INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA AYOKO
Interview by Alice Pfeiffer - Photography by Clément Dauvent
“You can compare my childhood to a mix between ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Color Purple’ ” says Rebecca Ayoko. Born in Togo in the seventies, she grew up in extreme poverty and ferocious violence – an upbringing leaving seemingly virtually room for hope. Little did she know that she was to become one of France’s first black supermodels, and Yves Saint Laurent’s muse. Dior, Balmain, Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta: no runway was without her. Shot by Helmut Newton, beloved by French Vogue, “I got my fairytale and so much more.” Today, she has marked history, but hasn’t forgotten her childhood. Her upcoming autobiography (Jean-Claude Gawsewitch editions) will tell her bittersweet, rollercoaster tale.
Alice Pfeiffer: What is your earliest fashion memory?
Rebecca Ayoko: I was destined for pictures. When I was very young, I had to go to church every Sunday, and I hated going — the devil was represented by a black man! But each time we went, my father would take a photo of my sister and I afterwards, and I looked forward to these small photo sessions every week. He passed away when I was six though, so these didn’t last for very long — but they remained a pleasant souvenir, and the only time I was to get any attention for a very long time.
Why? What happened after that?
We were a large family, and my mother couldn’t handle nor afford to raise all of us. I was so skinny the children at school called me skeleton child, we had so little food at home. So I was sent to live with my uncle and his wife in Gabon; my mother was assured they’d look after me and send me to a local school.
What really happened was that I immediately made to work for them, I sold doughnuts at markets for them, and did house chores the rest of the day. At night, I slept tied to the wall so I wouldn’t run away. I had been made a slave-child — which happens more than you think.
Several years passed and I was finally sent back to Togo.
Did life get better once you got back to Togo?
Oh dear, no, not quite yet (she laughs). My mother died when I turned 13. Shortly after…I was raped (she pauses). I won’t go into it, but it was an event that destroyed me, and which I have never gotten over. Then, I knew it was time to go. My sister had moved to the Ivory Coast, and had sent someone with money, asking me to move there and bring her son with me. So I got fake papers from one of my mum’s old friends, a policeman. He made me an ID that stated that I was 18. I then painted my face with the heaviest makeup possible, wore a colourful cloth on my head like older girls did, and carried my nephew on my back. This way, when I got to the border, the authorities believed my age, and let me go without bribing me — the baby helped I guess. The rest of my trip was by ‘taxi-brousse’ (illegal, shared taxi), and I finally got to Ivory Coast.
Was this the beginning of a new life?
Well, it would have been if I hadn’t started to get violently sick; I soon realized I was four months pregnant, from the rape. I tried to get an abortion, but I realized it was too late, and that I would probably die at the same time as the child.
The abortionist told me “when you’re giving birth, and the baby is starting to show its head, squeeze your legs together and suffocate it.” But when I was in labour, I couldn’t bring myself to do it; neither could I ever abandon my child. It was an extremely ambiguous feeling. Being pregnant felt so unfair, because my rapist had never been punished, no one had ever defended me. I was in charge of someone else’s life although I hadn’t even been given a childhood. Yet she was my daughter, my child, I couldn’t leave her behind. Years later, she came with me to France, and today lives near Strasbourg.
Isn’t the Ivory Coast also where your career kicked off?
Yes it is! The Ivory Coast was nicknamed ‘Little Paris’, it had a lot of foreigners, especially Europeans, and people were overall fascinated with anything that came from Paris, including fashion. With my tall, skinny physique, I could suddenly get small modeling jobs. A hairdresser spotted me and signed me on to the Miss Ivory Coast contest, which I won. Modeling was going especially well after that, but my friends said I had to move to Paris, that this is where I could grow as a model. So they all saved up to buy me a ticket, and I left.
How were your first moments in Paris?
Well, the beginning wasn’t at all what I had imagined. My friends had bought me the most expensive ticket, during peak season, right in the middle of August; they thought it was the best time to go. Little did I know that the entire city would be empty. None of the contacts I had led to anything, no one picked up the telephone. My money was rapidly running out, Paris was so much more expensive that I had imagined.
Luckily, a friend of mine — who, it turned out, worked as a prostitute. How different was reality!— invited me to stay with her. She was a sweet, generous girl, she cooked for the both of us, never asked me for rent. She worked all night and slept all day, and so I wouldn’t be in her way, I walked around the city until she woke up round 5pm. That became my main activity: daylong walks, all over the city, without ever getting on the metro. This was also was led me to my career.
