IN CONVERSATION WITH ACHIENG AGUTU
Interview by Asia Lanzi
Achieng Agutu – a trailblazing activist, model and digital creator from Kisumu, Kenya – is known for her infectious confidence and positive mindset. She moved to the United States as a teenager to pursue her dreams and has since created a thriving community through her blog and Instagram account ‘No Ordinary Noire’, celebrating individual beauty and promoting self-empowerment. Achieng’s content inspires others to embrace their unique qualities, challenge societal norms, and advocate for representation and inclusivity in the fashion and beauty industries. Her personal journey of self-confidence and resilience serves as a beacon of hope, reminding women worldwide to prioritize their own happiness and feel good about themselves and their lives. From dating advice for women to how heartbreak became a turning point in her life, cultivating an empowering mindset, and the importance of vulnerability, in this interview Achieng shares her wisdom and inspiration for embracing personal growth and self-empowerment.
Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself, about your life, your origins, your work, your passions?
I’m an activist, model, digital creator and I like to refer to myself as a confidence queen. I have my podcast ‘The Queens Archives Pod’ and I also run a blog called ‘No Ordinary Noire’. Originally, I was born and raised in Kisumu, Kenya, a small and charming lakeside town in the western part of the country. I lived there until I was 16 and then made the independent decision to move to the United States to pursue higher education. I wanted to go beyond the opportunities presented to me in my home country at that time. I completed my undergraduate studies in Public Relations and Spanish, and went on to pursue a Master’s degree in International Marketing and Business Analytics because I’m an educated baddie. Now, I reside in a lovely apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Here I’m living my best life as a full-time content creator, businesswoman, and bad b*tch. That’s just who I am.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
I would describe myself as passionate, charismatic, and creative.
Your journey has taken you from Kenya to the US, immersing yourself in different cultures and experiences. How has this multicultural background influenced your perspective on identity, diversity, and the power of embracing one’s roots?
This experience has helped me recognize the power and value of uniqueness and individual stories. It has allowed me to adapt and find my place in different spaces in the world. I’ve always aspired to create a space where not only my own stories are shared because I believe my voice matters, but also where others can share their unique and significant stories. The ability to immerse myself in different cultures has taught me to accept people for who they are. It’s easy to become confined within the bubble of our own communities and believe that our reality and beliefs are the only ones that matter, dismissing anything outside of that as strange or irrational. However, through multicultural experiences I’ve learned to genuinely embrace and love people for who they are, including myself. I strive to put myself in their shoes and understand their experiences, fostering a genuine appreciation for their unique perspectives. Ultimately, it has allowed me to truly love people for being their own amazing selves.
Moving to the US by yourself at a young age must have been a significant decision. Can you share what motivated you to make that move and the courage it took?
It actually fell into my lap unexpectedly. After graduating from high school at 16, my parents felt I was too young for college, which made sense. I was attending an international school in Kenya and my graduating class consisted of just two people: me and a guy named Isaiah. Naturally, due to that, we were the closest of friends. His family, who were missionaries in Kenya, became like a second family to me.
During our conversations about future plans, Isaiah’s family came up with an unexpected proposal. They asked if I would like to move to the United States with them and without hesitation, I enthusiastically agreed. It was an exciting opportunity for me, especially because my experiences with their family had been liberating. Coming from a conservative community where certain expectations and limitations were imposed, being with them gave me a sense of freedom. My host mother – may her soul rest in peace – empowered me to speak my mind, make my own choices, and be my authentic self.
Moving to the US provided the chance to escape the stifling environment I had experienced. Although my parents wanted the best for me, they were concerned about me asserting my voice in our conservative community. The opportunity to live in the United States presented itself as an unexpected gift, aligning with the path that the world and my faith had intended for me. I relocated to the Midwest in Richmond, Indiana, which was quite an interesting experience. Looking back, it turned out to be exactly what I needed. It allowed me to break free from the constraints and find my own voice. Now, here I am, living life in my Versace robe, grateful for the journey and the growth it has brought me.
What inspired you to start creating digital content on Instagram and become a source of motivation and empowerment? Can you also share a significant turning point in your journey where you realized the impact and potential of your digital content?
I had been wanting to start a blog for some time, but I was in a relationship with someone who didn’t see the potential in it and questioned its longevity. Unfortunately, that relationship ended with a broken heart, which became a turning point for me personally. I had invested my entire being in this man, believing he was my world, my life, my future. I envisioned a life together, building a partnership to rule the world. And then he broke my heart.
I was feeling lost and broken for a long time. In my youth and naivety, I lacked awareness. I vividly recall the moment when I realized the importance of prioritizing myself, recognizing that I couldn’t sacrifice my life for someone who didn’t value me. That day, my roommate walked into my room and saw me in a state of despair. She encouraged me to do something for myself, something that would bring back the energy I had lost. That’s when I started my blog ‘No Ordinary Noire’, in the summer of 2017. I posted regularly, sharing my thoughts and experiences.
