MORE THAN JUST A TOP MODEL
by Marane A. Plaza
America’s Next Top Model is without a doubt the biggest modelling competition in TV history. It has grown into more than just an American TV show, as the franchise has produced over 30 global versions. And still, one of the favorite Top Model winners ever is Naima Mora.
Naima first made the world fall in love with her when she debuted on ANTM’s Cycle 4 with her Mohawk hairstyle, and beauty as resplendent as her personality. But more than anything, she was remarkable for the way she performed at the reality TV contest. She won 4 mini-challenges, 9 Cover Girl of the Week, and two first call-outs during her run. And of course, she was named America’s Next Top Model Cycle 4 winner.
These days, she effortlessly dazzles in front of the camera and on the runway, but Naima did not always have modelling as her top priority. A serious student of ballet, Mora attended Detroit’s Ballet Renaissance in Michigan where she grew up. When she decided to move to New York, she was supposed to further study ballet at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“I was actually scouted for the show. I was working at a coffee shop in New York City that hired a lot of models and actors. The casting team found me there and asked me to audition. I was really nervous about the audition, but decided to be honest and be myself,” Naima shared.
“When I moved to NYC to study ballet, my roommate at the time was a makeup artist and asked me to model for her a lot. That really spiked my interest in modelling.”
She also recalls that modelling has always been somehow connected to her. “My mom actually wanted us to model one year when my twin sister and I were very young. I remember her dressing us up, and taking pictures of us in the living room. It’s a very dear memory to me.”
Naima Mora grew up in Detroit, Michigan with a twin sister named Nia and four other sisters. Her mother is a jazz vocalist, while her father is a jazz percussionist. Her paternal grandparents are artists. Her grandfather is a painter and sculptor, while her grandmother is a printmaker. In fact, a black marble bust art made in 2001 by her grandma Elizabeth Catlett was titled “Naima”. The model inspired the art with her “very dynamic personality”, as the artist herself shared. Growing up with such a colorful art background has definitely molded Naima.
“It is absolutely wonderful growing up in a household of such colorful personalities. My parents taught me to express myself and to be bold. My grandmother taught me to be disciplined and focused on my successes. It is really a blessing to have had them in my life. My parents actually named me after a jazz song by John Coltrane. My name means ‘serenity, calm or fresh’,” she said.
Her strong artistic background is why Naima has easily recreated herself in different genres of art and entertainment after her ANTM stint. She appeared on the season 2 premiere of hit TV series Veronica Mars, and filmed an independent film called Sarbanes-Oxley. She also released some music, which is a natural turn for her. She became the vocalist of bands Chewing Pics and Galaxy of Tar.
“I have always loved music because my parents are musicians. They raised me and my sisters in a very musical household,” she said. “I released a dance album called ‘Dancing In Starlight’ on my YouTube page. As of now though, my focus is on modelling and acting, but I am sure something musical will come along someday soon.”
ANTM and fashion fans have stayed smitten with Naima after many years since her win because of the way she has shared her journey– keeping it inspiring, and real.
“My experience was something a little different from what a normal model goes through. I was actually famous before I knew a lot of what I was actually doing,” she narrated. “I still had to learn the ropes and ins and outs of the industry, while navigating being a household name. A lot of clients actually didn’t want to work with me because I was on a reality TV show.”
Although being a winner of America’s Next Top Model meant having global fame and celebrity perks, the stunner noted that it was not a total walk in the park towards being a real working model post-ANTM.
“It was very taboo at the time in the fashion industry. I had to work very hard to prove that I was good as a model. It took a few years longer than I expected, but I never gave up and I relied a lot on the support from my fans all over the world,” she said.
Since her win, Naima has walked for some of the world’s biggest fashion events such as New York Fashion Week, graced many pages of various international fashion magazines, and modelled for numerous brand campaigns.
“I have done a lot of campaigns and editorials. I have a client in the British Virgin Islands called The Islander Swimwear. Traveling there to do those campaign shoots has always been a dream.”
Aside from the glamorous side of modelling, being an inspiration to fans has always been Naima’s favorite thing about being a model celebrity. So much so, that she has authored a book titled Model Behavior. The book is meant to help her fans- both aspiring models and fashion fans alike- to stay inspired and motivated.
“I have had fans reaching out to me online since I won ANTM. I really wanted to create something tangible for them to be able to be inspired by,” the model slash book author said. “The book is all about my life experiences and adventures in the fashion industry. In short, it’s an inspirational book for young people.”
“I have always loved writing, so it was a dream come true for me to publish it. Last year, I had a re-release of the book and toured my book signings to Harvey Nichols in England and Atelier Cologne in New York City. I can’t wait to write another one!”
While pop culture may link the phrase model behavior to being a diva, Naima has been effortlessly redefining the meaning of it into a real good, positive thing. With her book Model Behavior, Naima highlights her personal insights and stories from her own journey– from living a consciously healthy lifestyle to overcoming adversities in the fashion industry.
Aside from her book, Naima has been very creative in terms of sharing her knowledge in the business of modelling, as well as the fashion industry. Her podcast on Spotify called Model Tips Live is very educational and entertaining. And her free modelling workshops online have been very helpful to aspiring models worldwide.
“I want to give all the advice and instruction to aspiring models that I wish I had gotten when I first started off,” she said. “ANTM was a great experience, but it definitely did not prepare me for the real world of modelling.”
“I have learned so much and it’s taken me a little longer than I thought to learn the things I have. So now I am passing the baton to aspiring models of all ages. I’m showing them the ropes of the industry while building confidence and technique. This is a hands-on course where I work with each student individually!”
Besides teaching aspiring models the ins and outs of the business, this model and artist also uses her time with her many creative pursuits.
“I am actually doing a lot of photo shoots now, taking all the precautions as possible. I do a lot of art direction for my shoots and I love it. I just landed one of my shoots that I produced in Vogue Italia online. It is always very rewarding to see your work gets published,” she said. “Another one of my shoots is published for Cosmopolitan KZ. I love to write as well, so it all comes together. I do a lot of shoots by myself as well, a simple set up with my phone camera and a dramatic light.“
For the Fashion Issue of Stylish Magazine, Naima actually exclusively produced these amazing editorial photos.
“I wanted to create something simple and beautiful that reflected me as a person. A lot of times we see models dressed up in all kinds of crazy clothes for a grand editorial shoot. This time, I wanted to make something simple and pretty,” she said.
TOP MODEL INFLUENCE
Naima has always been known for using her voice and influence in advocating diversity in beauty and fashion. She has been teaching her students about embracing different types of beauty on her online workshops.
“My online course is one thing, as I am teaching models of all ages, backgrounds and diverse cultures to be the next wave of models to take the industry by storm,” she said.
Naima has shown over and over that hard work and determination really do pay off at the end of the day, despite various hardships. She has these pieces of advice to share to aspiring models:
“Follow your dreams, work hard and never give up. You’ve got to take your career in your own hands and decide what you want. There is no time to second guess yourself. Love who you are and let it shine all over the world.”
“I’ve been told no so many times, that now it’s a drop in the bucket. I’ve been given almost every excuse from people that I couldn’t model, even after winning ANTM,” Naima said. “My career is proof that being different is the new norm.”
Indeed, Naima has come a long way from being a top model, to an actual role model.
Concept & Creative Direction: Naima Mora
Photography: Harris Davey
Hair & Makeup: Jessyka Martin
Styling: Harris Davey