Diana Talks About Ageism, Sexism And Life After The Runway
What do you do when you wake up one day only to find out that you have “aged” out of the only job you have ever held? This is a terrifying reality for the middle-aged woman in the workplace especially those in the entertainment, media and fashion industries. What magnifies the problem is the fact that these women are surviving on a single income and have no savings to get them through the transition. In order to avoid being isolated as their income shrinks and their faces become obsolete, they are reduced to working as “escorts” or “hostesses” some version of Ugandan Geisha for wealthy men. Diana Mbabazi had an illustrious decade-plus long career as a model in Uganda and passionately discusses these pitfalls of life after the runaway.
Years away from the runway and the spotlight haven’t diminished her style. Today she is wearing a flowing white skirt and white top accentuated by gold loop earrings and a beautiful gold and silver bracelet. Her cheeks are fuller and curves rounder yet she still turns heads with her strong, striking features that made her a darling of the photographers and a force on the runway. These days however, Diana’s life is far removed from the glossy worlds of high fashion and billboards. She spends her time trying to juggle her new life as a mother, a businesswoman and charity worker.
Shespell: How did you break into the industry?
DM: I was a pageant girl. Although these days beauty queens have to fight to get into modeling (yes there is such a thing as being too beautiful) I was one of the lucky few who had a smooth transition. I was crowned Miss Ankole in 1999 and later became MTN face of Mbarara. Through these experiences I was exposed to the life of real working models and when Sylvia Owori started her agency in 2002 I was among the first intake following grueling auditions.
Shespell: How did you survive as a young provincial girl thrust in the glamorous world of high fashion and wild partying?
DM: You are right about the parties. Appearances at dinners, executive house parties, boat cruises, goat races and cocktail parties were like part of our job description. You had to show up and look like you were having fun even if you weren’t. True I was from a provincial town but I had my values. I was brought up in a strong Christian home, although my parents were liberal, we were guided as young children to understand what was wrong and what was right. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t drink or enjoy it but I had limits that no one or nothing would make me cross. Also being the only westerner had a limiting effect on my “wildness” since I didn’t join cliques.
Shespell: Why are there few models from the west? Is it the attitude, size or lack of interest?
DM: In my opinion I think it is a mixture of all the above. My Banyankole sisters look down upon modeling; they think it is a career for crazy girls. They have been brought up to believe that no normal woman should live off her physical attributes which is ironic when you really think about it so they have this sense of false modesty. What they don’t understand is that becoming a model is not to give up who you are but to add another layer to your personality. There are other skills, besides being really, really, ridiculously good-looking and cultivating a strong sense of personal style, that models hone during their careers that are relevant to other fields and workplaces. These transferable or adaptable skills include an ability to work under pressure, adapt quickly to change, and take direction. To be a model is to be forced into uncomfortable situations, often working in different situations and responding to unfamiliar cues which prepare you for life’s ups and downs.
Shespell: Talking of pressure, it must have been tough trying to hold onto a career in such a competitive field. How did you do it?
DM: Oh yeah. .there was pressure. First of all you had to look your best at all times. You had to watch your weight, those with high appetites had to go on diets and exercise like demons. No matter where you spent the night, you had to show up with a flawless skin, white teeth and clear eyes the next morning. Modeling like any other job requires dedication, while a journalist will invest in a book or a course, models invest in their physical appearances. I loved modeling so I had to learn discipline, get connections and do everything to the best of my ability.
Shespell: We’ve heard stories about the bad blood between models. What’s fact and what’s fiction?
DM: Yes there are jealousies, fights and sabotage. You have to be really careful and smart in this industry. The best thing to do is to stand your ground and let everyone know that you won’t take any nonsense. Don’t give in into intimidation; once you do you are finished, I learned this the hard way. I was bullied and faced sabotage from fellow models, hairdressers and makeup artistes. My only crime was my tribe. My clothes would mysteriously disappear, a hairdresser would be too busy to do my hair and the makeup artiste would not have my shade of makeup. I lost my personal clothes or I would find them cut to pieces. Things came to a head one evening as I was walking home a fellow model tried to run me over but I survived. She shouted at me from the speeding vehicle to go back to Mbarara and stop taking all their jobs. The worst fights always came from one model appearing more in the media than others. That’s how rumours get started, that’s how some girls simply lose their focus trying to court as much limelight to themselves as possible.
Shespell: What’s the highest payment you received for a single job?
DM: I earned Shs 5M for one advert. Those days this was a huge sum of money.
Shespell: If life was that sweet why did you decide to leave?
DM: Modeling is an industry where ageism is the order of the day. This problem is even more pronounced in Uganda where models have no legal protection. Add that to the scarcity of jobs and you’ve got yourself a disaster. I didn’t want to be like those girls who wake up only to find that they have been “aged” and edged out of the only jobs they ever held. At that time the agency I was working with had started using us as escorts and worse. I knew where that path would lead to, so I decided to quit. I went back to school and did a course in food and nutrition and worked in Europe for a while.
Shespell: In your opinion what’s the best way to transition from one career to another?
DM: Models trying to transition into other careers fight an uphill battle because most employers have a serious problem looking beyond their bodies. There must be some serious hard work undertaken to change the mindset and attitudes around employment prospects for former models. We are capable of doing more than the catwalk, so at the very least employers could have the decency to look beyond our sexiness and provide the opportunities. For those trying to transition you need to adjust your lifestyle live modestly and give your newfound career 110% commitment. It’s possible for one to have multiple passions and dreams. God didn’t create us to act like robots; if you can do one thing well, you can do something else perfectly too.
Shespell: What keeps you moving forward?
DM: I am very self-motivated and have hope and faith that I was born to contribute positively to this world. I know that the God who gave me that purpose won’t abandon me until it is done. The rest can go but nothing can take my hope away.
Shespell: Why food and nutrition?
DM: As a former model I spent most of my adult life obsessing about food. I wanted to know which food does what to our bodies. Food heals and kills if abused. I have learned to respect food and this is the information I share with whoever approaches me. Secondly, I love God’s creation. .the fruits and vegetables that differ in shape, color and taste really show God’s undying love for us. Sometimes when I want to relax and have an optical nutrition I go to Nakasero market just to look at fruits and vegetables hehe crazy!
Shespell: What do you know for sure about love, life and wealth?
DM: God is Love so we love because He loved us. So love and life are a gift from God and both work hand in hand. True wealth gives us the freedom to enjoy life with more abandon, more intensity. It wakes within us love and compassion for all humanity.
Diana was born and raised in Mbarara. She is the fourth born of her six siblings. Her father was a medical doctor and her a mother is now a retired midwife.