Longevity is not an easy thing to come by in a modeling industry so focused on the new. New debuts, new exclusives, new faces from far-off locals – it can feel like in an effort to re-invent itself, fashion forgoes what can make it special. Those that endure the never-ending rat race and convert first seasons into long careers can become muses to the biggest names in the business and model Yasmin Warsame stands as a testament of persistence. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia as the last of 21 siblings, Warsame immigrated to Canada when she was 15 in pursuit of opportunity. An apotheosis of beauty, the statuesque model from a conservative Muslim family was discovered after attending college and balanced being a wife and an expectant mother. Struggling to find work in her local market, a chance encounter catapulted her to high-fashion fame on the runways of Europe and shooting US, Italy, and Paris editions of Vogue. We spoke with Warsame about navigating her Muslim background with modeling, juggling motherhood, and a budding new career on her horizon.
Photo courtesy of NEXT Canada
Coming from a traditional Muslim, Somalian background, how did your family react when you wanted to be a model?
It wasn’t a tap on the back, I tell you. It wasn’t a “congratulations!” I actually hid it for about two years from them because I didn’t know how to say it. Islam is the opposite of modeling and the very essence of making money from your body is forbidden as a female. I wasn’t practicing – wasn’t observing the cultural traditional wear or the five times a day prayer. My family though on the other hand, is very much practicing so, I hid and the good thing is that we weren’t crossing paths because even though they lived in the Western world, they still very much kept to their own community. So, anything outside of the mosque was hard to filtrate.
Then finally, my sister was grocery shopping one day and there I was on the cover of Flaunt Magazine and she did a double-take. She said it looks like my little sister but then she’s like, “No, it’s not possible.” Then she sees, Yasmin, my name is right on the cover. She bought the magazine and later on that evening, I had five of my siblings from all across the world on one line having a conference call with me. They were not pleased and immediately asked me to quit.
You continued after that conversation happened, but was there an understanding, or did you have to go independent?
I said, I will in a little bit but they couldn’t just immediately cut in, that I had a contract. They were like, okay, well then it comes to an end. In the meantime, I was doing things for my mom who was back home in Somalia. So, they kind of appreciated that weight lifted off of them. I was taking care of mom financially, all her caretakers and built her a home. They were pleased about that part.
As the youngest, I slowly showed them a different side of modeling. That it’s not all about drugs and rock and roll. I don’t have to be naked and I promise, I have in my contract no nudity; no nipple showing; and I don’t do swim, including Victoria’s Secret. I made arrangements so that I can still get to do the work I love without having to compromise.
How did you first make that transition to like the international market and start working with these big brands?
That is all thanks to Terry, the owner of Next Canada, my mother agency for a very long time. I just recently switched to his agency and came over with three boxes from the agency across the street, which was Ford. After having worked in South Africa I came back with this phenomenal book. They just hogged me in Toronto and I couldn’t get any job because they couldn’t figure out where to place my look.
Within a week or two of being at Next Canada, they took a look at my book and Terry asked, what are you doing in Toronto? You need to be in high fashion, right now. I was flown into Paris within a week of moving to his agency and my first appointment was with Tom Ford. Which was shocking because I really didn’t know who he was to an extent. I quickly learned a lot on the job, and there was a lot I didn’t know before I came into the industry.
Photo courtesy of NEXT Canada
Taking you to 2003, when you started working with photographers like Steven Meisel. How was it working for him and did you learn anything from him on set? Did you feel comfortable or were you intimidated?
He is so shy and has a lot of people around him. Before you start, he always comes in to say hi to the girls and to hair and makeup. He comes in, takes a look at what’s going on, and then he retreats. The next time you see him is when you’re all dolled up and on set. Then it gets real quiet and really intimate. It’s just you and him and everything else is just kind of background noise. He really just watches you and then finds his moments, in whatever it is you’re doing. Most of these shots, I don’t remember doing them. It never really strikes a pose and it’s a very humbling experience to work with him. He’s really a true artist.
What has been one of your most memorable moments on set or on the runway?
The hundredth show of Dries Van Noten. It was like a reunion for everybody because he brought everyone together that used to work together. The girls, the hair, make-up, some backstage photographers, we haven’t seen each other in forever. It was just so peaceful and full of joy and love backstage. Everybody updating everyone with what they’ve been up to in the last 10 years. I have to say, I enjoy it so much more when I’m doing one show versus when I’m doing 25.
Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
How would you compare the industry that you’re in today to how it was when you started off? Was it more intense?
It’s so different. I never thought in such a short time, there would be such a difference. It’s a different way of casting now. Casting agencies’ jobs are almost disappearing because of how people are personally advertising themselves on social media. There are a lot of models now, discovered through Instagram. There was always this wall between us and the world but now it seems like that wall is removed. I think technology is great. People are marketing themselves on their own and taking their own fabulous pictures of themselves. Putting themselves out there as models.
How was it to be a black model in the industry when you were first starting and how has the perception of diversity shifted in the modeling industry?
It definitely shifted. Now, it’s more of a melting pot. At the same time, I never understood an industry like the fashion industry. I never understood why on earth the people in power would be biased against anyone, especially, black people. It’s an industry full of all kinds of diverse people and it’s supposed to be the least judgmental space. All the misfits that never fit into society formed their own industry. Within that industry, how can there be racism? Sometimes you try to press onto others what has been done to you.
Jumping into motherhood, you’ve had to balance motherhood and modeling throughout your career. How has motherhood altered your perception of life and what’s important?
I have a son who just turned 22 in February and a 5-year-old. They are two days apart with a 17 year age gap. Being a young mom and having a burst in my career was intense. It was really tough because I had to leave him behind a lot of times and it was hard for him to understand why I have to go after only being home for 48 hours sometimes. Any chance I would get in between jobs I would stop by in Toronto. He was staying with his dad whenever I traveled and without his dad, I wouldn’t have had the career I had, to be honest with you. I didn’t have to worry when I traveled about his wellbeing, I knew he was loved and taken care of.
The day before a show, there was one time I had a meltdown in the hallway of The Mercer in New York. I was on the phone with him since I was really missing him and I haven’t seen him for about two weeks. He just melted and cried so hard, saying ” I want you to come home now!” I remember scanning my brain trying to figure a way out of this job tomorrow so I could go home right away. But you can’t. You got confirmed and you’ve got people counting on you. I would try to take him as much as I can and then have vacation so I’d take a couple of weeks off work once in a while and just take off somewhere with him.
Photo courtesy of NEXT Canada
Well, you have a family portrait in Vogue Magazine, so I hope he gets it now that he’s older. Would you give your younger self any advice on how to deal with the industry and your mental health?
Breathe, slow down, and take it in a little bit. Find some time to be alone. I was a busy bee and I did not want to be by myself. Now that I’m older, finding time for yourself is just so precious to figure out your own thoughts, to even hear what you’re feeling. To know what you’re thinking before the whole world rushes in. That advice would have saved me a lot of anxiety.
I never really complained and a lot of my stuff was suffered in silence. I felt like I couldn’t really share it with my friends or the family I made, and I couldn’t really be like, I feel shitty today. I think there’s a lot more help out there now. And I love that a lot of younger people are taking the stigma out of mental health and illness. I’ve experienced them in different times, different places, different stages. Now I know I’m better equipped with how to deal with anxiety. I realized I have had anxiety all my life. I just didn’t know that it was called anxiety.
Now that we’ve gone through everything that 2020 has thrown at us, what are your goals for 2021? How have you been able to find peace after this last tumultuous year?
This year was testing us in every possible way. We survived it. I think in the beginning it was an adjustment especially with everybody being home and being in each other’s space constantly. You can look at it and you could say to yourself, you’re trapped and so, this is a terrible thing. Or you can just surrender to it and think, I’m given this gift which is now, I really don’t need an excuse to stay home. I’ve been learning a lot about myself, my patience, and how to work on that.
I also shot a movie called The Gravedigger in Djibouti with Khadar Ahmed in October 2019. We were going to show it in Cannes in May, but because of COVID it’s been delayed. It has been winning awards and they flew with top-notch equipment from Finland to shoot for a month and a half in Djibouti. The director found me and convinced me that I can do it as I’m literally terrified of acting. It’s so revealing and I took myself by surprise because I got out of the way and let the character come out. It was the opposite of modeling. Being vulnerable, showing your emotions, looking ugly, learning lines, and not caring. I really enjoyed the experience. So if something else shows up in my life now, I would definitely dive in.