Growing up Malaika

The top model has gone from one-room garage to bona fide Burberry star

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Malaika Firth is sitting in a make-up chair at a photo shoot, surrounded by a small, moving storm of hairstylists, fashion editors, agents and assistants, who take turns primping and prepping her. Throughout it all, we chat – about work, life, home towns, social media and why she’s come to LA. She’s clearly in her element, a face of one of Britain’s most iconic brands, Burberry, even though she’s a long way from where she started. 

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The only question about Malaika Firth’s career is when, not if, she’ll achieve supermodel status. At 21 years old, Firth has already walked in more than 100 of fashion’s most influential, big-ticket shows – think Burberry, Chanel and Louis Vuitton – and has been the face of a history-making, game-changing campaign for Prada. Models.com, the unofficial register of the modelling world, ranks her on its top 50 list. But it’s attaining a spot as a Burberry girl, alongside legends such as Kate, Naomi and Cara, that has placed her firmly in the major league. 

It is nothing to scoff at for any model, but it’s especially impressive when you consider how far Firth, who was born in Mombasa, Kenya, has come to get here. With her ambition, Firth could be the poster girl for modelling’s new breed: young women with strong voices, large social followings (she’s an avid Instagrammer, with 114K followers and counting, and met her boyfriend on Twitter), and their eyes on the prize. 

On the Burberry runway in Los Angeles, Firth sails by, all cheekbones and attitude. She’s holding court with a starry cast that includes some of the biggest names in the business, as one of the main model attractions at Burberry’s London in Los Angeles takeover, an event celebrating the opening of the brand’s Beverly Hills flagship store. To introduce itself to a city rarely in need of a trench, Burberry has pulled out all the stops. There is a garden party replete with cashmere scarves, a stable of musicians from its Burberry Acoustic programme, and Cara, Suki and the entire Beckham family sitting front row. 

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Firth moved to London from Kenya when she was seven; back then, she was called Tamara. Her father, Eric, arrived first, working as a French polisher in the Four Seasons Hotel. The rest of the family followed and together they settled in Barking, where they lived in a garage her father had built from scratch. ‘My dad is such a hard worker,’ she says. ‘There was no shower. It was very tough in the beginning.’ 

But Firth had a lightness about her. She loved dancing in front of the mirror, singing into her hairbrush and imagining that someday she would be on TV. Doing exactly what, she wasn’t sure – until 2011 when, at age 17, she discovered The Model Agency on Channel 4 and fell in love with her future career. ‘I was hooked,’ she says. ‘When I saw Leomie [Anderson], I knew I wanted to do what she was doing. I loved her energy and her presence. I always › loved expressing myself and I knew I could do that with modelling.’ Seeing her daughter’s enthusiasm, Firth’s mother, Jecinta, called Premier Model Management (the agency featured in the show) and succeeded in arranging a meeting in 2011. Premier signed her on the spot. She chose the name Malaika to avoid being confused with another model named Tamara, but family and friends still use her birth name. Firth’s mother had wanted to be a model herself, so was supportive from day one, but her father took some convincing to come around to the idea that modelling was a legitimate career choice.

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Even with an agent, success was still a way off. ‘I didn’t get a lot of money at first,’ she says. ‘One time, my mum and I went to the bank and we only had £20. My dad would be struggling to give me cash, and he would run out. I told him that once I got my first big pay cheque, I’d give him some.’

She began her career as an e-commerce model, before working her way up the career ladder to become a catwalk fixture. ‘The money was rolling in. Not a lot,’ she says, laughing, ‘but at least my dad could rest a bit.’ 

Those days seem a distant memory now because, in her four-year career, Firth has already walked for almost every major high-fashion brand. However, the one that has played the biggest role in her career – and the brand of which she is perhaps most fond of – is Burberry. Under the direction of Chief Creative and Chief Executive Officer Christopher Bailey, the iconic British brand has become a powerful talent incubator and anointer of the next big thing. Currently, there might be no better example of Burberry’s Midas touch than Malaika. Her first Burberry show was in September 2013, followed by  an appearance in the corresponding spring 2014 campaign.

