Tell us about your childhood and how your background influences your approach to modeling.
I was born and raised in Tanzania, and my mom passed away in 1996 in a boating accident. We were very young, and it still bothers me to this day. I miss her dearly and wish she was still here with us, but God knows better. My dad remarried a year later, but I don’t have any connection with his wife, apart from simply respecting her as my dad’s wife. She was never that woman who even cared that my little sister and I needed guidance as girls. We maneuvered everything by ourselves, but thank God our dad put us in a great school where we were able to learn a lot as young girls. I’m lucky we grew up to be so amazing and performed well in school. I am the oldest, so when I started modeling, I had responsibilities to make sure my siblings continued with school and supported them whenever my dad couldn’t help or just step in as a big sister. Thank God they are all doing great, so I now have less responsibility and I can focus on other things. To be honest, my childhood has nothing to do with modeling at all. I never thought I would one day be doing what I am doing now. I can say what I have been through has shaped me into the woman I am today. I work hard, am disciplined, and extremely grateful. I can’t imagine doing anything else right now.
Tell us about how you were discovered. What are the biggest challenges you face modeling?
I was discovered at a charity event in New York City, where we were raising funds to build a hospital in Tanzania. I couldn’t relocate right away for the job, so instead I had to work on my papers first for almost a year. Modeling has so many challenges, just like any other career. I didn’t have a mother agency or anyone to guide me through this journey, especially starting off in a new city abroad where I didn’t have any family. It was tough. I remember my first and only Paris fashion week, where I walked into a casting and was told that they were not seeing black girls. I insisted that because I was there they should at least look at my book, which they did, and they started to give me all of this negative feedback. There are amazing people in this industry but, there are also some that are very mean. I didn’t know any better, so I kept the incident to myself. Another thing I have to deal with, as a woman of color, is lack of diversity in the industry. There’s only one or a very few spots for us, and many times none at all. Fashion is universal and we are in 2018, but this is still happening. There are so many challenges, but I have always tried to stay positive. You have to stay focused, positive, have a thick skin, and concentrate on other positive activities, otherwise you can easily lose yourself and end up being miserable.
Tell us about why you started the Flaviana Matata Foundation.
I have been doing charity work for years. It really feeds my soul to help others whenever I can. Once I started modeling, I thought of young girls back home who really want to be in school and get the education they deserve but whose families can’t afford it. I was lucky to have the option to either continue with school or start modeling, but imagine those girls who want to be in school but they can’t because there are so many barriers, such as poverty. In short, I started the foundation as a way to give back to the community, and I am so proud of the many things that we have done through the foundation. Our girls will graduate from high school this year, and this makes me and the team so happy. Looking at the big picture, we are not only empowering these girls but also their families and communities.
How do you balance your time between modeling, your foundation, and your nail polish brand?
It is really hard, to be honest. I sometimes feel like giving up. Yes, I have those moments. It’s been hard, but no one said it would be easy. I always try to give everything my all, and thankfully I have a great team in Tanzania that helps with Lavy and the foundation, although it’s not easy to work with people in three different time zones. I keep going because they are things that I really love and am passionate about. Also, as a model, it’s sometimes hard to plan things in advance because of my modeling schedule. Thankfully I am now with an agency that really supports everything else I’m doing apart from modeling, so they understand it’s important for me to at least have an idea of my schedule, and it’s okay if I say no to some bookings because I have something else to do that I can’t reschedule.
What are your long-term career goals?
I plan on going back to school at some point, probably next year. I also want to have a family, but the most important thing is to grow my business across Africa and here in the U.S. and to be able to support more girls through my organization.
How do you use your platform as a successful model and businesswoman to influence others?
I use my platform to empower young girls through education and entrepreneurship, but I’m also a great example that you can achieve anything no matter where you come from. Women can be whatever they want to be as long as they put their mind and focus into it. Having a support system is important, but if you don’t have any it shouldn’t stop you pursuing your dreams and goals. Push through and you will meet amazing people along the way. Another important thing that I would like to emphasize is the importance of supporting one another whenever possible. I am trying to be there for other people as I know how it feels to not have anyone.