual jewel.’ But, according to Google, Afiya means “good health” in Swahili and means “Born on A Friday” in Ghana. Although my name [is of] African descent, my family is from Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.
When did you know that fashion and modeling was the path for you?
I knew fashion and modeling was the career for me after being published in ESSENCE magazine at the age of 15 years old. For the first time in my life, being tall and different was praised and seen as beautiful rather than frowned upon. At that moment, I knew that I could use God’s gift of height as an avenue to success.
Talk to us about the times that you modeled for ESSENCE?
I always pay homage to Mikki Taylor and to the publication because they were the first to take a little girl with a dream and give her a shot at making her dream come true. Since then, I have shot for ESSENCE five times, which is more than any other publication. The ESSENCE team is beyond amazing and I feel that they have become apart of each chapter of my career thus far. My goal is to one-day grace the cover of ESSENCE.
What does #BlackGirlMagic mean to you?
#BlackGirlMagic means embracing the inner and outer beauty of Black women and girls. It is the chance to celebrate, love and honor the power and achievements of Black women. Society has a way of creating so many negative connotations and imagery of [Blackness]. #BlackGirlMagic gives us a chance to uplift Black women and project us in a light that makes every woman proud of their hair, bodies, skin, smile, knowledge…and proud of their greatness.
Describe your personal style, and how do you dress for your height?
It’s a mix between chic and glamorous… I love very clean, expensive, polished looks, but also a bold red dress, or a showstopper dress. I think it depends on the mood and the event that I am attending; I always love to accentuate my long legs on the red carpet. I love a summer- or winter-white look; a chic or sexy white dress or pantsuit.
Walk us through the process of Naomi Campbell’s ‘The Face’ competition, on which you became the runner-up. From start-to-finish, what were some of your biggest obstacles to overcome on the show?
At the time, the way to a successful modeling career was to be on Americas’ Next Top Model or in my case the [then] new and upcoming show, The Face. I have always been this zealous girl with a will to succeed; I was this girl that everyone told “No” but was determined to make it. Looking back on my experience, my biggest obstacle was being away from my family and friends and trying to quickly [absorb] the constructive criticism that was given to me, in order help me win. I was so raw and untouched, and though that fire gave me what I needed to get me on the show, it wasn’t enough to win. One of the biggest criticisms on the show was my dialect. Being from Brooklyn wasn’t fit for a high-end brand. Although I didn’t have an immediate fix [on the show] one of my biggest compliments now is that I am extremely well spoken.
At what point did you realize that you had become famous?
I realized I had become famous shortly after the show had aired. Everyone would recognize me when I would walk down the street. Even long-time friends and associates changed their perception of me — from a girl they knew their entire lives, to a girl they were watching on television. One experience that stands out in my mind was when I was having lunch with my mom and the group next to us started to inconspicuously take photos of me instead of just saying “Hi.” No matter how famous I get, I always love taking photos with anyone I inspire.
How was the special moment when your fiancé proposed to you and when is the wedding sis?!
The moment that my fiancé proposed to me was one that I will never forget. By nature I am such a sentimental person. I cry… at love scenes, the birth of children, and anything heartfelt. But the moment I got engaged I was just so excited to be starting a new chapter of my life, excited to be starting [this] journey with my best friend…with my partner that makes me feel so strong that I can accomplish all of my wildest dreams.
The wedding is in July (2019).
Is there anything that you would change about the fashion industry?
If I were to change one thing about the fashion industry, it would be to increase the representation of Black models in fashion campaigns. Oftentimes there is just one model of color in a campaign. The fashion industry has trending looks of the season when it comes to Black girls and unless your look is trending, there appears to be no room for you in campaigns or editorials. I would change this idea that only ‘one type’ of Black girl’s look can be of the moment.
What advice would you give to young girls who look up to you and want to become models?
I would tell them, ‘you are in control of your future. Never let anyone else fears or limited experiences bind you from achieving your greatest potential.’ The industry is no longer limited to 5’11 models that are a ‘Size 2,’ create your own platform based on your values and use that leverage to become the model or brand you desire. Most importantly, always love yourself and don’t lose yourself trying to be the industry’s ideal beauty. You are beautiful.