Radio broadcast major Mimi Assefa tells the tale of her catwalk career
by Andrew Vasquez
photography by Christopher Guzman
For a moment, she seems helpless as a plethora of hands wave brushes, large and small, over her face. Combs and curlers engulf her hair as the sickly sweet hair spray smell saturates the air. She pulls on the dress she has been directed to wear, and, again, another flurry of hands tug it into a perfect fit. Now, finally free of her handlers, she is on her own. Her heart races as she approaches the pearly white catwalk, outstretched before her like a path to heaven. She bursts forth from her backstage world into the limelight, and hundreds of pairs of eyes instantly, expectantly focus upon her. She takes a deep breath, but it is not fear that makes her breath low and heavy; it is exhilaration. Tigist “Mimi” Assefa is a runway model, and at age 29, the catwalk is still her world. Standing at 5 feet 9 inches, her statuesque figure and striking features, coupled with her confidence, fit well with the modeling world’s expectations. Even dressed in plain street clothes, she gives off a sense of elegance and grace hinting that in addition to being a University of La Verne student, she is someone who has already made a professional name for herself.
Mimi started her modeling career in 2000 at age 18, and, after three years of trials and tribulations with Los Angeles agencies, she signed non-exclusive agreements with two: Whittier Rodriguez and LP Entertainment. “I ate, drank and slept fashion,” Mimi remembers. It was not without sacrifice. Mimi was born in Ethiopia and at age 3 moved to the United States. Her parents, both college educated and highly valuing education, did not approve of her career choice. This was especially true for her father, who Mimi says is traditional and believes that an education is the only way to gain a successful career. “At first it was hard for my father to grasp what I was doing; he couldn’t understand why I was putting my education on hold,” she says. “I was even basically kicked out of my house for choosing to model over going to college. He saw it as me using my body and not my intellect to get ahead in life.” Her friendships were also tested as a full-time model. “My days were so strategically planned. I had no social life. And when most people were just getting out of bed, I was halfway through my day. But I loved it.” However, not everyone in Mimi’s life remained unsupportive. “My mom has always been my cheerleader. She has always helped me with whatever I needed and has been to my runway shows,” she says.
Katie Magnuson, friends with Mimi since 2001 while both were trying to make it as model/actresses and working at Gold’s Gym in Long Beach, validates Mimi’s career choice while acknowledging that the family stress was tough. “It tore her up inside because she and her family are so close. But she would probably never tell anyone that. For Mimi, it spurred her to make her father proud of her.” And she did make a name for herself on the runway, modeling in shows sponsored by well-known designers and sponsors including Emanuel Torres, BCBG, G-Unit, Venus Swimwear, Donna Loren and the Art Institute. Her father eventually accepted her career choice and became involved. “Once he saw the contracts and answered the phone calls from agencies, he saw that I was doing something and was actually being successful. However, his acceptance of what I was doing was always with the expectation that I would be going to college to get a degree eventually.”
Mimi says her experiences have taught her an important lesson and given her the mind-set all aspiring models should have. “For anybody who wants to be a model, do it. Forget what anyone else says.” Katie says that Mimi has “made it” but probably will never admit that. “She has become very successful, and I am proud of her,” she says. “But I know her too well, and this is just the beginning. She will be more successful than this. She is blessed with incredible beauty and is a natural at every part of the modeling business. But it is her presence more than anything. When people work with her, they want to work with her again.” Actor and Producer Joram Moreka, friends with Mimi since meeting her on a movie set four years ago, says she can make it in other art arenas. “Not only is she talented and willing to work hard, she is also a very talented actress.”
