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The Fall and Rise of Adwoa Aboah

The model-activist opens up about her precipitous fall and rise: from a dark period of drugs and depression to founding Gurls Talk, a community dedicated to helping girls like herself tackle issues like mental health, body image and sexuality.
Adwoa Aboah | Photo: Laura Coulson for BoF
By
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom — The first time Adwoa Aboah saw herself on a Vogue cover was just over 18 months ago. It was the magazine's Italian edition, the one that has launched some of the most successful modelling careers of the past few decades. "Oh, that's just me and I'm really happy I got a cover," was her initial reaction. Then she thought, "This is something I'll really have to get my head around." Smart, she is.

Aboah was raised in fashion. Mother Camilla Lowther is one of the world's most successful fashion agents, father Charles Aboah is London's go-to location scout. But that Vogue cover was her ticket to the industry's inner circle, and she had a good idea of what she wanted to do with it.

The starkly beautiful young woman has since used her model profile to open doors to a world of Millennial activism, fuelled by searing honesty about her own battles with addiction and mental illness. Her vehicle is Gurls Talk, an online community she launched and devoted to giving a voice to young women as lost as she once was. That first Vogue cover? It arrived on newsstands a couple of months after a suicide attempt that left her in a coma for four days.

Fall and rise. It’s not the kind of career the fashion industry gets to celebrate, because it’s usually the other way round. We mourn the Descent. With Adwoa, we mark the Ascent. And when the Ascendant speaks, it’s with the irrefutable voice of experience, commandingly deep but warm, never strident, always determined, speaking of revolution in such a restrained, reasonable way it compels focus on the words being spoken. Every so often the spell is broken with a hearty, human laugh. But how quickly we return to that warm, buzzing, mesmerising voice.

This year's Glastonbury was a measure of the changes in her life. "I've been going since I was 15, and it was such a massive part of my drive for oblivion and debauchery," she says. Now, sober and clear-headed, she was able to take the measure of — and to enjoy — the impact of finding her own voice. First, there was the StyleLikeU video, a revelatory bolt of lightning for girls who might look at Adwoa and be fooled into thinking she had it all. Then there was i-D's short film on Gurls Talk. Finally, there was the Gurls Talk site itself. Together, they created a potent troika, its power realised in the event Adwoa hosted with accessible luxury brand Coach at 180 The Strand, a brutalist building turned creative hub, in London on July 1. There were 700 attendees, mostly women, and a small handful of men. Some of them had travelled across the continent. It was an incredible physical manifestation of a community which had, until that point, existed solely on the internet.

Adwoa Aboah | Photo: Laura Coulson for BoF

“A lot of Gurls Talk started online, through the internet. At the event, I realised how important it was to be in my community. I kept saying to all the girls, I’ve found my tribe. When I’m around those women, so much of the burden I carry, the depression and the bipolar, the fear of ever going back into that dark hole, is completely taken away. When we’re all taking part, I don’t have to be ashamed about it or explain myself, they all understand. So Gurls Talk is as much for my benefit as anyone else’s.”

One indication of how much Gurls Talk has been driven by Adwoa’s own need was the detailed PowerPoint presentation Dr Kathryn Abel gave at the event. “I wanted to hear from a female doctor and someone who was a friend,” Adwoa explains. “Everything she said was amazing, some of it quite sad. Like the effect of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, on women. I realised I’m not just making it up. SSRIs do block your orgasm. I’m not even able to have a sex drive because of them.”

That one conundrum outlines the enormity of the challenges confronting Gurls Talk. For Adwoa and maybe thousands of young women like her, antidepressants keep a daily darkness at bay. But there’s a penalty. Dr Abel acknowledged as much when she finished her talk. After so acutely outlining the problem, she held up her hands and asked the audience what they thought the solution might be. Adwoa could think of two. “Kathryn said we must educate ourselves on our hormones, our mental state, what’s going on inside, in order to progress. So one solution was all of us being in that room, taking the info in. And just the conversation itself was another solution, the fact we were talking about it.”

It’s that aspect, the simplest and most direct, which is Gurls Talk at its most radical. The message is hardly unique: you are not alone. It’s the uniqueness of the messenger that gives it its powerful new relevance.

