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‘The only black girl there’: Ottawa-raised model Herieth Paul on fashion’s diversity problem

The lack of racial diversity in fashion is still a much-discussed topic after the fall 2016 runway shows, so it's heartening to hear about a woman of colour landing a major modelling contract. The latest face to be celebrated in the cosmetics world is 20-year-old Herieth Paul, a Tanzanian-born beauty who just signed with Maybelline. Paul, who moved to Ottawa at the age of 11 with her diplomat mother, aspired to be a pilot when she was younger – she had never even seen a fashion magazine until she moved to Canada. But after a solid four years in the fashion business walking for such top international runways as Givenchy and Balmain and starring in campaigns for brands such as CK One and Tom Ford, Paul is more in love with her career than ever, and hopes to make a difference in her new role by empowering other girls of colour. I caught up with Paul in her agent's Toronto office to talk about the art of modelling, how an ultra shy girl from Tanzania found her way onto the world stage, and why racial diversity is still a problem in fashion.

For decades now, there's been a running dialogue in the fashion industry about the lack of diversity – especially on the runways. Do you think it's a situation that's getting better?

It's not really getting much better. It's 10 per cent out of 100 per cent better, so it's not there yet. It makes me really sad because I would go to a show and I would be the only black girl there. Sometimes there's so much going on in hair and makeup that I don't see it, but then when the line up for the show starts, I realize I'm the only black girl there. And they ask me, "How do you feel being the only black model? We only chose you!" And I'm like, "Are you saying that as a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know what you want me to say." But I feel like [New York modelling agent] Bethann Hardison has definitely tried to make an impact and change the way people look at the runways and see that we need more diversity. I'm so happy that Maybelline has taken a chance on a little black girl from Tanzania who's so shy. They decided to make me one of their spokesmodels. I still can't believe it.

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Who are the models you look up to?

I look up to Naomi Campbell and Beverly Johnson. I read her book recently. She's amazing. They had to go through so much to be where they are. I actually spoke to Naomi at one of the shows. I was like, "How did you do it? You went through all that, and you still look amazing, your career's on top!" And she said, "Honey, you just have to be really strong. You have to always keep them talking and you always have to make sure they know that you're in the room."

How have you grown, personally and professionally, since you started doing runway?

I've definitely learned to be more appreciative of everything that's going on, and I've learned to make more of an effort to let designers know that I appreciate their work, and like their creativity. That definitely goes a long way for me.

How different was your life before you moved to Canada?

In Tanzania, I was just a regular girl at school. We all looked the same. We had uniforms and I didn't think I was any different from the group. I went to school everyday, came home, made food with my family, ate, and did the same thing for years and years. It could have happened to any of the girls or any of the guys that I was in class with, but to be the one that got the chance to come to Canada, and Ottawa, and Toronto, and to do this – well, it still shocks me.

Your mom's a diplomat. Did she encourage your modelling career?

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No, she didn't. She was against it. At first she was like, "No! You have to go to school," because she has so much education… even a PhD! I had to take her to talk to my agent to convince her that this was a good thing. But I do actually want to go back to school.

And what about getting involved in social causes or philanthropic missions? Is there anything that you're really excited about?

My mom has a charity. It's an orphanage in Tanzania. She has been working with children since they were young and now we're the same age. When I was younger, she used to bring me there and we would play and I'd think of these kids as my family. Now I take a percentage of my income and we help the kids go to school. And every time I have time off, I want to go to Tanzania and spend time with these kids. Three of the girls are now in university and they're just mindblown that I take time out of my life and give them money to help them go to university. And I'm not even in university! But I'm so happy that they get a chance to actually go to school, and feel like they have a family, even though they lost their parents when they were so young.

Successful models are looked up to in our society and some people wonder why. Is it just because they're physically beautiful?

Actually most models are not so beautiful.

But the camera captures something in them, and sometimes, you feel as though you can't get enough of them. What do you think a model's responsibility might be to all these young kids who really look up to them?

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Models are looked up to a lot lately. On Instagram, girls message me and say, "Oh my god, I look up to you! You have short hair just like me, and none of the people in my school think I'm beautiful but if you can do it, that means I can do it too." I watch what I post on social media and tell people, "This is your life. You decide what you want to do, and you make it happen." You just have to be confident in yourself.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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