As time went on, my friends suggested that I also share my content on Instagram since it was a popular platform. So, I began posting my blog content on Instagram as well. When the pandemic hit, I felt a desire for a deeper sense of community beyond the people in my immediate surroundings. I wanted to connect with more people and be part of a supportive network.
During my self-love and self-confidence journey, I decided to share my experiences, feelings, and therapeutic insights. To my surprise, I received many messages from people expressing gratitude for my posts. They shared how my words or dancing on stories had brightened their day, changed their perspective, or motivated them to take action in their lives. This feedback affirmed that I was exactly where I was meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. This realization fueled my determination to go all-in. I saw the impact I was making and the positive response from the community I was building. It was a confirmation that I had found my purpose. In 2020, I embraced the ‘No Ordinary Noire’ empire with full force and in the fall of 2021 I made the decision to leave my corporate job and focus on social media full-time.
Since you were talking about your dating experiences, do you have any advice for navigating dating and dealing with heartbreak, specifically for women? And what advice would you give your younger self?
When it comes to dating and heartbreak, my advice for women, and something I would tell my younger self, is to remember that love will come. It’s important not to center your entire life around finding love or force it. Focus on yourself and your own happiness. Take the time to love and prioritize yourself first. The right partner and the happiness you seek will naturally fall into place.
But also, once you’ve focused on self-love and personal growth, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You can only love yourself to a certain level of happiness. So honey, this summer I’m outside! Take the initiative in your dating life and be open to new experiences. My mother always tells me don’t wait for someone to come knocking at your door. Be intentional about the people you want to be with and the qualities you value in a partner. It’s okay to explore, try new things, and figure out what you truly want and love.
Always remember that you are the prize, 24/7, 365 days a year. Never let anyone make you feel like you’re worth less than you are. It’s crucial to believe in your own worth and not hyper-fixate on making someone else like you. Instead, focus on whether you genuinely like them and if they’re worth your time and investment. You are the crème de la crème, and you have the power to decide what and who is best for you.
Your content has had a significant impact on young girls and women, challenging societal norms and promoting self-acceptance. What advice would you give to those struggling with self-confidence and embracing their unique qualities in a world that often promotes comparison and self-doubt?
My advice is to remember that you have one life and that’s the cycle of human life. Every day is an opportunity to live fully, love yourself, and prioritize your own happiness. Realize that you are worthy of love, respect, and celebration. Don’t waste your time. Waiting for external validation, motivation, or inspiration is not the answer. Sometimes, you have to take the first step and choose to believe in yourself.
I understand that it’s not easy to wake up every day and fully embrace self-love. It’s a conscious effort and a journey. But even if it’s just for a minute, start by affirming yourself as the baddest b*tch. All it takes is little baby steps. Recognize that life is beautiful, people are beautiful, and you deserve to experience the beauty of life. Healing and self-growth take time, but what has helped me is envisioning the higher version of myself, and embodying her qualities – whether it’s being more social, more outgoing, or even creative. When you feel most insecure, tap into that version of yourself, and let her guide you. Life is worth living and it is essential for individuals to recognize this. Ultimately, I want everyone to experience the joy of living and the appreciation of their own existence. You are valuable and we are grateful to still have you here with us.
So, for you, it seems that having a positive mindset and envisioning a fulfilling life is important. How do you navigate and overcome the negative voices in your head that may arise?
I understand that dealing with negative voices in your head can be challenging. It often stems from personal insecurities or the opinions of others in your life. However, it’s important to remember that embracing your uniqueness and being true to yourself is liberating.
Don’t let the opinions of others define your worth or hold you back. People may have opinions about how you should live your life, but remember that their lives will carry on with or without you. So, be authentically weird and true to yourself. You are the main character in your own life and it’s crucial to prioritize your well-being. Healing and self-discovery look different for everyone, so find what works for you. It could be therapy, journaling, stepping out of your comfort zone, or seeking support from loved ones.
Inner healing is a journey that takes time, but it is a crucial starting point before reaching a place where other people’s opinions hold little importance. It took time and effort for me to heal, until I decided to choose myself and recognize my worth. It’s a realization that you should treat yourself and your life with the care it deserves. Therapy can be a powerful tool in this process, providing a safe space to explore your feelings and develop tangible strategies for growth. Therapy is sexy! And everybody who can get access to therapy, deserves to get therapy.
Obviously, you didn’t always exude this level of confidence. Did it take experiencing that heartbreak to truly recognize your worth? Or how did you cultivate such a strong sense of self-confidence?
I haven’t always been this confident. As I mentioned earlier, coming from a conservative family, I was quite reserved and fearful of the world. My parents went to great lengths to protect me, and I never experienced the world independently. However, my host family, especially my host mother, played a significant role in transforming my life. She provided me with the tools and opportunities to find my voice.
For instance, when we went to a restaurant, I used to look at her for guidance even when deciding what I wanted to eat. It was scary for me to express my desires, even the simplest ones like nourishing my own body. But she created a safe space for me to learn about my voice and embrace myself. That was the starting point of building my confidence as I navigated a new country with its own values, norms, and culture.
