With a poise that defied her age, then 18 years old, Malaika Mushandu cat-walked her way into Zimbabwean history books in 2011, to become the youngest Miss Zimbabwe ever.
THE STYLE INTERVIEW with Nyasha Themba Dhliwayo
With the national crown came entry to the Miss World pageant. At global level she secured an impressive top 10 finish and subsequently once again represented Zimbabwe at the Top Model pageant where she emerged as runner-up. Malaika’s fairytale conquest of elite modelling seemed to have come to an abrupt end until early this year when she emerged from a four-year hiatus to claim the World Super Model crown. The Standard Style’s Nyasha Themba Dhliwayo (ND) caught up with Mushandu (MM) at her base in Cape Town where she is studying. With super model sassiness interspersed with “the girl next door” charm, Mushandu talks about her return to the ramp and taking on the world on her own.
ND: This year after four years, you decided to return to the ramp. What drove you to make that decision?
MM: I want to be a person who is truthful in all aspects. What I had done with modelling is, I had given up on it and I had not reached my full potential. In future, I want to be able to tell my children that they can live up to their potential and should never give up. I also want to be able to stand on a podium and speak to people about never giving up on their dreams and reaching their fullest potential.
ND: Such a return comes with anxieties. How did you deal with the inevitable butterflies in the stomach?
MM: Butterflies are good. I don’t try to do anything to them. I embrace them because before a fashion show or photo shoot, they usually make me perform to a higher extent than I would when I’m calm. With my comeback, knowing people are expecting something also makes me work harder to deliver something that is worth watching. It makes me want to raise my flag and put Zimbabwe on the map over and over again.
ND: Apart from being the youngest winner, what other legacy would you say you left at the national pageant?
MM: I also won most the most titles in a night, which included Miss Photogenic and Top Model. In as far as the national pageant is concerned, I don’t think I have left a legacy as yet because there’s still a lot of things I have to do. I look back and I’m thankful for God’s grace but I’m not yet content with the work I’ve done. This is not me trying to be modest, but I really feel I’m yet to leave my mark and Zimbabwe will be surprised when I do.
ND: After your reign, you literally packed up a few bags and headed to New York to take a shot at the big time! How did your New York hustle work out?
MM: New York was great. I went to New York for a few months, but in those few months, I managed to model at New York Fashion Week. I didn’t open for any big designers but aspiring designers. I opened one show and modelled in five shows in total. It was a great experience and I got to see how New York and international models do it.
ND: How did that experience add value to you as a model and as a person?
MM: New York was a bittersweet experience that forced me to take a break from the profession. It made me second guess my character and the reasons I was going into the industry and whether or not I could make it. In the same breath, New York was an inspiration. It was the discomfort I needed to grow. I learnt that it’s not how tall, beautiful or talented you think you are, but it’s about how long you can do it up until you get that so-called “lucky break”. Overnight success does not exist. It’s a myth. Behind that overnight success is years of preparation and hard work. New York taught me to persevere and do my work thoroughly because it’s not talent that gets you anywhere, but hard work.
ND: You are studying towards a degree in motion picture. What made you choose this programme?
MM: When I travelled across continents, it became vivid to me that the media controls the world. I came back to Zimbabwe and it was even more drilled into my head that the perception people had of my country was because of what was being portrayed through different media outlets. I also realised that these days social media is really booming and so is electronic media such as television. With this programme, I found a way to contribute to the world or shape the perceptions of the world about me and my country. It’s me playing my part in painting Zimbabwe in a positive colour. Hopefully, it will help to get people jumping on board to help out or invest.
ND: What do you plan on doing once you have completed it?
MM: Los Angeles. Reason being I want to build my brand. I want to make Malaika Mushandu a strong brand and a force to reckon with. Though I might be popular in certain sectors, internationally I’m nowhere on the map. I will not even lie, I am one of the typical people who want the glitz, the glam, fame and fortune, but above that all, it’s for me to build a portfolio to be able to voice my opinion about what’s dear to my heart. The reason why many people listened to Beyoncè’s song Lemonade and why it was such a hit is because Beyoncè is a brand. If some girl from Zimbabwe had sung just as powerfully as Beyoncè or even more, people would not have caught wind of it because of the lack of a brand.
ND: It’s been said that fame is a punch in the face in the sense that no matter what you are told, you can never really prepare fully for it. What are some of the things that took you by surprise?
MM: I think it’s the fact that the moment I reached prominence people automatically had an opinion about me and my life regardless of the fact that they didn’t know me. That really bothered me. Secondly, it’s the work ethic within the modelling industry. It gets harder as you climb the ladder. It doesn’t become easier, it actually becomes harder so the higher you go, the harder you have to work.
ND: How did you handle these “shockers”?
MM: I let bygones be bygones. Whatever people think about me, they are entitled to their opinion. In terms of the work ethic, you have to sacrifice a lot of personal and family time in pursuit of your dream. Personally, you have to gauge whether or not it is worth it. For me at this point in time, I just switch off my phone and dive into the work.
ND: Which models have influenced you the most?
MM: I’ve never looked up to models and I still do not. I think it’s because of the mere fact that when I was young, I never aspired to be a model. Instead, I have looked up to people who are prominent in their industries. It’s not what people have accomplished in their lives but what they have done with their accomplishments which I look at more. Take for example Leonardo DiCaprio using his platform to cast a light on what we are doing to the environment, Akon contributing to supplying electricity to a lot of people here in Africa or Beyonce and Jay Z pushing the whole water and sanitation agenda.
