Nicknamed Pocahontas, 20-year-old Alyssah Ali is relatively fresh on the international modelling scene. This Tobagan beauty is fast becoming a staple on the world’s runways and major ad campaigns, most recently with the Ralph Lauren brand. In the past three years, she has caught the eye of many a glamour magazine, quickly growing an enviable portfolio of work with the likes of Marie Claire, Elle, Flare and Vogue India. Her combination of provocative looks and strong scorpion personality has given her the right amount of ANOKHIness to take on the highly competitive world of modelling and stand out to boot!
In this, her first official interview, she talks about her experiences in the industry and shares aspects of who she is.
“From the moment I saw this girl, it was a yes without a question. She has a face to launch a thousand ships. There are beauties, but then there is Alyssah Ali” – Norwayne Anderson, the creator of NAM Models. How does it make you feel that an industry expert has this much confidence in your potential?
It gave me confidence because he has launched so many supermodels and he has all the faith in the world that I’m next.
NAM discovered you by chance walking through a mall when you were only sixteen. Tell me how this happened?
It was not exactly NAM that discovered me but one of their models, Kareema. I was shopping with my mom when she saw me and approached me. She gave me the NAM card and told me to go. My mom immediately said no way. She told me I had to wait until I was 18 and finished school. (Kareema) was also the one who gave me the nickname “Pocahontas”.
Nice! What did you think when you were asked if you’d be interested in modelling?
When she (Kareema) told me I had to be a model, I thought it was wicked. I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her.
Was this career ever on your radar before this chance meeting with NAM?
It was definitely not my first choice. I gave it a bit of thought but pushed it aside because I thought I did NOT look like a model. I didn’t think I had what it took to be one of those girls who seem so perfect. I also knew there was no way my mother would ever let me become a model. She was strict and the clothes and lifestyle of a model would not be proper. So when I turned 18 I went, without her knowing, to NAM. Now she is very proud of me.
You were a straight ‘A’ student in school and were accepted by all the universities you applied to, but you chose to bite the bullet and try your hand at a career in modelling. This must have been quite a challenging decision. How did you make it?
The decision for me to model was not that hard. I applied to universities because my mom wanted me to get accepted into them to ensure I had a future, in case modelling didn’t work out. I also chose modelling because I couldn’t choose what I wanted to do in school. I applied for criminal deviance and law, earth space science and geology, humanities, undetermined major and social science — one very different from the next. I thought I would only get into one and go there but was forced to choose when I got into all. I thought, while I’m figuring out my life, I may as well work. But then modelling became my life. I love doing it and I am not too sure I would want to do anything else right now. But it is always nice to have a fallback plan and I have five.
In August 2008, barely eight months after you signed with NAM in Toronto, you caught the eye of international heavyweight IMG who signed you on the spot. Did this help legitimize your decision to forge a career in modelling versus going into higher education — the fact that you must have “something” to offer?
I started working for IMG Paris and then for IMG New York — that definitely made me love my job. I realized you learn so much that you cannot get from textbooks. It’s such an experience. Learning so much about life and how different things are around the world, and yet some things are the exact same.
Since then, things have moved into warp speed for you with photo shoots for Marie Claire, FLARE and Vogue India, as well as covers for Lush and Verve Girl, not to mention catwalk gigs that include names like Kenneth Cole. You were even flown to Paris by Lancôme! Tell me about some of these experiences.
I have so many experiences, I could write a book! And it has all been in the span of two years. I loved working for Vogue India because they were really friendly and even booked me again. I also made some friends along the way. The second time I worked for Vogue India, I was flown to Mumbai. That was a crazy experience. I was nervous to go but when I got there, (it was) phenomenal. The locals were ridiculously nice. I couldn’t believe how humble they were and their kindness. It was really sad to see the way some people were living though. I want to go back there one day just to help some of them. It was also odd to visit Mumbai because even though Trinidad is halfway around the world (from Mumbai), the two places looked so similar—the way buildings were and how shops were set up on the street. I loved doing Marie Claire because I was always in a different country. I went to South Africa for Marie Claire France. I went to Sayulita, Mexico for American Marie Claire, which is where I realized it was one of my favourite places on earth. It was so peaceful and at night the town was full of culture — people dancing on the street and enjoying the night with no drama. I did go to Paris for Lancôme. They wanted to meet me to make their final decision on one of their upcoming projects. They told me I was too dark.
Wow! How did that make you feel?
I did not take it personally because they were looking for something specific and it was not me.
During your freshman years in modelling, who have you met that was worth meeting, and tell me why they were?
I have met many memorable people throughout the duration. Starting out with NAM, I met a couple of girls and we are still in touch. It is nice to see a familiar face when I am home and I love when I see them in magazines. I met some amazing girls in Paris. We are still good friends today. I cherish their friendship because they threw me a birthday party when they barely knew me. It was so thoughtful and special. Meeting Norwayne and Sonja was definitely worth it. They are not only my agents but my friends as well. I can talk to them about anything and they are always there for me. I love that I can confide in Sonja and she can always make me feel better. I am also really lucky to have met Kareema. She has been a huge influence in my life and helped me through some really tough times. She gave me really good advice and eighty percent of what I know about modelling, she taught me. One thing I always remember is that when you did not get the job, nothing is wrong with you, you just weren’t what they were looking for.
Have you faced any experiences that you wish never to repeat again?
I do not think there is one because even the mistakes I have made, I learnt from them. Some of my mistakes actually made my life better. I would have never started modelling or been allowed to if it were not for a huge mishap in my life. It was my fault and caused a lot of grief but I am glad I made it.
What thus far, has been the most memorable moment in your career and why?
