Philomena Kwao is a British model represented by Jag Models. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in economics and master’s degree in global health management, Philomena was submitted to a modeling contest by her friends. She won, and has since built her modeling career in the U.K. and U.S. working as a brand ambassador for Torrid and appearing in Sports Illustrated, i-D, Essence and more. Of Ghanaian descent, Philomena is passionate about women’s issues in West Africa, particularly maternal health. She works with numerous nonprofit organizations, and recently served as the spokesperson for Women for Women International, a global nonprofit dedicated to supporting women in war-torn and conflict-ridden areas, during its annual gala.
You have been making such a splash in the fashion world! How did it all start for you? How was your own body and beauty confidence affected on this journey?
I started modeling after a friend entered me into a competition in London, England. To my surprise, I won! When I began modeling in London, I was studying for my masters degree and after I completed my masters, I moved to America to expand my horizons. It has truly been a blessing. Modeling has helped me build confidence in my body and myself. Most people think that the industry is responsible for a lot of body negativity, but for me, modeling has helped me become acquainted with myself. Constantly being in front of a camera, I learned so much about myself and learned to appreciate my body in a way I had never done before because love it or loath it, this is the only one I have.
I always say that the skin you take care of in your 20’s is the skin you will inherit in your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and beyond. What skincare products do you use? What is your daily routine to keep skin not only looking good, but in good condition?
When it comes to skincare, I prefer simplicity. I have a number of sensitivities and allergies when it comes to my skin, so I’m wary of chemicals and new formulations. I rarely try new products and have used the same products for over ten years! I love soaps and moisturizers made with black soap and shea butter from Ghana. These are the beauty secrets that I learned from my mother. However, sometimes, this isn’t enough. I have a heavy travel schedule and a job that requires daily makeup, which can wear out the skin. So when my skin is tired or I have a breakout, I use Garnier Pure Range products.
What is beauty to you?
Beauty is a reflection of self confidence. When I look in the mirror, I am reminded of all the powerful women who have come before me. So to me, the beauty you see reflects my pride in who I am.
You and I recently did a piece for i-D where we discussed IMAN Cosmetics and the beauty/fashion industry. How did it come about that you and i-D collaborated on this piece? What lead to the collaboration? What have been resounding thoughts you’ve had since doing the piece?
This collaboration was a dream come true. In the past, I’ve written about and discussed the difficulty that black women face in the beauty and fashion industries. Even in a fashion world that is beginning to promote diversity and inclusion, black women are still left behind and as a black plus woman, my beauty still seems to be less desirable than other forms of beauty. The beauty industry has continued to neglect black women with very few brands catering to darker skin tones. I had a meeting with i-D in which I highlighted these issues in the beauty industry and they agreed that the issue deserves more coverage. IMAN Cosmetics were a natural choice to highlight in this piece as Iman has experienced the issue personally and is leading the charge to create a beauty brand that caters to women of color. In filming the piece, the challenges I’ve faced for years in shopping for beauty products for darker skin tones were confirmed. I couldn’t find anything that was a fit for me. Even brands that claimed to be inclusive offered only a couple of brown products among a large selection of beiges. Since filming the piece, I have thought more about what I can do to highlight this issue and promote racial diversity in the beauty industry.
I am a believer in the power of beauty products and its transformative nature. What beauty products do you use on and off the set?
Overall, I use the same products as much as possible as I prefer not to experiment with my skin. On set, I use Kiehl’s moisturizer underneath makeup and Smashbox primer. I like to create a barrier between my skin and any makeup products that I’m using. Off set, it’s the same daily skincare routine. Just as I am with skincare, I tend to use the same makeup products day in and day out. The beauty experience for women of colour, especially those with darker skin tones, is not always a pleasant one, so when you find products that match your skin tone you tend to stick with them. Even on set, makeup artists who don’t have much experience with darker skin stones may not have the right products, so I usually take my own makeup to work. Right now, my makeup bag consists of foundations by L’Oreal, from their True Match collection. I also love Kevyn Aucoin concealers and the Iman Second to None powders. MAC also has an incredible range of deep purple and pink blushes that I love.
What features do you love to highlight when it comes to beauty?
I believe less is more so I try not to put too much on. I concentrate on perfecting my skin—making it look glowy and youthful. I also love my eyes, so on a night out, I love to accentuate them with eyeliner.
Body politics is at a high point as is its impact on the fashion/beauty industries. Do you feel that the atmosphere has changed in any way with regards to acceptance?
I feel change in some respects in that we’re talking about body image more, but I don’t think there is an industry-wide movement towards acceptance. Last year, The Fashion Spot came out with a report that showed only 1.4% of models who walked in New York Fashion Week were over a size 12. And although the industry is talking about inclusivity, the visibility of plus models in campaigns and editorials has actually been decreasing over the past few years. There seems to be a disconnect between what is being discussed in mainstream media and what is actually happening. It’s great that we’re talking about body positivity and acceptance, but we need to do more.
What is needed to increase acceptance and conversation?
We need more people in the industry to take a stand and use a wide range of models in their campaigns and on the runway, rather than just a talking point in an interview.
What is your favorite, go to designer? Why?
I love many designers, but I wouldn’t say I have a single favorite. I might be a high street girl for life.
Where are your top favorite places to shop for your body?
I’m a firm believer in trying things on, so I’ll shop anywhere. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit, but I’m going to try it on. My favourite shopping experience is the UK high street, where I love brands such as River Island, Topshop and Zara.