It took a really long time in my life to develop that confidence. I remember being in college, without my host family by my side, and trying to find my voice in a new environment. I pushed myself to explore new experiences, meet new people, and uncover my authentic self beyond the expectations of my family. Each day I would try something new, whether it was joining intramural, volleyball or taking a different class. All these experiences contributed to my growth.
However, what truly propelled me to a place of full confidence was my realization of the need for representation. I became tired of waiting for someone who looked like me and shared similar life experiences. I asked myself, “If not now, then when? If I don’t take action, then who will?” I didn’t see myself as a savior, but rather as someone who could be the role model I had been seeking. I realized that I could be that person for myself and not rely on others to define my worth. That’s where my confidence stemmed from and I became determined to help myself and be the person I needed.
Representation is crucial in the fashion and beauty industry. What changes do you hope to see in those industries in terms of embracing all body types and celebrating individual beauty?
There’s still a lot of work to be done. I hope to see a future where it’s not shocking to see diverse body types on magazine covers—where it’s normal for disabled individuals, black women, trans women, and people from all backgrounds to feel seen and represented. Achieving this will require collective effort and individuals stepping forward, even in a society that may not always be rooting for them. The change has to start at the grassroots level and we can’t wait for big brands to lead the way. I’m passionate about empowering people to have the confidence to be the change, and it’s through relatable stories and experiences that we can make a visceral impact. It will take time, but there are already many individuals in the industry and community breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for everyone to be welcomed at the table.
Why do you think our society tends to normalize self-hate instead of self-love, and why is your message of self-love and self-empowerment so important, especially for women and particularly Black women?
Society revolves around money, and the more you dislike yourself, the more likely you are to seek out purchases that promise a certain feeling or image. It’s the capitalistic nature of the Western world, and in many ways, this extends to other parts of the world as well. Take Victoria’s Secret, for example, founded by an old white man in Ohio. It’s not about empowering women; it perpetuates the notion that you must look a certain way to be considered sexy, beautiful, or worthy of celebration. These ideas generate profit. Weight loss brands, supplements, and clothing companies thrive on the idea that you need to conform to a specific size to look good. It’s time to put an end to this narrative. Many people are challenging these standards and saying, “You don’t need to be a certain size to wear something sexy. Embrace your size, live your life.” People are growing tired of trying to fit into society’s mold just to gain acceptance and live the fulfilling life they deserve.
In your journey of self-discovery and empowerment, what role has vulnerability played? How do you find the courage to share personal stories and experiences?
Sometimes it’s challenging, especially when you have a semi-public life. I don’t share every detail of my life, as not everything needs to be publicized. But my vulnerability comes from a place of feeling that someone out there needs to hear what I have to say, just as I needed to hear it. If it had an impact on me, it could potentially do the same for someone else. People may question the authenticity of what I share, but when I open up about the challenges or experiences in my life, it’s because someone else might be going through the same thing. By sharing, I hope to make a positive impact on someone’s day or life. For example, I debated whether to share about my host mom’s passing. Ultimately, I felt it was important for my community to experience that journey with me. It wouldn’t have felt fair to act like everything was okay when I wasn’t, especially when I had to return to work after just two weeks.
How do you handle negativity, online hate, and body-shaming, and what impact do they have on your mental health?
Negativity used to deeply affect me. It felt disheartening when I was genuinely trying to do good for people, and not everyone saw it that way. It would impact me to the extent that I wouldn’t want to post anymore or be active on social media. Eventually, I realized that their negativity had nothing to do with me personally. If someone chooses to spend their energy spreading hate and throwing tantrums on my page, it reflects more on them than on me as a person. I’m still here, living my best life, shaking my ass with Lizzo, drinking champagne and inspiring other women. I block people and move on to prosper. Fortunately, I have a supportive community that recognizes negativity and stands up for positivity. They remind me that we’re here to uplift each other, spread love, and celebrate our beauty. If someone doesn’t contribute to that, there’s the door.
Looking back at your journey so far, what are you most proud of, and what are your aspirations for the future, both in your professional and personal life?
Community has been a significant aspect of my life, both personally and professionally. Creating an intentional and positive space for myself and others has always been a deep desire. It’s truly special to see that I’m achieving that goal and impacting people’s lives. Recently, I’ve had encounters where people recognized me and shared how I helped them through challenging times like divorce. It’s incredible to witness the impact I can have. My ultimate wish is for people to feel good about themselves and their lives, knowing they have a place in this beautiful world. This is something I’ve always wanted for myself, and if my page can bring that feeling to others, that’s all I could ever ask for, honestly.
Wow, that’s truly incredible. Your positive influence on individuals is having an impact and changing the world. It’s truly inspiring, and I aspire to be that.
I feel it and I love it! Thank you and I appreciate you!
Thank you so much for this lovely conversation!
Interview by Asia Lanzi