ABOVE: MALAIKA FIRTH IN NEW YORK. PHOTO BY VAN SARKI.
Climbing trees in Kenya as a kid, Malaika Firth didn’t think about fashion often. She did not know she’d soon move with her family to London and fall in love with the clothes in magazines suddenly available to her; nor did she yet have the 5’9″, sylph-like frame that would make her ideal to model them.
When Firth booked the Fall/Winter 2013 Prada campaign this past summer, initially she wasn’t even aware that she was the first black model to do so since Naomi Campbell in 1994, a benchmark that would establish her not only among the international modeling elite, but also as a face symbolizing yet another nudge towards diversity in high fashion. Looking tantamountly fierce in the Steven Meisel-photographed ad next to Freja Beha, Catherine McNeil, and Fei Fei Sun, modeling might be Firth’s second nature.
The Campbell comparisons have filed in fast, but Firth, 19, has never spoken to the supermodel. While she admires her Prada predecessor, she does not necessarily aspire to be like her. After all, except for their British accents and status as black models in a white industry, the two are quite different. Campbell plunged into the nonstop glam-party scene of the early ’90s supermodel heyday. Firth, meanwhile, is more of a self-proclaimed homebody. Her Instagrams are scattered with loungewear-clad selfies, enjoying large Jamba Juices and declaring her love for coconut water. Sprinkled in, however, are telltale behind-the-scenes snaps signaling her career’s impressive momentum. Her 12,000 plus followers get to glimpse her in a bathrobe backstage at the Victoria’s Secret show—her first—in November; strutting down the runway at Lanvin and Dolce & Gabbana (the Spring/Summer 2014 fashion weeks saw her in over 50 shows total); and posing for Vogue.com.
Still, despite her rising fame, her priority seems to be more “stay happy” than “go wild.” Raised Christian, Firth posts medleys of uplifting quotes related to her spirituality. Because of her beliefs, she will not pose nude.
We connected with Firth over the phone, catching her between shoots during a few whirlwind weeks in New York.
RACHEL SMALL: How did you become interested in modeling?
MALAIKA FIRTH: I became interested looking at all of the beautiful girls in magazines, and watching movies and looking at all these actresses. I wanted that. They seemed so confident. I’ve always wanted to be that kind of girl.
SMALL: What was your favorite movie, for the costumes or in general?
FIRTH: I like Maid in Manhattan, with J.Lo.
SMALL: What magazines do you read?
FIRTH: Now that I’m in this industry, I’m taking [reading magazines] seriously. I read the Vogue magazines. I make it my homework. I try to study the designers and the stylists when I have time, because I wasn’t brought up in a household where I was surrounded by fashion.
SMALL: What was your first photo shoot?
FIRTH: The Burberry lookbook. I was so nervous. I felt very uncomfortable in the beginning because I didn’t know anyone and there’s the feeling that everyone is watching you. I don’t think I was used to that. Then, after a while, I started feeling comfortable. They made it easy for me. They took care of me. They treated me like part of them even though I was new at that time. You know?
SMALL: At what point did you start to feel natural looking at the camera?
FIRTH: I was working with Burberry for about a year. That was very nice, because I would always be in front of the camera every single day. I would be there maybe three times in a week and then I’d be at ASOS three times in the week, so I’d always be with the camera. I was very comfortable after a while. Working with ASOS helped me with the shows because ASOS has a long runway, and after every shoot you have to go do the runway. Their heels are quite high, as well—good practice! My first big runway show was for Jason Wu. I wore a dress. It was very comfortable and it was very fitting—it made me feel very elegant.
SMALL: What do you like the most about modeling?
FIRTH: For the camera, I like the feeling of changing into different characters. Even though I’m not acting, I still have to be someone different to show the product. If I’m not being someone different, I won’t find it fun. I love the shows because it transforms you into a different person. Not Malaika—it makes me someone else. Naturally, I’m quiet and crazy. But when they give me an outfit, like a very elegant outfit, it transforms me into this beautiful woman—I can feel it inside me. I like that, playing different characters. I’m really interested in acting.
SMALL: What sort of movies would you star in? Or what roles would you want to play?
FIRTH: I’d want to play a really sad woman, because she can display so many emotions. That would be a powerful role to have.