ND: Models are regarded as some of the most beautiful people on the planet, yet there are enough exposés about the insecurities, eating disorders and personal challenges they face when the cameras are turned off. What do you think causes such insecurities?
MM: I think it’s the fact that models are regarded as the “most beautiful people in the world”. That stereotype has put so much pressure on models to conform to what the world expects them to be. At this point in time, it’s also because of how the fashion industry is structured. Models have to be a specific and certain size for them to make it internationally.
ND: What do you think can be done to help women who set themselves the often impossible and demoralising task of trying to look like the “girls in the magazine”?
MM: A lot of campaigns have been put out there, but to be honest, at this point in time the whole full-figured and plus sized model might catch on but it will take a bit longer for it to actually settle. This is because for so many years a specific type of woman was considered as a model. It worked because people always envy or aspire to be something that they are not, in the sense that a full-figured woman would look at a model. The fashion industry has to change for all these insecurities to go away but that’s a whole different topic.
ND: Talking of reality. There comes that time in every model’s life when she looks at the mirror and sees stretch marks, weight that just won’t go away and other telltale signs that age has caught up. How do you plan on dealing with this?
MM: We’re living in the 21st century where there are so many cosmetic products that can help prolong your youth and being very liberal, I’m open to everything. Right now I’m open to experiencing life as it comes. When I was a child, I experienced my childhood by dancing in the rain and doing all the childish things I could do. When I was a teenager, I had my tantrums and my feuds with everything and everyone around me. Now I am trying to grow into the best adult I can hope to be. When my time comes age-wise, I will be able to embrace that and live that experience in that moment.
ND: What’s your take on some people who say you can be aloof or even downright “frosty”?
MM: I actually didn’t know that people thought that about me. If people have gotten that vibe about me, it’s because of how they would have acted towards me. Understand that I’m a girl with a certain portfolio on my back, so I’m not going to indulge or entertain every male person who approaches me with an agenda. If females think like that, I actually wonder why. My friend has said that I’m like red wine. I’m an acquired taste. At first, I might be a bit to take down, but once you get accustomed to me, I’m addictive.
ND: Being a top model comes with the inevitable number of fellows trying to get your number, flirt and other such shenanigans. To date, what has been the most humourous attempt to “get” with you?
MM: This is not humorous, but it’s actually quite disturbing. I have people in my Facebook inbox and Instagram DM sending me messages daily about how they have already mapped out their lives with me, how they would be the “perfect one” for me and even how they view me in some provocative ways. So humourous would have been very welcome as I’m one of those people who like people who make fools of themselves.
ND: If a prospective suitor should have the “fortune” of meeting you, say in an elevator, how best would he have to put himself across so that he gets and maintains your attention?
MM: To those people who know me and want to have a go at me, those people actually have less of a chance of getting with me as opposed to a complete stranger. When I enter a relationship, I prefer to do it with someone who knows the least about me.
ND: As the only girl growing up with three brothers, you were a self-confessed tomboy. Over the years how have you chipped away at the “rough edges” to become a groomed lady?
I think the fact that I knew I was not the typical girl and that I was more manly in terms of mannerisms and dressing made me more open to accepting criticisms and researching on what the typical lady should do. It has actually played to my advantage in that when I do decide to clean-up, I clean-up very well. I had to tap into what my mother taught me and do an immense amount of extra research as to how certain things are done in a more ladylike manner.
ND: When and what was your most recent “tomboy relapse”?
MM: Growing up with three boys made me competitive. So racing in the street when one of my school mates said “Just because you are tall you think you move fast”. We actually had to race on the street from one corner to the next to see who would win! I still climb trees. I still eat while I’m walking, which I don’t know if its a lady or manly thing to do. I can order a burger and eat it while I walk.
ND: Though you have said that you hold quite diverse views from your father, you always mention him as one of your greatest influence? What life values has he instilled in you?
MM: My father has taught me the importance of empathy throughout my life and it has rubbed off regardless of the fact that I’ve tried to fight it. Recently, one of my friends said to me, “Malaika, I don’t think you are a ‘caring’ person per se, I just think you are kind in that you do things because you feel you are obligated to”. I sat down and thought about it and I think it’s due to the fact that I have empathy — the ability to feel obligated to help someone regardless of how you are associated with them.
ND: What are some of the areas you two just can’t agree on?
MM: My father and I don’t agree on politics. That’s the one thing we have never and will never agree on. My father used to give to the extent that we would be left with nothing as a family and this was due to the fact that he believed that God would replenish his cup. I’m one of those people who have a slightly different view in that I believe that God helps those who help themselves. I would debate with my dad saying “God said give but he didn’t say give till you are left with nothing”. We also differ on how we view God and religion.
I strongly believe in God, but I have a different view of the Supreme Being. I’m more liberal when it comes to religion as I feel religion divides us more than it actually unites us. As long as we believe and worship the same God, I’m fine with whatever religion or religious sects that you are. The in-depth of that is what I will not partake in. So my father is more of a religious person and I’m more of a spiritual person.
ND: You seem to hold an “idealistic” view of relationships.
MM: I wouldn’t call it idealistic. I just feel I expect a certain standard and level of commitment and dedication towards the relationship I enter into. Reason being I’m willing to give little commitment, so I think it’s only fair to expect the same in return.