“I believe, when something unexpected happens, it’s an ulterior
force that is moving you toward the new path of your life” Jessi M’Bengue
This is the first thing she told me after entering her upper west side studio apartment. Jessi M’Bengue is an ambitious, beautiful and touching model, who made her statement in the world of fashion….and now, reaching far beyond.
You may recognize her from several ad campaigns for Victoria secret “Pink”, Aldo, Levi’s, Coca cola…and also some editorials such as Nylon, Glamour, Cosmo, Elle, Oyster, GQ…
She is being photographed everywhere on the globe and, as she told me, “the most amazing place I have traveled for my job so far, is Africa” and continues “once in South Africa, I was sitting outside and having lunch after a photoshoot, when a group of zebras quietly crossed our passage, I was like … whaaaaat?!?”
She incarnates beauty and lives in wonderland but this African refugee did not get it all without trials and tribulations.
“C’était difficile, mais j’en suis venue a la conclusion que la ou tu commences, n’est pas forcement la place ou tu finis. On a vécu des galères mais Dieu merci, aujourd’hui, ON EST LA!”
She saw the light in southern France, from an unconditional love between her parents. Her mother is French with a Muslim Algerian heritage and her father is Ivorian-Senegalese and Christian. Her philosophy: “2 horizons in Africa, 2 religions but that’s love and sometimes comes miracles” It was not easy, and after extended families disavowed her parents union, it was only the 3 of them until her little brother, David was born, which made them, a united front of 4.
Her parents were rather young when they had her and she always felt like she was more of a little sister to them than a daughter. As she recalls “my parents were break dancers for night clubs, that is how they were making money while studying” and adds ” I would sneak out of my room to go dancing and would run into my father. He was sooooo cool. We would have fun and then go back home like old buddies”
While her family moved back to Africa, she preferred to stay in France. She was such a trouble maker she says, but managed to finish school since she was driven. She made a lot of mistakes and learned from them until the day she decided to change her life. Her dream was Canada, the anglophone part of it. So Toronto became her project for the 3 following years. She learned english, passed the toefl exam, did the required paperwork and took off.
Jessi was accepted in all schools she applied. She moved into her apartment, in Toronto, for which she paid a year up front with her dad’s help but 3 days later, the studio kissed her good bye… in flames.
” My entire french stories, my stuffed animals, everything was gone……but I told my dad, I am not going back home….I am starting over, here“
Becoming a Model
Struggle, depression, exhaustion…, it was hard, very hard and so cold. After six months, she was scouted by Chantal Nadeau, who would become her manager, her confident, sort of like another mother. Chantal groomed Jessi and made her the model and the woman she is today.
“I had no idea what she was talking about. How can a half shaved red headed boyish looking girl could become a beauty icon? I thought she was making fun of me.”
“I realized, everything that people disliked about my physical traits, my ethnic background and my personality while growing up in France, here, in Canada, people love and adulate everything about it.”
“Chantal Nadeau was my rock. She was there for me and believed in me. Chantal saw in me something I could have never seen in myself. She taught me everything and put me in front of a camera. That’s when it clicked. It was like I was born to become a model“. From Canada, Jessi moved to Hong Kong before finally landing in NYC.
She tells me that to date, when she looks at her pictures, she still can not believe it’s her. “I am a full fledged working model in New York City, its crazy” she adds “Here I was taught that I am Beautiful” and continues “Ever since, every time I am in front of a camera, I become that beautiful, charming, attractive woman”
Jessi’s worst thing about modeling: trading her converse for heels.
Here are some absolutely stunning pictures. Enjoy the journey of our beautiful African Refugee
What a wonderful time we had during her interview. Her story is compelling. Rare are those individuals who can stay truthful to themselves after going through so much hardship. She remembers who she is and where she came from while still living such a public successful life. Jessi M’Bengue is not done reconciling with her inner self. Love and children will come around and other things will need to be dealt with. But so far, she is doing great and I hope she keeps on climbing higher. Jessi mentioned two very big projects she is working on. One of which consists of giving back to someone of the African continent, the gift that changed her life. I will let you know the details as soon as possible, so stay tuned!
Interview by Aissata Ba– October 9, 2012