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For Firth, she was working with the very people she had always admired. ‘I look up to Cara and Jourdan and I got really excited about modelling for Burberry because they were also doing it,’ she says. Aside from pairing her with some of her idols, Burberry has played a huge role in Firth’s success by providing a home base of sorts in a tumultuous industry. ‘I met Christopher at my first casting,’ she recalls. ‘The [Burberry team] are very good supporters. Since they were the first ones I worked with, coming back to them is always fun – they’re family.’

In addition to her Burberry family, Firth’s own family is also tight knit, even though distance separates them: her parents, 22-year-old sister Mary and 12-year-old brother Christian have all moved back to Kenya, where they built a house with the money Malaika gave them.  

That’s a long way from New York, where Malaika has been living since buying a flat earlier this year on Manhattan’s hip Lower East Side (‘New York City is like a jungle compared to London’), but the distance hasn’t hurt the relationship. ‘My dad wasn’t happy about [me living in New York] initially, but once he saw that I had a place, he was more comfortable. And I have a boyfriend there,’ she says, referring to Nate Gill, the runway and commercial model she met through Twitter. ‘I saw this cute guy online. I was quite shy, but I said hi to him and that’s how it started.’ 

Being independent is a point of pride for Firth. Is she a feminist? ‘I want to do well, make my own money and not rely on a guy to take care of me,’ she says, ‘so, yeah.’ Still, she’s quick to point out that she’s not frivolous with money, nor is it her main motivator. ‘I still have to worry about money,’ she says, practically. ‘It’s just that now there’s enough in the bank, so my mum and I don’t have to ask someone for cash. Success is just doing what you have always wanted to do. Money is a bonus.’ 

One of Firth’s biggest jobs has been the autumn/winter 2013 Prada campaign. Firth was unaware of it at the time, but it turned out to be one that was quite historic: she was the first black model Prada had cast in a campaign since Naomi Campbell in 1994.

It was a move that made headlines the world over, but the implications of this were initially lost on Firth. ‘I was just excited to be doing it,’ she says. ‘Then, when I heard that [about Naomi Campbell], I was gobsmacked! It’s amazing that Prada finally got another black girl to model for them.’

Firth is hesitant to speak about what the industry needs to do to further embrace diversity in fashion. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I’m not one to say, because I haven’t been in the fashion industry that long. I feel like people should open up more, but it seems like it is coming along well. I see a lot of black girls [in the industry] now, and I hope that more can come in and shine.’  

It’s likely that they will, as Firth is helping to lead the charge. She’s a perfect emblem of the new era of modelling, one where models’ careers are self-directed and, with the help of social media, they are embraced as much for their personality as their looks. She has found no shortage of role models in those who have blazed the runway before her. ‘I have a lot of respect for Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Iman,’ she says. ‘Especially how they have managed to keep it all together and are still doing well, because it’s really hard. They are really strong women.’  

 In April, Firth was presented with the Exemplar Award at the Women: Inspiration & Enterprise Awards in London, which honour trailblazing women. Firth was recognised for her status as a positive example (she regularly travels back to Kenya to work with children throughout the country). It’s likely that she will continue to inspire, even if she’s not comfortable with calling herself a role model. 

‘I’m still young, and I like to drink and party, but I do feel like I am becoming a positive influence. I want to impact people with positivity, not negativity,’ she says. ‘My generation is not afraid to be who we want to be, but we need more mentors who can tell us that it’s going to be fine and to just keep moving up.’

From the outside, it seems like Firth is already up – she’s one of the top models in the world at just 21. Where else is there to go? But she sees her success differently. ‘I feel like I am fighting for what I want even now. You are always fighting for whatever you want,’ she says philosophically. ‘I just want to get bigger and bigger and bigger.’ And no doubt, she will.  

Words: Kate Williams

Photos: David Mushegain

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