As an addict in recovery, she knows the risk she’s running. “I want to give everyone my time, but I have to be very careful now, going forward, that I leave some time for myself, thinking time, love and self-care. I’m highly co-dependent. I just want to givegivegive. It’s why I started Gurls Talk, and why it’s still going.”

When I ask if her girls need her to be strong or vulnerable, I feel like I’m talking to a 21st century Jean Brodie. “They want me to be real, they want me to be vulnerable.” Adwoa says her partner Holly Gore cried ten times during the Gurls Talk event. She didn’t cry once. “I’ve never felt so much pressure as when I did my talk in that room. Even though I was with my supporters, I’ve never been so nervous. I wanted to cry, but I felt like I had to keep it together.”

Pressure! Not good. “I know, but it’s a pressure I love,” she insists. Still, you can’t help but worry when she says something like, “I’m ready to exhaust myself for my community. If they can’t speak out, I’ll make sure I give them a voice. I’ll take their words and say them for them. And I’ll make sure I have complete clarity and am grounded 100 percent of the time. I feel I can take over the world when I have slept and eaten and seen my friends. So that’s what I mean when I talk about looking after myself. If I don’t have self-care, I have nothing.”

“You eat properly?” I ask. “Sometimes.”

I’m no less worried.

She shaved her head three years ago, after a move to Los Angeles. You can read that gesture now as a rejection, a visual sign of a tumultuous period in her life. “My career wasn’t doing so well,” says Adwoa. “I’d been modelling but I was taking some time away.” She tried to kill herself on October 3, 2015. That date is her before-and-after watershed. She’s completely open when she talks about it, even as she concedes the terrible trauma it evokes.

“I’ve been there, and I’m here now.” That’s what she can say to women who ask for reassurance, and no one can dispute those words. Same way she talks about the abortion she had this year. “I didn’t think in my wildest dreams I’d ever have to go through that, I’d seen friends go through it and I thought no way, and as the over-emotional human being I am, I knew it would be horrible. But even that experience taught me so many things: how grateful I am to be a woman in the 21st century, able to make that decision. And how amazing it was that the three male doctors who took me through that journey all let me make that decision. And how I can now use that experience to do something better. If someone comes into my life who needs to have that conversation, I can have it.”

I'm ready to exhaust myself for my community. If they can't speak out, I'll make sure I give them a voice.

And out of darkness, the light of Gurls Talk. "I think I've done better in my day job because of Gurls Talk," Adwoa says now. "They've gone very much hand-in-hand in terms of success." That's one more testament to her uniqueness, especially when MODEL SPEAKS OUT! was a headline she never wanted to see. The idea that her activism could be sidelined as a mere trend like everything else in fashion plagues her, just as it does designers like Walter Van Beirendonck and Rick Owens, whose collections comment on the world in equally extraordinary ways. "I want it to be obvious that my presence and my opinion and my commitment to breaking stigmas and taboos are here to stay," says Adwoa.

To steel her nerve, she has ultimate faith in the young. “So unapologetic, so quick to pick out the phoniness in things,” she adds. She’s not talking about millennials either. She means the girls aged between 13 and 18 she’s encountering when she talks in schools. “They already have a feminist club,” she marvels. “It’s a bit different from when I was at school. All I knew is I wanted to be independent. But that’s their understanding of feminism.” Adwoa describes a recent revelatory moment when she was a guest at a wedding. She was spell-bound by a young girl, maybe 17, dancing on her own without a care in the world. “A lot of girls I come across are so care-bound, it was rare for me to see someone who was so unconscious of their environment or the way they looked. There was a bit in my life where I didn’t give a shit, where I had fluffy hair and wore boys’ clothing and had a laugh, but it seems around 18 or 20, there’s a part of the female community where they’re terrified and self-conscious of the way they look, the way they want to look, the life they want.” And therein lies the terrible rub of modern times for girls in a world made by men.

It’s in helping to shuck off all that shit that Gurls Talk could prove invaluable. Social media is friend and enemy. There are people who are uneasy about self-revelation, then there are the people who are too open, whose “honesty” sounds like a well-practised act. Adwoa offers something else, something oddly, seductively transcendent. Or maybe it’s just real, because it’s been lived.

