The model-activist opens up about her precipitous fall and rise: from a dark period of drugs and depression to founding Girls Talk, a community dedicated to helping girls like herself tackle issues like mental healthy, body image and sexuality.
The first time Adwoa Aboah saw herself on a Vogue cover was just over 18 months ago. It was the magazine’s Italian edition, the one that has launched some of the most successful modelling careers of the past few decades. “Oh, that’s just me and I’m really happy I got a cover,” was her initial reaction. Then she thought, “This is something I’ll really have to get my head around.” Smart, she is.
Aboah was raised in fashion. Mother Camilla Lowther is one of the world’s most successful fashion agents, father Charles Aboah is London’s go-to location scout. But that Vogue cover was her ticket to the industry’s inner circle, and she had a good idea of what she wanted to do with it.
The starkly beautiful young woman has since used her model profile to open doors to a world of Millennial activism, fuelled by searing honesty about her own battles with addiction and mental illness. Her vehicle is Gurls Talk, an online community she launched and devoted to giving a voice to young women as lost as she once was. That first Vogue cover? It arrived on newsstands a couple of months after a suicide attempt that left her in a coma for four days.
Fall and rise. It’s not the kind of career the fashion industry gets to celebrate, because it’s usually the other way round. We mourn the Descent. With Adwoa, we mark the Ascent. And when the Ascendant speaks, it’s with the irrefutable voice of experience, commandingly deep but warm, never strident, always determined, speaking of revolution in such a restrained, reasonable way it compels focus on the words being spoken. Every so often the spell is broken with a hearty, human laugh. But how quickly we return to that warm, buzzing, mesmerising voice.
This year’s Glastonbury was a measure of the changes in her life. “I’ve been going since I was 15, and it was such a massive part of my drive for oblivion and debauchery,” she says. Now, sober and clear-headed, she was able to take the measure of — and to enjoy — the impact of finding her own voice. First, there was the StyleLikeU video, a revelatory bolt of lightning for girls who might look at Adwoa and be fooled into thinking she had it all. Then there was i-D’s short film on Gurls Talk. Finally, there was the Gurls Talk site itself. Together, they created a potent troika, its power realised in the event Adwoa hosted with accessible luxury brand Coach at 180 The Strand, a brutalist building turned creative hub, in London on July 1. There were 700 attendees, mostly women, and a small handful of men. Some of them had travelled across the continent. It was an incredible physical manifestation of a community which had, until that point, existed solely on the internet.
“A lot of Gurls Talk started online, through the internet. At the event, I realised how important it was to be in my community. I kept saying to all the girls, I’ve found my tribe. When I’m around those women, so much of the burden I carry, the depression and the bipolar, the fear of ever going back into that dark hole, is completely taken away. When we’re all taking part, I don’t have to be ashamed about it or explain myself, they all understand. So Gurls Talk is as much for my benefit as anyone else’s.”
One indication of how much Gurls Talk has been driven by Adwoa’s own need was the detailed PowerPoint presentation Dr Kathryn Abel gave at the event. “I wanted to hear from a female doctor and someone who was a friend,” Adwoa explains. “Everything she said was amazing, some of it quite sad. Like the effect of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, on women. I realised I’m not just making it up. SSRIs do block your orgasm. I’m not even able to have a sex drive because of them.”
That one conundrum outlines the enormity of the challenges confronting Gurls Talk. For Adwoa and maybe thousands of young women like her, antidepressants keep a daily darkness at bay. But there’s a penalty. Dr Abel acknowledged as much when she finished her talk. After so acutely outlining the problem, she held up her hands and asked the audience what they thought the solution might be. Adwoa could think of two. “Kathryn said we must educate ourselves on our hormones, our mental state, what’s going on inside, in order to progress. So one solution was all of us being in that room, taking the info in. And just the conversation itself was another solution, the fact we were talking about it.”
It’s that aspect, the simplest and most direct, which is Gurls Talk at its most radical. The message is hardly unique: you are not alone. It’s the uniqueness of the messenger that gives it its powerful new relevance.
As an addict in recovery, she knows the risk she’s running. “I want to give everyone my time, but I have to be very careful now, going forward, that I leave some time for myself, thinking time, love and self-care. I’m highly co-dependent. I just want to givegivegive. It’s why I started Gurls Talk, and why it’s still going.”
When I ask if her girls need her to be strong or vulnerable, I feel like I’m talking to a 21st century Jean Brodie. “They want me to be real, they want me to be vulnerable.” Adwoa says her partner Holly Gore cried ten times during the Gurls Talk event. She didn’t cry once. “I’ve never felt so much pressure as when I did my talk in that room. Even though I was with my supporters, I’ve never been so nervous. I wanted to cry, but I felt like I had to keep it together.”
Pressure! Not good. “I know, but it’s a pressure I love,” she insists. Still, you can’t help but worry when she says something like, “I’m ready to exhaust myself for my community. If they can’t speak out, I’ll make sure I give them a voice. I’ll take their words and say them for them. And I’ll make sure I have complete clarity and am grounded 100 percent of the time. I feel I can take over the world when I have slept and eaten and seen my friends. So that’s what I mean when I talk about looking after myself. If I don’t have self-care, I have nothing.”
“You eat properly?” I ask. “Sometimes.”
I’m no less worried.
She shaved her head three years ago, after a move to Los Angeles. You can read that gesture now as a rejection, a visual sign of a tumultuous period in her life. “My career wasn’t doing so well,” says Adwoa. “I’d been modelling but I was taking some time away.” She tried to kill herself on October 3, 2015. That date is her before-and-after watershed. She’s completely open when she talks about it, even as she concedes the terrible trauma it evokes.
“I’ve been there, and I’m here now.” That’s what she can say to women who ask for reassurance, and no one can dispute those words. Same way she talks about the abortion she had this year. “I didn’t think in my wildest dreams I’d ever have to go through that, I’d seen friends go through it and I thought no way, and as the over-emotional human being I am, I knew it would be horrible. But even that experience taught me so many things: how grateful I am to be a woman in the 21st century, able to make that decision. And how amazing it was that the three male doctors who took me through that journey all let me make that decision. And how I can now use that experience to do something better. If someone comes into my life who needs to have that conversation, I can have it.”
And out of darkness, the light of Gurls Talk. “I think I’ve done better in my day job because of Gurls Talk,” Adwoa says now. “They’ve gone very much hand-in-hand in terms of success.” That’s one more testament to her uniqueness, especially when MODEL SPEAKS OUT! was a headline she never wanted to see. The idea that her activism could be sidelined as a mere trend like everything else in fashion plagues her, just as it does designers like Walter Van Beirendonck and Rick Owens, whose collections comment on the world in equally extraordinary ways. “I want it to be obvious that my presence and my opinion and my commitment to breaking stigmas and taboos are here to stay,” says Adwoa.
Author: Tim Blanks
Originally published on www.businessoffashion.com