OUT TO SHINE: At just the age of 23, Mitchelle Daka has featured in Vogue, True Love, Bona, Invert and The New York Times magazines. Born of a Ugandan father and Malawian mother, Daka comes from a family of 11 and was in Uganda recently, where Edgar R. Batte caught up with her.
How would you describe yourself to a stranger?
I am a tall, good looking African girl with big ambitions and a desire to represent my country and the African continent. Being ambitious is my most defining characteristic.
How have you lived up to the dream of representing your continent?
I have done pretty well so far because I started modelling at 13 years. I used to meet people and they would tell me I was tall and could do sports or get into modelling. I decided to try out modelling because I was looking for opportunities everywhere. Then, I was staying in Kenya and the Elite Model Contest was looking for models. I entered the competition and won. After that, it was a bit easier for me because I already knew that I had potential in the industry. When I went to South Africa, I made sure that with everything I did, people knew I was an African girl. From fashion week, my works would be published showing what I had done and the designers I worked with.
How did you end up in Kenya and later South Africa?
I went to Kenya for high school and I was there for four years. After high school, my parents were looking for where I could access the best, affordable schooling but also able to preserve my African culture and that was how I ended up in South Africa. As soon as I was done with school, I started modelling there.
Tell me about your roots…
My roots are very complicated. I come from a typical African country where I have lots of mothers. My birth mother is Malawian and my dad is Ugandan of Sudanese decent. He considers himself Ugandan so we take it that way. My father’s mother is from Pallisa so we are Badama.
What are those things about culture that you practice and love?
My favourite things about Uganda is our music and how welcoming we are to other people. I like the fact that every time I meet people overseas who have been to Africa, they say Ugandans are welcoming and kind.
As a model who has showcased on the world stage, what are some of the brands you have represented?
I have worked with Thebe Magugu, whose brand has recently become successful. I have also worked with Mmuso Maxwell but the highlight of my career last year was working with Christian Dior and it is my biggest and best paying so far.
How heavy was the cheque?
It is better to keep it undisclosed but it is really good money. They paid in pounds.
You seem to be living every model’s dream. What did it take for you to achieve the breakthrough?
The number one thing is persistence because when I first moved to South Africa, I had a hard time finding an agency. Then I walked into an agency and when you walk into one during working hours, they may not pay attention to you. I did that with two agencies; Ice Models and Boss Models and both declined. At some point I asked myself if there was something wrong with me. I gave it about a year and tried again. I sent Boss Agency an email with pictures and told them what I had done. They called me the next day and signed me, so if I had given up the year before and said these people have seen me and do not want me, I would never have gotten signed. You just have to keep trying.
Also, character matters. Once you get into the industry, you will realise that many people will book you based on how they relate with you; Do you make people comfortable? Are you a good friend? Are you a nice person to have around? Beauty will open the door but it will not sustain that door for you, so when that door opens, it is how you relate with designers, make-up artists and photographers that will keep it open. When you keep everyone as your friends, when an opportunity comes, they will fight for you.
So do you mean beauty and height do not count much?
They are important but they just open the door for you. You are not going to get consistent work based on beauty and height because the creative industry is built around people that know each other, so the sooner you get into that circle and make yourself worth remembering, the more you get work. There are many models but it is supermodels who have managed to merge their business side and character.
You are signed to Boss Models which happens to be one of South Africa’s best agencies, what does it feel like being part of a winners’ team?
We are really like a family. They make sure that their models are well taken care of and get the best deals. For example, I am now based in Dubai but they called the agency coordinating my work there and set up everything. They take care of you like their child because at the end of the day, you are going to make money for them wherever you go.
10 years on, what would you tell your 13-year-old self?
For starters, I would not advise anyone to get their child into modelling at 13. As much as you think you know it all, you do not. It helps to start at least at 16 because you have a backbone and know what you want and like and can say no if someone is taking you in a wrong direction. I have learnt to be patient because you meet many people who will test and try you. I have learnt to be firm without being disrespectful. You have to set your boundaries and be a professional. Money management is important because modelling is a fast life and demands a lot of you in terms of movement. Many models get swept away because they have to look nice and forget to send money back home to build something in their name. Modelling is seasonal and there are tough days. You have to plan for them. I save and do foreign trading.
You have mentioned being tested. What is the biggest test you have handled?
It is mostly rude clients who act like they have bought you because they are paying you for your time to shoot for them. In situations like that, I just say I do not like this or that and if a client is someone I cannot speak to, I speak to my agency. You just do not want to be disrespectful to a client.
How have you waved the Ugandan flag?
I tell everyone I am Ugandan but many people in Uganda do not know about me, so I do many things on the other side and no one ever knows. It just kind of floats. It is now that I am more intentional about people knowing where I am from and I do so on my online platforms.
From your observation of the local modelling sector, what are your thoughts?
Right now, Joram Muzira is doing an incredible job. All the models he is finding and sending oversees, are doing really well and walking for big shows. He is very good at grooming models. He is one person I think is going to place Uganda as one of the countries to watch. Abyranz is famous too. I got to know about him in South Africa where models post whenever he nominates them. They have so much pride. The more Africans he nominates, the bigger it will become.
You spoke about your love for Ugandan music, who are your favourites and why?
My all-time favourite is Mowzey Radio and it still hurts that he is not here anymore. It makes me sad but I love A Pass. He is versatile. Even if you are not Ugandan, you will listen and enjoy his music.
Away from the modelling, who is Mitchelle Daka?
I love travelling and seeing new places, and I do not want to stay for long because I tend to settle and lay back. I like to live in a place that is going to challenge me. I am into yoga and meditation. I love reading books, that is how I keep my peace. I am always looking for ways of growing myself. Even if I am to watch a movie, it has to teach me something, not any random one.
Which are your three favourite travel destinations and why?
Cape Town is number one; it is so beautiful and diverse. Diani in Mombasa because the water is so blue and Mangochi in Malawi for the waters and people. I like Fort Portal for the green, the beautiful weather and food.
What is your relationship status?
It is complicated. There is someone but I am not sure it is going anywhere.
One of my best friends in South Africa was murdered by her boyfriend. The night she passed away she was supposed to come stay with me. Would things have been different if she had come over and not gone to his place? With her mum, sister and cousin, we started a charity organisation that works against gender-based violence in South Africa.