IN CONVERSATION WITH JENNIFER ATILÉMILE
Interview by Jana Letonja
Model Jennifer Atilémile has broken boundaries in her home country of Australia, becoming Victoria’s Secret’s first ever Australian curve model. Now, a 2023 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit rookie, Jennifer is standing firm on becoming a role model for young women.
What made you passionate about fashion and the modeling world?
I remember my interest in fashion began at an early age and I think it was a bit of escapism. My grandmother introduced me to some of her favorite movies when I was a young girl and that’s when I discovered Audrey Hepburn. That’s probably where I first started getting interested in fashion and would remember going to the local library and sitting there and reading Vogue magazines, back before runways started getting posted online. I kind of got lost in the magic of it all. I went through some pretty intense things at home and when the concept of modeling first came up when I was about 15, I suddenly got swept up in the idea of running away, travelling the world and living this luxurious lifestyle surrounded by clothes and beautiful people. That didn’t end as planned, but my love for fashion remained.
Fashion was a way of expressing who I was growing up and it was very instrumental in helping me figure out who I was. As my favorite bands and artists changed, so did my fashion style. It wasn’t until I started actually working in the industry as a 25 year old, after completing my first university degree, that I started to see how fashion could also be political, that there was a lack of inclusion of certain people and that it was really fulfilling work being part of a movement that was and still is changing the way people see themselves and how they fit into society as a whole. Fashion has always coexisted alongside the political landscape and right now it’s kind of an interesting time to be in the industry because the political landscape is going a certain way and fashion has the ability to follow alongside it, or completely rebel and send a powerful message. That’s what makes it so magical and exciting.
In 2020, you became Victoria’s Secret’s first ever Australian curve model. What makes this accomplishment so special? What kind of challenges did you personally have to overcome in your career, as a curve model?
It was such an incredible achievement. It was incredibly special for me because I felt like it was the beginning of finally being seen for who I was and the message I stood for. Personally, I feel like I’ve overcome a lot of challenges. The first was making a career outside of Australia. I am a woman of color and I am not a conventional sample size in fashion. These are two things that made success in Australia almost impossible to come by, so I made the big leap to move overseas to see if things would take off. But when I first started, the kinds of opportunities were really slim, so those dreams of mine that I had at 15 weren’t really what they shaped up to be, the clothes were not nice, not fashionable and poorly made.
In the beginning, if I did get booked in a campaign, it was more of a tokenistic gesture, a lot of brands wanted to jump on the ‘body positivity’ trend. I’m referring to it as a trend because now that Y2K fashion has come back around and people left, right and centre are jumping on the Ozempic bandwagon, our inclusion has more or less disappeared. I still feel like the industry is reluctant to embrace change. Overcoming all of these barriers and being where I am today however, is a testament to just keep pushing and staying true to yourself because despite all of these challenges, I’ve been able to create an incredible career for myself.
This year, you also became the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit rookie. How proud are you of this? And how is it being a part of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit family?
This is an even bigger achievement. I was going through some of my old manifestation notes that I keep to look back on when I’m feeling uninspired and something I wrote back in 2018 when I had first moved to New York City was that I would love to be in Sports Illustrated. And now, in 2023, here I am. It just shows that these kinds of things don’t come overnight and it takes a lot of hard work and sometimes rejection to get some of these amazing opportunities. I’m so proud of this achievement. I’ve never given up on my dreams, even if some people thought I was delusional. But I always say dream big, as you never know where it can take you.
Being part of this family is something that’s only the beginning. So far, I’ve felt part of a genuine community of incredible women, who are all powerhouses in their own way. We’re all allowed to be exactly who we are and celebrated for that. It’s really wonderful.
You constantly advocate for greater body diversity in fashion. What do you believe the fashion industry should do to achieve a greater diversity, not only body wise, but also in all other aspects?
