Funmi Olagunju, Writer & Model

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Social Impact: Raising awareness of the inclusivity problem in the fashion industry through journalism and modelling.

We’re incredibly lucky to be part of an era of fashion that’s redefining the norms of the industry. With the past September Issue of Vogue, the inclusivity of creatives, visionaries and models from all walks of life are now more celebrated than ever.

Scratch that surface, though, and the industry still upholds many problematic practises, something which writer and model Funmi Olagunju knows all too well. With a degree in accountancy and a life-long interest in writing, she started as a model after university, relatively later than most, with a goal to pursue it.

However, coming into the industry as an adult and witnessing first-hand how widely the roots of ignorance still spread there, Funmi was inspired to turn back to journalism to document the lived experiences of women like her in the modelling world. Now fresh from her first role in a short film, we met up with Funmi in a secluded cafe in Barking Station, to learn just how far the industry has to go.

“I’ve been working hard lately trying to push the writing more for me, but I’m also trying to take my time, you can’t rush these things.”

When did you first start writing? What has your personal journey with journalism been?

“Well, I’ve lived in London since 2002; I’m originally from Nigeria so when I first got here there was this immediate culture shock. I just changed and adjusted myself completely; but it was for good, I saw my moving as an opportunity to change and better myself with the brilliant education system here. As for writing, I’ve always written my whole life; always poems, always writing creatively. I adored the arts at school but coming from a Nigerian background you’re encouraged to pursue more traditionally academic or ‘successful’ careers, which led me to study accounting.”

That must have been so frustrating if you’re naturally a creative person?

“Not necessarily true, I loved maths, but if I’m honest, when I was studying it I was always looking for a creative outlet. I just wanted the degree over and done with; I felt something calling me and I didn’t know what it was. I started getting distracted.

It must have been halfway through second year when I decided to start doing modelling, everyone was telling me ‘you should do it’ all the time, but my belief has always been that even if many people tell you to do something, it can still only be you who can make that decision. So, I did the research and put int he work for myself, started going for test shoots, started posting on Instagram and that’s how I started!”

Was writing always happening alongside this modelling journey?

“It was actually something I only picked it up later on, there were definitely so many ideas buzzing around in my head but I didn’t know how to articulate them. It’s funny, I was talking to friends a while ago asking me what I’d do if I didn’t model and I said ‘modelling or writing’, fast forward to 2020 and I’ve done both!”

So, you were forging a career for yourself in modelling, but at some point there was a huge shift back to your original passion, can you tell us that defining moment it all changed for you and you thought: ‘this is what I need to dedicate my time to’?

“I did a fashion show for London Fashion Week, and the hair stylist didn’t know how to do my hair. All the black models were waiting around, everyone else was getting their hair done and no one knew how to do ours. I saw that most of the hairstylists were white and looked away, pretending it wasn’t happening, so we [the black models] ended up doing each other’s hair backstage. I ended up writing an article for LAPP, Leomie Anderson’s blog; in my opinion, the best writing you can ever do is when you’re passionate about your subject, so that’s when that shift really happened for me.”

Do you want to focus on this area of your writing in the future? What kind of things can we expect from you in the next few months?

“Lots of exciting things! I see myself talking more about inclusivity and diversity as well as women’s rights - a subject I’m also really passionate about - but I want to open a discussion for everyone to be involved in. We’re all involved in society and these difficult situations but we don’t know how to express our emotions surrounding any of these big issues. My goal is to help other people find their voice.”

Now that we come to think of it, we can’t think of any other models who write; it’s often writers who just speak on behalf of models on the issues they face. Do you think you would have decided to write eve if you hadn’t loved it in the past?

“Writing is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal you can use, talking and acting about it is how we can instigate change. With writing it feels more personal, I can see it and it’s there [online] forever. When I do a performance, it’s over as soon as it’s done.”

You had so much exciting work last year - editorials, shoots, even a cover and some work with some really exciting up and coming photographers - what are you most looking forward to in the future?

“I’m looking forward to more opportunities with my writing but also more acting. I starred in my first short film this year and absolutely loved it; it was inspired by spiritual experience and religion’s role in culture and our wider society. It was such a great transformative role to play and made me see acting from a whole new perspective.”

Why do you think so many models become actors?

“There’s such a huge trend of celebrities taking the spots in magazine covers and not the models. This is frustrating because we work so hard to get to those parts, and go through a much more difficult time with diets, restrictions and gruelling shows. But it can definitely go the other way round too! When I act, I don’t have to lose weight in the same way, I don’t have those same restrictions that the modelling industry places on you but I can still be on camera, I can still express myself and be creative without making those sacrifices.”

When you’re playing a role, do you even feel like it can sometimes be taxing in different ways, say, emotionally?

“Someone once taught me this, when you’re acting you’re putting a part of yourself into a character; you need to do this to understand them better through your own personal experiences. Maybe you don’t lose yourself, but it is something I know can be powerful, it’s important to lose yourself a tiny bit.”

Can you lose yourself when you’re modelling?

“Yes, oh my goodness yes. Sometimes because the industry is quite small, when you’re on set  in the bubble, you feel like someone else. The shoot can be powerful, or it’s sexy or racy, sometimes you forget to leave that character on set. On one hand, you did a shoot you never thought you could do, but then you’re more self-conscious of how you are and can become someone you’re not. Even the models I’ve met who’ve been working for years, they’re lovely people but there’s a certain look in their eyes that shows what they’ve been through: that speaks beyond words. I’m starting to learn that the modelling ‘role’ is all about how you see it, it’s perspective. It’s not who I am, it’s what I do.

Stay up to date with Funmi’s next big role on her Instagram.