Ethiopian model works for community

by Loolwa Khazzoom • December 24, 2011 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

I first published this article in Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Jan 9, 2006

TEL AVIV, Jan. 9 (JTA) – It was early evening on Ma´ze Street in central Tel Aviv, and drivers were impatiently honking at the small white car stalled in the middle of the street. A young Ethiopian couple was peering out of the car in excitement, watching the outdoor photo shoot nearby, where Esti Mamo – one of Israel´s top supermodels and the first Ethiopian-Israeli to make it in the industry – was being photographed in a Nike swimsuit, decorated with silver flowers and beaded jewelry.

The photo shoot was part of a local campaign to bring together stylists, make-up artists, photographers and models in a creative adaptation of Nike athletic wear. For her contribution to the exhibit, celebrity stylist Dorin Atias chose to work with Mamo for the first time.  “I saw authenticity in her, a rare beauty that most people don´t have – an inner light,” Atias says. Mamo “is very connected to herself. She´s classy. She embodies both strength and softness.”

That classiness is what first got Mamo noticed in Tel Aviv eight years ago, when she was just 15 years old.  “A modeling agent saw me in a supermarket and said, ´You´re beautiful. I want you to model for me,´” Mamo recalls. “I said I´d think about it. He pursued me for two months, so I finally decided to go along with it, just to do him a favor.” Mamo soon was approached by another agent, who referred her to the prestigious Image Modeling center.  “I´ve brought the Queen of Sheba!” the agent declared.

Mamo signed with Image and her career took off – leading not only to personal success, but opening doors for additional models from the Ethiopian community.  “I can say with certainty that Esti was the first Ethiopian model in Israel,” supermodel photographer AviHarel said. “She´s made a tremendous impact on the industry, opening doors to women following her. Before Esti,you couldn´t find any Ethiopian models getting work. Esti did a great service to her community.”

Mamo´s confidence and success may have created opportunities for dark-skinned women from othercommunities in Israel as well.  “In the last few years since Esti opened the doors, the general taste of the fashion world has expanded to embrace models of all colors,” Harel said. “Today it’s a normal part of Israeli culture.”

Despite her success, Mamo remains down-to-earth. Maybe that´s because every time she graces the coverof a magazine, she feels she´s doing it for her entire community.  Mamo radiates confidence, with a graceful stride and an easy laugh. Yet she´s friendly and approachable, and seems grounded.

When she speaks about the Ethiopian community, she leans forward passionately.  “I am a role model for a lot of Ethiopians who want to go in this direction,” Mamo says. “I´m not getting rid of my culture, just adding new things to it, and educating society about who Ethiopians are.”

When she rubs elbows with individuals in powerful and privileged positions, Mamo says, it´s often the first time they´ve spoken to an Ethiopian.  “We´re living in one country. How can it be that someone still hasn´t come to know us or our culture?” she asks. “We´re so much on the periphery here. We gave up everything we had. We dreamed of coming to Israel, because it´s our home. We sacrificed so much – people died on the way. If this is what comes to us in the end, it´svery sad. It hurts me terribly.

“I speak about Ethiopians wherever I can. I teach people about the music, history, food,” she says. “We have to work on the government´s relationship to the community. There is a very serious problem in how Ethiopians are absorbed into society here.” Israeli officials acknowledge that Ethiopian immigrants have not integrated as quickly as other communities, but say it´s because of the cultural gap that these newcomers, who often come from poor villages in Africa, face in dealing with established Israeli society.

Poverty, drug abuse and violence have stalked the Ethiopian immigrant community – because thecommunity feels degraded in Israel, Mamo says. Ethiopian youth have come to feel so rejected by Israeli society, she says, that many become depressed and a number have committed suicide – like Mamo´s brother.  Mamo pauses to gather herself, tears in her eyes, as she speaks about her younger brother´s death in 2004.

“I don´t like to talk about it, because it´s very painful,” she says, “but I have to speak out, because it´s notjust my brother who was a victim – it’s happening to Ethiopian youth across the country.”

Using her status and power as a supermodel, Mamo hopes to put her community´s issues on the map – not only in Israel, but across the globe. She has done photo shoots in Paris and is now in negotiation with modelingagencies in New York.  Wherever she models, she promises, she will educate those around her about Ethiopian-Israelis.

And whenshe finishes with her modeling career?  “I´ll come back to Israel and run for Knesset,´´ she says.


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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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