When I went to Paris, I learnt so much, not just about modelling but about life. It has been an incredible experience—I have made some great friends whom I still talk to today and gained some loyal clients. Also, whenever I am in Paris I feel this great confidence about myself. It is weird but I love that feeling.
In your utopia, you’d be a Victoria’s Secret model and do a show for Valentino. When you achieve this (notice I said when), what will this mean to you — that you’re finally on top, or is there a deeper meaning for you?
One of the reasons why I do want to become a Victoria’s Secret girl is because they have the most beautiful girls in the world, with curves. I want to be part of that elite group. And yes, it would mean I have reached my (modelling) dream. Having a dream gives you something to strive for. Valentino because I love his gowns, they are always so exquisite.
ANOKHI has a long standing relationship with you, as you walked the ramp at one of our fashion shows in your early days and you were recently named one of our 2010 Sexy & Successful South Asians. And now, you’ve bagged our very first Wedding Issue cover! What did you think when we approached you with this?
I was very happy that ANOKHI chose me for the cover. I was also ecstatic to hear that it was a Wedding Issue. I love the traditional Indian dresses. Actually I love all saris, lenghas etc. because they are so gorgeous. My parents were also happy because it was the first thing I’m in where I’m wearing Indian outfits and that they could get in Canada.
What do we have to look forward to from you this year? Any notable campaigns you’re involved in for us to look out for?
I recently did the Ralph Lauren fragrance campaign for men. That was a highlight of my career. I have done the Miss Selfridge campaign a couple times and the La Redoute campaign in France. I am also out now in Sephora. I recently did my first W magazine and did another spread in Vogue India, which are (both) coming out soon. And I am going to be on the cover of ANOKHI!
If you had to sum up who Alyssah Ali is, using five adjectives, what would they be?
Here’s what the people closest to me say:
– My younger sister Anisah: I’m crazy
– My older sister Aliyah: I’m unique
– My boyfriend, Alex: I’m outgoing
– My dad: I’m enthusiastic
– My mom: I’m feisty
Outside of your modelling career, what else do you aspire to achieve in life?
I would love to be an elementary school teacher or a geologist. I haven’t decided yet. I want to have children for sure, when I’m ready, because I love kids. I want to gain more confidence and I am hoping modelling will help with that.
What does it mean to you to be an ANOKHI woman?
To be an ANOKHI woman does not necessarily mean that you have to be completely different from everyone else. You may have qualities that are similar to many women. I think ANOKHI is to have qualities that make you stand out from others and go against the norm of society. For example, a woman may not (as) thin (as society expects her to be) but she has all the confidence in the world and it shows. It makes her beautiful. Another girl may not act the way everyone wants her to but she believes what she’s doing is right. ANOKHI is someone who has so much confidence despite what people tell her or how much they put her down. I remember in middle school there was a girl in my class who everyone made fun of because she had an accent and looked different. I admired her because she knew that she was crazy smart and had the confidence to walk into class every day, and do presentations in front of the class as well. I know for a fact if that was me, I would change schools or something. ANOKHI is confidence (and) being different.
In your eyes, what does the ANOKHI brand stand for and why, if at all, is it relevant in today’s society?
I think the ANOKHI brand stands for every South Asian woman out there, as well as the men, living in communities where the South Asian community is not as prominent. It is comforting knowing they have a magazine that focuses on the make-up brands that are best for Indian skin, highlights the culture, promotes being an ethnic woman . . . and lets them become aware of what’s going on in their society today.
This magazine is definitely relevant in today’s society because South Asians are trying to make a name for themselves in the Western world. It shows that even though they have adapted to Western ways they still have their own culture. It lets society know that they are not the oppressed group they once were. They have changed. This magazine has also let everyone else become aware of our culture and helps them understand something they are not familiar with. I am thankful for this magazine because some people I have met in my life are so ignorant when it comes to anything they are unfamiliar with and (they) make fun (of it) or insult it.
First published in The Wedding Issue, May 2010, www.AnokhiMagazine.com
Photography by Vincent Lions
Produced by Hina P. Ansari
Stylist: Rashmi Varma
Hair and Makeup: Dee Daly/TRESemmé Hair Care/Judy Inc. using M.A.C Cosmetics (makeup)
Photo i,v,vi: Southern Belle. The South Indian Bride Continues Her Regal Quest Sari, Vishva Boutique, Price Upon Request; Rani Haar Necklace, Banglez, $250 CDN; Rani Haar Earrings, Banglez, $100 CDN; Nose Ring, Banglez, $45 CDN; Hand Pieces, Banglez, $100 CDN; Kundan Tikka, Banglez, $56 CDN; Jeweled Belt, Sonu Saree Palace, $49 CDN; Shoes, Browns, $138 CDN
Photo ii: After Hours. For the reception or the Valima, enhance the evening (and turn heads) with this tuxedo-charged cocktail vibe. Lengha Skirt, Vishva Boutique, price upon request; Silk Camisole, Dieppo, $129 CDN; Jacket, BCBG, $296 CDN; Jhoomer (hair ornament), Banglez, $35 CDN; Ring, Swarovski, $140 CDN; Shoes, NineWest, $130 CDN.
Photo iii: White Hot. The Dress. Simply exquisite and devastatingly chic. Wedding Dress, Réva Mivasagar, $3250 CDN; Shoes, Aldo, $90 CDN; Kundan earrings and tikka, Banglez, $100 CDN; Bangles, Banglez, $20 CDN.
Photo iv: Rock the Frock. Break free from the colour barrier and indulge in a fresh twist in this hue. Lengha, CTC West, $1935 CDN; Silver necklace and earrings set, Banglez, $80 CDN; Pearl Ring, Banglez, $20 CDN; Turquoise Ring, Banglez, $20 CDN; Silver anklet,Vishva Boutique, price upon request; Cuff Bracelet, Vishva Boutique, price upon request.
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