A voice of reason
AS DIVERSITY BECOMES THE REGULAR, SHAHIRA YUSUF FINDS HER SELF AT THE CENTRE OF FASHION’ S NEWMOOD.BUT SHE’S NOT A MUSLIM MODEL WITH THE SAME STANDARD STORY. SHE HAS A LOT TO SAY AND IS WORTH LISTENING TO
“We shouldn’t be grouped together just because we share a religion”
On a scale of one to 10 on how tired Shahira Yusuf is of the now habitual ‘Muslim model’ story going around the media carousel, she’s “a strong seven”. She would have given it a slam dunk 10, but she doesn’t want the idea of being Muslim to be a complete after-thought. “It’s still important to know about a Muslim girl’s story, besides her being a model,” she says.
Indeed, ‘Muslim model’ precedes Shahira’s identity in a way that models who aren’t, don’t experience. And as lofty a preamble it may seem, it’s devalued in meaning due to throwaway use: “It’s become a buzz term, which is clearly boring everyone now,” she flutters, with the mildest hint of east London in her accent. “Let’s get over it and make it normal already and talk about something new.”
So, I did what most journalists are indoctrinated to never do. I put the ball in Shahira’s court and gave the 21-year-old Somali-British model the freedom to pursue her own agenda in our interview, rather than being steered by my usual angleseeking route. I tell her to say it how it is.
“Being a Muslim model is not some kind of breakthrough trend anymore, there are a fair few of us now,” she says. “But my issue is, why are we seen as a collective? We shouldn’t be grouped together just because we share a religion. I want to be seen as an individual, outside of the ‘Muslim model’ narrative – we don’t need to constantly acknowledge that I am a Muslim model, we know that already, it’s established. It’s imperative to hear people’s personal stories, because they’re all going to be different and interesting in their own ways.”
Modelling was something that just happened to Shahira, after being scouted at the age of 17. Her 5’11 stature certainly helped – along with several times after she was spotted. “This was long before hijab models were a thing. I didn’t take it seriously and I didn’t understand it all that much. But it kept happening. I was being scouted all the time and that made me realise I should do something about it.”
Shahira signed with Storm Management, a modelling agency that represents an illustrious cannon of greats including British It-girl Alexa Chung and Emma Watson of HarryPotter fame. It’s also where veteran model Kate Moss began at the age of 14. But now, the modelling industry’s white-washed status quo is being disrupted – and not just as a one-off move for click bait. Shahira is at the centre of a permanent reshuffle and she’s “really enjoying being a part of that story”, even if she’s still in the minority by way of numbers.
Shahira has a voice worth paying attention to. A bold tweet, whichhassincebeenpinnedtothetopofherTwitterpage,made back in November 2017 declared: “I ain’t no Kendall Jenner, but I’m a black Muslim girl from east London that’s about to finesse the modelling industry.” It was retweeted 57,000 times, with a raft of roaring comments supporting and pining for her success. Her Instagram and Twitter following, which have a humble 7,000 between them, proves that true influence isn’t a numbers game. If she lifts the lid with a just few characters of articulated furies, it’s still an authentic sell.
With power, of course, comes politics. The juggernaut of publicity can trample the toughest acts into a heap of hurt feelings, let alone a fresh-faced girl still in her coming-of-age
“I deal with criticism well because I’ve put myself on this platform. I wanted to be here so now I have to accept it”
years. Shahira chooses not to deflect that critical gaze, but acknowledge it and move forward. “I can’t control the outside world and the opinions of other people. I just want to be able to be myself and people can take that however they want. I would love to be perceived in a positive way all the time, but I know that’s not realistic and I make peace with that. I deal with criticism well because I’ve put myself on this platform. I wanted to be here so now I have to accept it.”
With a mature head on very young shoulders, Shahira possesses the same wisdom in her personal life as in her professional life. “You know that friend we all go to for advice? I am that friend,” she says without puffy pomposity. Because she always has something sage to impart, a voice of reason, as it were, her disposition has awarded her accolades of “kind, sweet, considerate and funny,” by her friends. But where she is an open heart to others, she is a pedantic quibbler to herself. “I am very reflective of my actions – if I did something that I knew was wrong or I didn’t like, I’d pick up on it very quickly.” A behavioural trait that’s seldom learnt, but an innate quality driven her own self-awareness.
Her greatest life lesson so far? That she is self-taught. “Although it’s important to value logic, in some circumstances emotional intelligence is more important – being aware of your surroundings and how and who you’re talking to can be more affecting than you think. I come from a big family so I have had many opportunities to grow from my mistakes.”
She’s troubled by society's use of particular language (none mentioned specifically, but I’d hazard a guess they’re raciallyinclined) especially with semantics constantly shifting as we move through new cultural climates. “We need to be more aware of our language,” she says. “We need to call it out and not be afraid to make things right.”
Not surprisingly, Shahira is gripped by socio-political issues, which at the moment includes anything and everything. “It’s hard to know where to even begin with it,” she points out. “I can’t pick one thing because everything interests me at the moment. Local or international issues, I want to tackle everything and venture outside of modelling. I see myself getting more politically engaged.” This September she will begin a degree in politics at a university in London, in which her first port of call is to sign up to as many societies (“the Labour Society!” mentioned with unequivocal emphasis) as she can. “It’s important for me to be involved, I can’t wait.”
It doesn’t mean modelling will be put on the backburner though.Withthekindoftemperamentaffordedtotheyoungand restless, Shahira wants to leave no stone unturned. Politically, she’s hankering for change and to be a key component in whatever she takes on; for fashion, she wants to walk for a spate of big-named shows (she has yet to make her runway debut). “YSL and Prada – I mean, how could you not aspire to them? And Chanel and Versace,” she says. And after giving her free rein, I don’t doubt that she will be a household name very soon.