Finding modeling success is not easy. There are many industry pitfalls. “It’s easy to get talked into doing something that you don’t want to do, that compromises who you are and your morals. You have to know who you are, and what kind of model you do and don’t want to be. There is the artistic, and then there is a part where sex sells. You should always speak up, especially when you are told to do something you don’t want to do. It is easy to be taken advantage of. If it is something that compromises who you are, don’t do it,” Mimi says. Another industry pitfall: not all agents or agencies are truthful about promised work or future success possibilities. “People lie to you in this industry; they make it seem like they can get you in the door easily. Some will, but many won’t, and you have to be a smart model and know who is just trying to take advantage of you. You can be sweet, but you can’t be naïve in this business.”
Aspiring models should not look to reality television shows such as “America’s Next Top Model” as a real look into what the modeling world is like or as a way to become a real top model, she says. “‘America’s Next Top Model’ is not an entirely accurate portrayal of many things in the industry. It’s definitely more of a G-rated portrayal of the atmosphere of a photoshoot. Drugs and alcohol are a reality in many photoshoots. Also, most female models are not put in a modeling house and therefore do not get catty with each other as they do on that show. There are only two people whose opinions matter for models during a photoshoot: the artistic director and the photographer,” she says. “Girls looking to this show as a doorway to instant success should keep in mind that no industry wants to be told by a TV show who or what is hot. I have worked with and seen only one contestant from that show, but she was not by far any big name. I can’t think of one girl who won that show who actually went on to become a top model.”
Mimi says that modeling success is simple yet extremely important. One is networking. “Follow up; you want to be at the top of their minds and on the tip of their tongues.” She encourages aspiring models to start young. “Agencies just need a bodyshot and a headshot, and they always have open calls. Or you can start modeling independently by creating a profile on websites like ‘Model Mayhem’ that allow you to network with local photographers and other people.” Regarding agencies, Mimi says the best are approved by the Screen Actors Guild. “Always keep on top of your agents to make sure they get you jobs. You aren’t their only client so you have to show them that you’re serious.” She also has more practical advice, “Keep yourself healthy by exercising and eating healthy. But don’t diet; make it a lifestyle. I have made it a lifestyle, and I will still be able to model even though I am 29.” She says that the perceived age gap for models is not as serious as most think as long as models keep themselves healthy and fit.
Mimi feels that some people have a negative understanding of modeling. “It is easy for people to blame others for their problems. If a child is anorexic, there are deeper issues than a girl in a magazine. It’s a profession; not everyone can or should be a model. When you are modeling, especially high fashion, you have to be a certain body type to fit the clothes.” Normally, female high fashion models are expected to be 5 feet 9 inches to 6 feet tall with a bust size between 32 to 35 inches, a waist size between 22 to 25 inches, hips between 22 to 25 inches and a shoe size of 7. However, these measurements are only for high fashion models. Models in other categories of fashion have different acceptable measurements. “It’s not a statement about what is attractive or how every girl should look. High fashion models act as a frame for the clothes. That’s it. A model should not have to be a role model. It’s not my job; it’s the job of the parents,” Mimi says. And she does not want to be judged by preconceived notions. “I wish everyone saw the art in it,” she says. “Modeling has such a negative connotation attached to it, whether it is eating disorders or vanity. Some people have a negative opinion of me when they find out I am a model so I don’t tell many people. But to me it’s all fun; it’s playing dress up. It’s art, and it’s work, and during a show you feel honored to be allowed to wear something that someone put so much time and effort into creating.”
Presently, Mimi has dialed down on her modeling gigs and focused on school partly because that was the agreement she and her father had when he finally accepted her modeling career. Ever still the independent woman, Mimi says that her choice of majoring in radio broadcasting at La Verne is for her. “If it were up to my father, I would be going to law school after graduation this fall. But I want to some day be a sports commentator on ESPN or a political commentator on a station like KNX or KFWB. Sports and politics are the things, besides fashion, that I have always been most interested in.” She also plans to continue modeling for as long as she can. Her agent still is active in getting her jobs, and she says right after she is done with school she will start modeling full time again.
“For anyone who wants to be a model, you have to do it for you,” Mimi says. “People may not agree with it or understand, but it’s your future and your life.”