Were you spotted?
Yes. I was spotted on the Champs Elysées, taking one of my usual walks. I remember this moment, it still feels a little magical. You know, at different times in my life, I’ve had people come to me, and help me without every asking for anything in return. I’ve been incredibly lucky at times. Regis Pagniez, a creative director at Hachette Filipacchi saw me, thought I was cute and looked different from the French models; he took me to the offices, which were then right by Le Fouquet’s restaurant, and showed me round the offices of the magazines they owned at that point: Elle, Lui, Paris Match, and more.
The fashion editors then suggested doing a few pictures, to see how I looked on photos — they unbraided my hair and left it natural, put makeup on me and dressed me up in a garçonne fashion. Next thing I knew, Wafa Assouline was shooting me for the fashion pages of Lui. She became like a surrogate mum, made me feel comfortable and beautiful. Suddenly, the suffering of my childhood was fading, everything was becoming beautiful. The Hachette team then recommended me to the successful modeling agency Glamour — which no longer exists—, and I was to later switch to Elite.
How did you first meet Yves Saint-Laurent?
My agency sent me to a casting, he was looking for new faces. As you can imagine, every agency in the country was sending their girls.
I had of course heard of him by then! He was at the top of his career, and working for him was my absolute dream, like most other models. I also admired the character, and loved his work — his clothes were always what I thought I would buy the day I had money: masculine-feminine, short hair, a cigarette, a suit. That’s YSL in a nutshell.
So, the casting had two rounds. During the first, you didn’t get to see Yves; hundreds of girls were there, I remember waiting for hours and hours. I was selected for the second round, which meant you were dressed in a Saint Laurent skirt-suit and presented to the whole studio team including Yves.
I remember walking into the studio, about to faint from anxiety, and then our eyes crossed, and he gave me a large smile; I smiled back and immediately felt comfortable. That very smile was the beginning of my fairy tale.
So you were selected, I take it?
Yes, I was the first he selected! I walked all his shows; I also made to in-house studio model, every couture piece was designed on me. This is no mere mannequin-cabine! (inhouse model, only called for fittings; mannequin studio was only for couture ) I inspired him, he told me. He said he just needed to look at me for inspiration to come flowing in. So I ran around his studio, danced, posed, joked, he looked at me and sketched, with a big smile on his face. He was so warm, and always smelled so good. I called him ‘mon Saint Laulau’ and he ‘ma Rebecca’. He called me beautiful, poetic names like ‘divine beauty fallen out of a dream’ — it still gives me goosebumps. Never, ever did I tell him about my childhood, nor did I share it with anyone else. It was a shame I carried with me my entire life.
Why do you think he liked you?
Saint-Laurent and I had a true understanding, a genuine understanding. Also, he always liked black women, who, at the time, were only starting to appear in the fashion world; he was amongst the first to work with black models, and work on making black women beautiful. Dark skins are great with bright colors reds, oranges, yellow. He was amongst the first to see this quality. He also like red-headed women, he was drawn to strong shades. Other designers were less interested. Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, never, ever wanted black models. I was sent to a casting for him once, he took one look and said ‘what is this? I never asked for black models!’
So your life changed rather radically?
It was unbelievable — next thing I knew, I had a flat in Paris and a flat in New York. I modeled for Saint Laurent of course, but also walked for Chanel, Dior, Balmain, Givenchy, you name it.
People called me incessantly; my phone never stopped ringing, to beg me to come to different parties. Paparazzis followed me to find out who I was dating. Every time there was an Yves Saint Laurent show, people fought to get in; I’d give one invitation out, and four friends would show up; I’d squeeze some friends in through the backstage hours before the show. Once the show was over I’d receive flowers, hundreds of hugs. I was living a dream I never believed really existed.
But the most precious lesson I received was by being always on Yve’s side: the world knew who he was, but he was always incredibly simple. He never showed off, and was always full of tenderness and love — which something extremely rare in this industry.
You also met quite a few people — you were shot by Helmut Newton several times, correct?
Yes I was! The first photoshoot was head-to-toe Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, for French Vogue. I suppose that at the time, I didn’t realize how famous he was. Yves was the only celebrity that mattered to me. I had him on my side, no one else mattered in comparison. So when I found out Helmut wanted to shoot me, I wasn’t especially excited. People said “aren’t you excited? He really wants to shoot you!” But I remained very natural, very calm. Working with him was very pleasant, he was such a darling. Extremely professional but also extremely relaxed. He guided me, said “rest your body against this wall, imagine you are selling yourself on the street and that you are waiting for a man to come”. It was the role of an actress he requested from models.