Fashion is always painted as a villain for its alleged ability to dislocate women from reality. “I get that a lot from models,” Adwoa agrees. “ They ask me if my drug thing came from being a model. No! I was a teenage girl, I felt awkward the whole time.” If she was going to point a finger, it wouldn’t be at fashion. “There are so many ways to feel you’re falling short,” she continues. “There’s not one particular community or industry that should be blamed, but I do think there’s this atmosphere at the moment where the simple life isn’t enough. It’s just moremoremore, and that puts a lot of pressure on young women, whether it be wealth and success or being stick thin.”

Adwoa Aboah | Photo: Laura Coulson for BoF

Or being Victoria's Secret models. Adwoa says she knows a lot of girls who want that, and everything it entails: clothes, parties, Leonardo DiCaprio. "How do you say to someone there's more than just that, more than being at that party, having that handbag?" she wonders. "I try to do it by just saying it, showing them there are women doing other amazing things that aren't anything to do with being 'at the party'. That's not always going to be possible for everyone, and the world needs other people doing other things." There's an obvious irony in the fact that Adwoa is preaching from precisely the vantage point that a million girls are fantasising about. She knows that. She insists she's never felt envy from another woman, because that's not the energy she gives off. "It just pushed me to be there as well," she says of the moment her best friend Cara Delevingne's career took off. "I want us all to get wherever we want to get together."

That makes me wonder where Gurls Talk stands with men. It seems logical that the kind of activism Adwoa is inspiring – taking charge of your own life, which inevitably moves everything into a political arena – would inflame an army of trolls, lurking in a misogynistic digital murk. The internet has enabled online communities like Gurls Talk, but it’s also opened floodgates of previously unimaginable vitriol, stunning in its sophomoric bigotry. Adwoa says she’s up for a fight, but so far it hasn’t been necessary. “Men have been amazing,” she insists. She has taken to heart something Kathryn Abel said: When we talk about women, we always have to talk about men. So she’d love to do a panel at some point that was all about the masculine point of view. And, naturally, a Boys Talk.

“I hate the haters,” she continues, “but what I hate even more is the people who say we’re alright, that men and women are equal. The naïveté of not being aware of what’s going on in the world, that’s what keeps me up at night. It’s not even being stupid. I fear that people just don’t care. You know that saying, ‘Ignorance is bliss’? Well, I woke up so I see and I feel everything.”

It’s not hard to see beyond the notion of the community Adwoa talks about to something with the emotional intimacy and influence of family, which is rooted in her own upbringing; her grandmothers, aunts and her mother. She knows she had a privileged childhood. “That’s not always a great push to make it out on your own,” she admits. “I had that safety blanket, but I also had a strong-minded, high-achieving mother who wouldn’t dare let me sit at home and do nothing.” That sounds like a recipe for rebellion. It never happened. “Never a ‘I don’t want to be like you guys,’” Adwoa says. “I see myself in my parents the whole time. I am them, and I’m highly grateful I am. The moment I saw my mum and dad as human beings, our relationship went forward by leaps and bounds. I asked them how they were and listened like I would listen to a friend. I let them bitch and worry, and stress over little things, because they let me do the same things with them.” She appreciates she’s been blessed in that respect, because she knows that parents are at the root of a lot of the grief life puts her girls through. “But there’s not really a lot of blame,” she adds. “That can just be part of the experience that’s led them to the emotion they’re feeling.”

I get the feeling that Adwoa’s running to catch up with the power she’s unleashed. We’re talking in late July. She’s planning a Caribbean getaway where she can reflect on the Gurls Talk event, go through the details, get her game plan together. “I need it to be a little bit easier,” she says. “I need my team to all be working together and make my life less complicated. Gurls Talk is more important than being on the cover of a magazine.”

The challenges – for the immediate future at least – are not going to quit for this one. “I’ve got to keep on doing what I’m doing with Gurls Talk and hope it catches someone’s eye,” Adwoa says, with a curious combination of di dence and intensity that reminds me of her mother. “I’ve already got my community, now it’s about turning on other people who might not be that into it. The people I’m thinking about will be quite hard because everyone’s so worried about anyone knowing what’s real about their life.”

To those people, I say, Adwoa Aboah wants you right here, right now. Heed her words: “You’re not going to be chastised if you admit you didn’t just take some time off and you actually went to rehab.”

This article appears in BoF's latest special print edition: “Generation Next”. The issue is available for purchase at shop.businessoffashion.com and at select retailers around the world.

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