What you need to know:
- In 1981, on a flight to Nigeria, she met her husband of 41 years, retired air vice-marshal and two-star general Terry Tsola Okorodudu.
- Africa’s Next Supermodel was called so because Okorodudu didn’t want to pay franchise fees to Tyra Banks’, Next Top Model.
On October 28, the same date as her birthday, 65-year-old Joan Okorodudu, the founder and CEO at Isis Models, saw the second edition of her Africa’s Next Supermodel (ANSM) competition conclude at Radisson Blu hotel, Upper Hill, Nairobi. The competition is held in partnership with Select Models global.
The winner, 19-year-old Chol Khan, stood out among a pool of 36 exceptionally talented contestants from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Rwanda. She won $5,000 (Sh759,250) and was signed to work in fashion runways in Europe.
Around 24 officials from modelling agencies in Berlin, London, Milan and Paris attended and judged the 18 of 36 models who were shortlisted for the finals. Also in attendance were officials from United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the South Sudan embassy.
Mrs Okorodudu describes Isis Models as “Africa’s biggest modelling agency as evidenced by the number of African working models in the diaspora”. She also owns House of Jola, a fashion house that is trying to relaunch in Nairobi.
Africa’s Next Supermodel, a franchise that she started with Nigeria’s Next Supermodel (NNSM), was called so because she didn’t want to pay franchise fees to Tyra Banks’, Next Top Model, knowing it would stand the test of time and grow.
“Africa’s Next Top Model was only done once. There’s a lot of money you need to pay for franchises and it’s not worth it,” says Mrs Okorodudu, adding she’s also a skin care technician.
Mrs Okorodudu was on a track-and-field scholarship at Boston University, Massachusetts, studying political science and people would call on her to model stuff for them. From as young as five, she knew how to pose in photos. And she was very pretty.
“When Chief Mrs Opral Benson came for her daughter’s graduation as we graduated, she said, “You should do Miss Nigeria.” I saw there were two cars up for grabs and I told myself one of those would be mine,” she remembers.
In 1981, on a flight to Nigeria, she met her husband of 41 years, retired air vice-marshal and two-star general Terry Tsola Okorodudu, while he came to pick up his brother who was in the same flight as she was. Four months later, they were married. The two have a son called Bidemi Okorodudu.
She later vied for Miss Nigeria (Kaduna Zone) and won to go to the finals in Lagos, while also doing her youth service, and he went with her. She was the first runner-up and won a car.
She was part of the youth section of United Party Nigeria but realised politics wasn’t her thing. She says she was involved in American politics during Bill Clinton’s tenure, campaigning locally for him in Wilmington, Delaware as well as meeting President Biden when he passed through the area for his campaigns.
Mrs Okorodudu had been running her House Of Jola fashion brand until she tagged along with African fashion ambassador, Lexy Mojo-Eyes to Ford’s Supermodel of The World competition in 2004 -- she was captivated by Kenya’s Ajuma Nasenyana, one of the finalists at the global spectacle, and it prompted her to start NNSM.
NNSM ran from 2007 to 2017, where winners would get cars. The winner of that initial edition was Eunice Eyo, but Bunmi Ademokoya, the first runner-up, went on to become major on the runway. Mrs Okorodudu thanks her husband for his support financially as the couple have been able to give away 11 new cars to the winners of NNSM.
From 2018 to 2020, when the last NNSM was held, they resorted to giving winners cash prizes because “the cars would be enjoyed by family members or boyfriends” after the models went off to work abroad. At 34, Bunmi is back on the runway and she has been the chaperon at both ANSM in Rwanda last year and this recent one.
Mrs Okorodudu was part of Vogue Talent “Scouting for Africa” in 2020, partnering with Access Bank to showcase African designers to the big brands of the fashion world. South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo of Maxhosa by Laduma was crowned best talent in a competition she said cost €100,000 (Sh16.2 million) to lease from Vogue Italia.
ANSM was last year won by Miss University Africa Burundi 2022, Marvella Niteka. She has worked with fashion houses and luxury stores like Valentino, Harrods as well as Dior Jewelry. The second runner-up, Denyse Mushikiwabo from Rwanda has also been doing well in Europe.
Mrs Okorodudu says things might take her a while to do but she always delivers on her promises. She isn’t one to rush things, what we call “wash-wash in Nigeria”.
The significance of South Sudan embassy and UNHCR dignitaries being at ANSM is that the competition was held in the midst of a damning report by Sunday Times from the United Kingdom that some modelling aspirants from Kakuma Refugee Camp claimed that they were scouted, taken to Europe and maintained by Isis Models but then came back in debt after not successfully securing modelling gigs.
However, after the report, models who are still working under Isis management came out to defend its CEO saying she was not only taking care of them but also helped take care of their families.
“The girl who called the press, Mari Malek, wanted to partner with me on my son’s Runway to Redemption project and I said no. The next thing I see, she has Runway to Freedom, which she hasn’t even registered. She doesn’t even know that I have trademarked that. I’m just waiting for the competition to end and then pursue legal matters.”
She claimed that two European agencies were not amused that an African woman had taken over the modelling recruitment world, especially after she refused to send models to work with them. She said another young woman quoted in the report had tried to run away and take asylum in the UK but she had to bring her back to Nairobi in one piece.
“I have records of even how much money I was sending to their families. Every month, I spend a minimum of Sh1 million taking care of people in Lagos, here, South Africa…” says Mrs Okorodudu.
Nyakong Chan, who’s made it on the “hot list” of models in Europe 10 months after having been discovered is signed to Isis Models. Another former Kakuma South Sudanese resident, male model Goy Michael, is also an Isis Models discovery that is most sought after in Europe barely a year into the industry. She works with scouts who are South Sudanese youth to discover the talents and recommend them to her.
“I’m dealing with girls who have not come from rich backgrounds and I cannot let them get exploited by European agents who have let these young people suffer. I always tell them to get an account at home and make it for savings that you can’t touch. Have one to assist your family members, then have a third one that you will use to take care of yourself and do whatever you want. I’m glad to say I have models who have built or bought homes, moving their families to good places,” says Mrs Okorodudu.
Even though everyone can’t be a model or sustain it for long and advises her talents to acquire skills in other areas of the fashion industry like design, makeup and styling. She’s hoping that with ANSM based in Nairobi, Kenya can become a fashion hub.