SMALL: So, this Prada campaign is a landmark, because you are the first black model they’ve had since Naomi Campbell. What was your reaction when you found out you booked it?
FIRTH: I was so proud of myself that Prada likes me, and I was so grateful for that. At that time, I didn’t know that I was the second black girl since Naomi Campbell. So when the campaign came out and everyone started talking about it, I was amazed. People are comparing me to this supermodel that everyone loves, and that most black girls are aspiring to be. But I want make my name as Malaika Firth.
SMALL: Do you look up to Naomi’s career at all?
FIRTH: You know what? I look up to every model who is confident and who knows what they want in life, and who is goal orientated. So the models like Naomi Campbell, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Kate Moss. I look up to them because they are focused on where they want to go.
SMALL: Has anyone given you advice along the way?
FIRTH: Yes actually. Jourdan Dunn texted me: “You have to be strong and stay focused,” so I really appreciate that. If I saw another model who was up-and-coming, I would do the same.
SMALL: Have you had a chance to do that yet?
FIRTH: Actually, yes. There was a girl in Valentino. It was her first ever show. She was really nervous and I told her, “You shouldn’t be nervous, relax.” Once you relax, everything comes easy. It’s very natural, you know? After that, I prayed for her. We prayed, and she felt so much better. I always pray before I do any show. It really helps me.
SMALL: You were raised religious. Do you still practice?
FIRTH: When I’m back home, we normally go to choir practice every Thursday. Sunday, we go to church. I miss that routine because now I don’t do any of that. Now I go on YouTube and try to watch inspiring stuff. I haven’t been to church in almost two months now. It’s really bad.
SMALL: Because you’ve been so busy?
SMALL: What do you do with your time off?
FIRTH: I like to treat myself. I like to go to the spa, take care of myself. If I’m far away from my mum, I’ll Skype her or speak with my family. I’ll do some sketching in my sketchbook. I like to sketch nature. Like trees, everything that inspires me will go in my sketchbook. Or if I find something that I think this is weird. Normally I find feathers everywhere I go, but it’s weird because in fashion week, when I went to each city I found one feather by itself as I was walking. I collected them. I have one from London, Milan, Paris, and New York.
SMALL: Where do you keep them?
FIRTH: I left them with my mum.
SMALL: What are you most looking forward to right now?
FIRTH: I’m excited for what 2014 will bring. I’m very optimistic.
SMALL: Have people started to recognize you in the street?
FIRTH: Actually, yes. I was in Topshop a week ago and this girl came up to me and she was like, “You’re a supermodel!” In my head I’m like, “Supermodel, really?” I’ve never had that experience before.
SMALL: How is your mom taking all of this?
FIRTH: Mum is super excited. She used to be nervous for me, but now she’s not. I think she knows me and she believes in me. She sees that I’m actually quite strong by myself. She’s helped me so much and she’s given me so much motivation. She’s given me this confidence to stay strong. Without her, I don’t think I’d go this far in this career. My mum has been there since day one. My dad also has been there for me from the beginning. As a family we’ve stuck together. I think that’s what’s really helped me. I think that’s what escalated my career.
SMALL: Do you have any other thoughts?
FIRTH: To my fans: stay positive, and don’t let anyone bring you down. Enjoy life.
SMALL: Why do you think that’s important for them to know?
FIRTH: That’s how you should carry on in life. If you have these negative thoughts in your head you’ll never move further. Keep thinking positive. Anything that inspires you, hold onto that.
SMALL: Does fashion inspire you?
FIRTH: I think it’s really opened me up as a person. All eyes are on you when you do the shows and when you do the photo shoots. You have to know how to act around people. I used to be a shy kid in school. I didn’t know how to interact with people and now I find it so easy. Fashion has really done something great for me and it’s really changed me as a person. I’ve changed my style as well.
SMALL: How has your style changed with this access to images and clothes?
FIRTH: It’s easier for me now, going to Zara and Topshop and not feeling weird. When I was young I used to feel like, “That’s not me.” I’d stay at home and do my own thing. I used to be shy. Now I look at people’s style and mix and match.
SMALL: Would you ever want to go back to school or are you happy focusing on modeling for now?
FIRTH: Right now, I’m so happy focusing on modeling, and just seeing where it’s going. I want to be an actress in the future. Hopefully modeling can open doors for me.