Nänga Awasum was running late on what should've been an exceedingly normal Thursday. She was tired and struggling to get out of bed, though she eventually managed to throw on an outfit she completely "hated" so she could get to work on time. But as the 23-year-old model was walking through the streets of SoHo, her look caught the attention of one person who ended up posting a photo of Awasum to Instagram and dubbing her their "NYC inspiration of the day."
That person ended up being none other than supermodel Gigi Hadid.
It’s the way @GiGiHadid would have changed my entire life if I was only facing the right way. https://t.co/vzRUG1OP0o— nänga. |IG:@nangs.online (@nänga. |IG:@nangs.online)1626379994.0
However, Awasum had no idea about the post until she was approached by two girls later that day in a Zara, where she was trying to buy a new outfit to change into for dinner with her boyfriend's family. And though she was skeptical at first, after seeing the Story and blue tick next to Hadid's name, she said she began to "panic and pace" around the store in shock.
"I just didn't believe it was real," Awasum told PAPER. "As a model I've been working so hard for this for so long and she's a person I look up to so much in this industry... that messes with our heads so much and everyone's fighting for the same jobs."
She continued, "So for a person who's a role model to me to express such love and kindness and just sincere, positive energy in my direction is so affirming, especially as a dark-skinned Black girl who's been turned down by several agencies just because of the color of my skin."
After all, the Cameroonian model attended a predominantly white school in Silver Springs, Maryland, where she was "bullied for just being different" and "for being dark-skinned."
"I didn't have that many friends in high school. Most of my friends went to different schools or they were on the internet. I didn't have a lot of money. So all of my clothes were thrifted," Awasum said, before adding that her schoolmates tried to belittle her after mistaking her "confidence as aggression."
"Just being a unique individual and a Black girl who loved herself, it pushed people to try to bring me down and I got bullied literally up until I went to college," she explained, saying that the people she was around "did a really good job of making me feel like an outsider." But despite "hating high school so much" — to the point where she didn't even get a yearbook — Awasum began to laugh while mentioning that she was recently sent a photo of her senior year quote.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, I look horrible in this picture,' but the quote was so big and it was like, 'Google me in 10 years, and if you're not scared, jealous or shocked, then I did it wrong," she giggled. "And the girl [who sent it to me] was like, 'It didn't even take 10 years. Congratulations.' Because when you Google me now, it's like Gigi's face right next to mine. It's the craziest thing."
Granted, Awasum had an impressive resume prior to her viral moment thanks to her work for Nike, Puma and GCDS — no easy feat for a young model representing themself, especially while working several jobs at the same time. Awasum was also shouldering the expectations of her immigrant parents, who worried about the feasibility of a modeling career and urged her to go back to school for architecture.
But Awasum continued to push forward with her passion, putting her "entire heart into it" and eventually garnering her family's support after landing gigs with big-name brands. And though her drive also helped her finally get picked up by Identity Models last year, her career hit an unfortunate snag when the global COVID-19 lockdown was announced one day after she signed the papers.
"It was this crazy, awkward, uphill battle, working in New York City in the middle of a pandemic with the scarcity of work and just in general. The last year has been really hard for me," she said. "But I knew that I didn't want to do anything else... And I've just been putting all my effort into [modeling], because I've already done so much to be here. I wasn't just going to turn back anytime soon."
With Hadid's new co-sign, Awasum has been pushed to a whole new level of visibility and is already in talks with several brands about potential job opportunities. Even so, she isn't content to rest of her laurels as she acknowledged that she's a person who always wants to be "learning" and growing from uncomfortable and challenging experiences, particularly if it means she can be a role model for other young women.
"When I was young, I didn't have the role models that I needed. There were no dark-skinned Black girls on TV. There were no girls who looked like me," as Awasum explained. "In fact, they made us feel like we weren't good enough, and I never want another little Black girl to go through what I went through when I was a child."
Which is all to say that her main priority now is to have "a positive impact on people in the way that Gigi left a positive impact on me" by "paying it forward" and inspiring others.
"I really think this wasn't by chance," Awasum said. "And now, I want to deal with this the right way so that I can make the right choices and impact another young girl's life the right way. I want to always be that positive influence."
Welcome to "Internet Explorer," a column by Sandra Song about everything Internet. From meme histories to joke format explainers to collections of some of Twitter's finest roasts, "Internet Explorer" is here to keep you up-to-date with the web's current obsessions — no matter how nonsensical or nihilistic.
Photo via Instagram