When I was a panellist at the Forbes Women’s Summit, I spoke about the Power of representation. Seeing yourself represented positively is powerful, whether that be your body, your gender, sexuality or your ethnicity. For so long representation has been homogenous, we only saw one standard of beauty, one desirable skin colour and if you were different, there was something wrong with you. That impacts your self esteem and when messaging from a young age is that who you are is not desirable, it creates a whole generation of people who are subconsiously, or concsiouly, confused about how they fit into the larger society.
I think the fashion industry has influence alongside politics and can influence real change. When I think about visibility, I think about how it’s always fashion campaigns that push boundaries, based on the political issues of the time. Visibility is the first step to acceptance, both individually and collectively. It sounds cheesy, but seeing is believing, especially on an individual level. I know for me, I no longer felt ostracised when I started seeing women like me on television and in magazines. But it can’t just stop at one or two people being included, it has to progress from there.
A lot of us curve models have hoped that our inclusion in campaigns, runway and advertising was going to propel the industry forward to be more inclusive and away from tokenism, but sadly that hasn’t been the case. I think that too comes from the lack of inclusivity within the design houses and production teams. You cannot accurately represent the experience of someone who’s shoes you haven’t walked in. Until there is diversity in all levels of an organisation, there won’t be true diversity and inclusion anywhere. That’s what needs to happen.
How do you yourself use your platform to promote greater inclusivity and representation?
For me, remaining authentic to who I am is the most important thing. Since I can remember, and since my friends and family can remember, I’ve been vocal about the injustices in the world. One thing that I’m proud of is that I’ve never stopped. Has it stopped me from getting certain jobs? I’m sure. But I’d rather not work with a brand that doesn’t align with me anyway.
The greatest way that I use my platform though is by simply existing. I found that during the pandemic I was suddenly flung into an activist role, which I think I was anyway, but I found myself doing a lot of work on educating the masses on why certain treatments or behaviours were no longer acceptable. It’s exhausting having to just exist in a body that doesn’t have certain privileges, but it’s radical to simply occupy space, without having to justify why. I don’t want to be called brave for putting on a bikini and I also don’t just want my body to be politicised. Most of the time in my job I don’t have a say in creative briefs and how I’m portrayed, but when it comes to my own curated space, I want to show up authentically and just exist. In overcoming my own insecurities, which have manifested as a result of how most women were told they had to be when I was growing up, I am able to show up as the best version of myself, in all aspects of life, not just online. And I aim to empower people just through my action of living in alignment with who I’m supposed to be.
You are also a passionate advocate for social justice and actively support causes related to gender equality, education and environmental sustainability. What are the biggest issues the world is facing today in your opinion? How could we as society work on overcoming them?
I think there’s so much going on in the world at the moment that it’s important not to worry yourself too much with thinking about where we’re currently at. It can be extremely daunting and overwhelming, and you can often feel hopeless. One thing that I have though is hope for the future. I genuinely believe that we are on the precipice of change and sadly, in order for this change to happen, the systems as we currently know them have to be broken down.Women’s rights are being taken away, including safe access to reproductive healthcare. People are growing tired of systems, that are supposed to support and protect them, failing them. People are protesting in masse.
Like I said earlier, it’s easy to become disillusioned with the big picture, but what we as a society can focus on is what we can do at a collective level. During quarantine, when I was living in New York, there was a time when we came together. We all fed our neighbours, we cleaned up the community, we educated each other, we used whatever skills we had to help one another. That’s where I believe we can make a difference in what’s going on in the world. There’s still so much division in our society, these systems have made us fear one another rather than loving one another. I think once we can come together in community, we’ll be able to tackle a lot more than we think we can.
Even though you’ve been a model since a young age, you continued your education and have 2 Master’s degrees from Monash University, in Journalism and International Relations. Why is education something that is so important to you personally? And why is it something that should be important for women all across the world?