Another shoot, also for Vogue, consisted of me being chased in the street by a soldier. He wasn’t a model, just a genuine soldier he saw in the street and randomly asked to follow me. Helmut said to act uninterested, superior to him, like “I’m in Saint-Laurent Couture, who are you?”.
It was a very pleasant experience, we had so much fun.
You also worked with Karl Lagerfeld several times, right?
Absolutely - I met Karl in New York for the first time and initially modeled for his own line. Karl is great, and really knows how to push you to get the best of yourself. He extremely nice, and makes you feel totally relaxed, which always leads to giving the best of yourself. Also, he really likes models, always called me ‘ma chérie’, was interested in me, in the girls inside his clothes — which makes an enormous difference.
You must also have been on first name basis with Pierre Bergé?
He was a kind man, but everyone trembled when he entered the office.
He was a businessman, you need strength and a strong temper to direct such a business. He always spoke to me with kindness, he a sweet, tender man. He also protected Yves, who hated the celebrity system, paparrazis, showbusiness. The two of them fled bling-bling environments as often as possible, and went to rest in Morocco, or in Yves’ castle in Deauville.
What there much competition between black models?
Of course, this is always the case, all models from the same origin feel that — and that’s true for anyone in showbusiness too. Us models, we felt like artists, and in a world that produces artists and throws them out, this is inevitable.
How long did you keep working for Yves Saint Laurent?
It ended progressively. It was like a couple madly in love, and suddenly, you feel the other’s love starting to fade away; suddenly there are emotional rollercoasters between the two of you; you try to reconquer the other, and then one day it’s truly over. I suffered from losing him, I dreamed of going back to the studio. He never said anything, never said goodbye, his head of communication did. He wasn’t the one who didn’t renew my contract, people around him advised him to move on. People at the house told me he missed me, he kept calling the girl who replaced me Rebecca. Business didn’t stop then though — on the contrary. I had earned quite a reputation all over the world, and moved to New York to work for the likes of Oscar de la Renta and Jeffrey Beans.
Fashion can be an incredibly tough industry…
Unfortunately, that’s true. When you’re a star, when people see you television, suddenly, everyone wants to spend time with you, get a snapshot or a hug from you. But the minute things start to slow down, these very same people stop calling. Of course, these are the doom of these career, they never last for that long, everyone knows that. Yet, people suddenly become extremely critical of you. “You probably don’t feel that great anymore now that you’ve left Saint-Laurent”, etc, etc. People feel reassured to see other people fall.
Some people have remained loyal friends, but the great majority disappeared.
It was tough — I had never been taught to save money, and burnt away everything I made. I had never received love, and suddenly, I realized that I was surrounded with superficial relationships.
Has the modeling industry changed much?
Back then, models were actresses, they really played a role; each time, for each show, as my hair and makeup were being done, I concentrated to get into my role, my runway persona. My metamorphosis was beginning; I practiced each passage on my head. Today, I can safely say I was a killer on the runway (she laughs), precise, confident, controlled. The models today… I call them soldier-models. Bam-bam-bam, out, back in, done. There is no more role-play, no more seduction.
How has the fashion industry evolved?
Money truly dominates, more than it was ever imaginable. Of course, this was always a money-led industry, but designers were creators, they were expected to invent freely, create what they wanted. They had to come up with their own unique inspirations, there was a sense of constant research. Designers today are like remote-controlled toycars.
What message do you have for people in fashion?
People in fashion, or anyone in a glitzy world should learn the value kindness over the pedigree, the heart’s intelligence over the university-shaped intelligence. Not everyone is given a chance to go to university, let alone finish school, but that doesn’t make those people worthless.
I’ve learned a lot throughout my childhood and my career, and if I had to go through it all again, I would without a doubt.
Do you have a word of advice for aspiring models in Togo?
If you have what it takes, go for it, don’t let anything stand in your way. And remember, always get an agent, you won’t get anywhere doing odd modelling jobs on the side. And never forget — modelling is a real job, not a hobby, so wherever you are, treat it as such.
What are you currently working on?
I’m the godmother of Ile de Ré’s fashion week — which means I’m in charge of castings, selecting designers and choreographing the shows. It’s a great, very fulfilling experience — it’s funny being on the other side of the fence, suddenly I see how difficult it is working with models! I try to guide them without crushing them, and ask them to be dedicated and professional. Years later, the fashion world still feels like my world.
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