I was the first person on my dad’s side of the family to attend university and to hold two Master’s degrees before the age of 30 is just really cool. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I was offered a modelling contract and I was accepted into my double Masters. Because I’m really stubborn, I thought I could do both, which I did. But it was really hard. I think especially as a woman, finishing my degree was super important. I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong and I knew that I probably wouldn’t come back to it if I pursued my career internationally.
Being a model is like being an athlete. The peak of your career won’t last forever, so having an education to fall back on was really important to me. I encourage newcomers to at least finish high school or just have a passion in general. Having completed a double Master’s is an incredible achievement, but it also allowed me to figure out who I was as a woman. I was empowered with knowledge about the world and how it operated, and also the injustices, which fuelled my passions that I talk about today. It doesn’t matter what level of education you complete, but I do believe that access to education is a basic human right. I recently saw a speech by Sacha Baron Cohen and he quoted Nelson Mandela, who said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, and I couldn’t agree more. Education empowers people and gives the freedom to make educated choices on issues that directly affect them.
You also work with charitable organizations, like Food Bank NYC and Planned Parenthood. Why in particular did you choose to work with these two? Why does being involved in philantrophic work and giving back hold such a special meaning in your life?
I’m actually not involved with these organizations in the way that I would like to be as at the moment I don’t have the time. But I believe in giving what you can, whether that’s sharing information to your network of people, donating money, signing petitions or volunteering in person. It all counts. But as a woman, I have to care about the laws that are being passed about what I can do with my body, so I am a proud supporter of Planned Parenthood and safe, legal access to abortions.
When I lived in New York, I was involved with the local community fridges for a while. There’s so much food waste from fashion shoots, I’d often package up food and drop it off or do a shop at the Farmers Market and drop off fresh produce for those that need it. Around 10 % of all Americans currently live in food insecure households and sometimes the kinds of food in those communities aren’t the healthiest. Because I grew up in Australia with an abundance of fresh food, it’s hard to wrap my head around that there’s such discrepancies in the quality of food available simply because of where you live or how much money you have. I want everyone to be able to have access to basic human rights and honestly that doesn’t make me an amazing person, it just makes me human. Fresh, nutritious food shouldn’t be a luxury. Access to safe, affordable and legal healthcare shouldn’t be a luxury. So I just do what I can.
What are your biggest passions in your free time? We’ve heard you really love to cook. Can you share more about your favorite dishes to prepare?
Yes, I love cooking. To me, it’s meditative. My dad is a chef, so I’ve been around food for as long as I can remember. The process from start to finish is my favourite thing. From going to source the ingredients, then prepping and cooking and then eating it all, it’s just divine. I don’t know if I have a favourite dish to prepare, but I love making a recipe my own. I’ll often cook something once and think it needs tweaking, so I’ll add something else to the recipe that I think makes it better. That’s what I find the most fun. It’s an art.
I’m pretty creative in general. I also love to play my keyboard and sing. That makes me happy and is so therapeutic.
Jennifer, what are your dreams and goals for the future of your professional career?
I feel like I used to say I want to change the world and I guess I still do. I want to change the way people think about things. If we could embrace what makes us human, all the quirks and differences, but normalize them, that would be the best thing ever. And I would feel like I had played a small role just being in the career that I’m in.
In the fashion space, I feel like big things are coming. I’ve been working really hard and I think it’s about to pay off, but I need to be patient. I want to start expanding what I stand for. I’m dying to write a book and I’m working on a bi-monthly newsletter at the moment. Perhaps a beauty brand could be in the works. There’s so much I want to do, all with the intention of still giving back to community. Everyone I speak to says I should also have a podcast, so maybe that’ll come soon too. And I live in LA, so maybe I’ll also try my hand at acting. Who knows. The world really is my oyster and I can’t wait to see it unfold.
photographer BAILEY REBECCA ROBERTS
stylist YETY AKINOLA @ Atelier Management
makeup NICOLE CHEW using CHANEL BEAUTY
hair HEATHER-RAE BANG using BALMAIN HAIR COUTURE