Name: Afiya Bennett
Claim to Fame: If you’ve ever spent a Saturday morning picking up the new foams you’ve seen her pretty face staring at you in Foot Locker. She’s also founded a line of luxe headwear with a military twist that Fantasia sported during New York Fashion Week.
Afiya Bennet arrived on set and began casually chatting with her coworker. Later she was agreeing to become his bride. It was an unlikely love story, not merely due to the raging dumpster fire that is modern dating, but because some agents didn’t consider Bennet capable of modeling at all. The now international star revealed the details of the professional ups and downs that led to their runway fairytale in an exclusive interview with HelloBeautiful.
“Believe it or not, I met Lloyd shooting for Nike,” said Bennet. “We spent the entire day together cause the way that Nike is actually set up, um, like you have there’s two models on set. You like literally share a set: you share a changing room. You share the same hair and makeup artists.”
Bennet’s journey to shooting for one of the biggest brands in the world, and ultimately finding the love of her life, included many setbacks. She was initially scouted as a teengager in her native New York during a shopping trip with her mom. But despite scouts excitement about her beauty, she wasn’t given a contract right away.
Meeting with agent after agent and having them reject her after she was actively scouted was unsettling for her. This created a struggle to maintain her sense of self as she developed in an industry that favored the slender and sleek over the strong and curvaceous.
“You want them to be like, ‘Oh, we think you’re amazing. We’ll take you.’ And when they don’t take you, you’re always like, what’s wrong with me? And you’re always kind of analyzing what could have gone better or you know, for the next time. But I think at that time I was like playing volleyball. I was a dancer. I had a very athletic build and they were constantly telling me I was too athletic and I think that was near like 15 or 16. They want you to have this kind of premature body. And I think I had a very athletic body and they would say that didn’t go hand in hand with the modeling industry. So I kind of gave things a little rest up until I was about 18.”
Many young women would have been consumed by hearing people twice their age negatively critique their body, but Bennet was able to survive through a strong spiritual foundation.
“I honestly, I think it’s just a great support system,” she said about making it through that time. “I think my relationship with God and having a great support, having somebody. My parents were always extremely supportive, about me being a model.”
“My parents actually are both educators,” she continued. “My mom’s an assistant principal and my dad’s a guidance counselor. They are definitely nine to five parents. They kind of felt like, ‘Okay, well we know what it’s like to kind of be on this side of things.’ So they were actually supportive of me chasing my dreams and, and doing things, I guess, the unconventional way.”
She was candid about the potential dangers that lie for those without that support.
“My parents were educated but they didn’t know anything about the fashion industry. Their main thing was: don’t do drugs. Cause that’s the thing, it’s a big, thing, especially being from Brooklyn, the biggest stigma is don’t do drugs, you know, make sure you don’t get hooked on drugs. I do think that this is an industry is that breaking down. I definitely, I can understand. Like I said, I feel like I understand how there are so many parents or models that you know get to a point where they say they don’t want to put their children in it. And I can understand that, you know, because you almost, you almost would want to protect your child, you know, against against these things, you know, like not feeling good enough or you know, in my case, feeling like you’re too athletic or like your shoulders are too big, your breasts are too big.”
Once she became of age she returned to the industry and appeared on a modeling reality show.“I did my first year at FIT and then after that I went on the show The Face. And then after The Face I remember coming home and my dad saying, okay, now what? And I’m like, I don’t know.”
The confusion that accompanies the return to real life post-spotlight is common for many contestants on platforms like The Face. Her parents were clueless about the fashion industry but they were familiar with the universal concept of winners refusal to give up. Her father encouraged her to return to some of the agencies who scouted her as a child.
“I was like, well, I already submitted to agencies, this had been like two years before. And he was like ‘Try again.’ And so I was like, ‘Okay, sure.’ And I do believe that everything happens in God’s time and nothing’s happened before. It was fine. So I did, I tried again, I submitted to agencies and then several agencies were interested. So, at the time Naomi was with Marilyn, New York and I decided to go with them because they offered me a contract and I was like, ‘Oh, well what better agency to be with than them? They had built a rapport of making great careers of African American models. And so I thought that would be me. Some great things came from it and then some great things did not.”
She pointed out the emotional toll of navigating the business side of the job. “You feel like you’re constantly, like there’s something, I think you don’t ever feel like you’re good enough in a way.”
Good enough is relative. It wasn’t Bennet’s luminous skin or dazzling facial features that propelled her career forward, it was her taut figure. The athletic body others shamed became a huge selling point as she was securing her a coveted spot in a campaign for Nike.
“Nike was actually my first big client. Honestly, they were first as the first people to actually give me a shot at a campaign. And give me a shot in terms of major, major usage,” said Bennet.
“I think that in modeling you’re constantly trying to figure out where you fit in. You know? And I think agents are constantly trying to figure out where you fit in as well. And you know, that goes both ways. But I think for me it was the first time that a client was like, ‘Oh, you’re fine. Just the way you are. And you know, we love your shoulders, we love your abs, we love your toned legs.’ They weren’t trying to break me down pretty much. They were saying, ‘Oh, you’re great the way you are.’”
The experience was not just affirming professionally, it was affirming personally. Neighbors, friends, and family sought her out to express their pride after she booked the gig. Strangers even began stopping her in the street after recognizing her from the ads.
“Most people always saw me as like, ‘Oh my God, I seen you like on the Nike website’ or in the and so it was pretty cool. Especially since I’m from Brooklyn, so you know, people from Brooklyn. My mom worked out, my mom has runner’s high life and she’s always like, ‘Oh my God’, all our friends are always like, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen your daughter all over Nike.’ So, um, yeah, it was pretty cool. They’re a great company I think it was just nice.”
During one of the shoots agents were doubtful she would ever be able to book she was merely being friendly and inquiring about her counterpart’s personal training business while he was being struck by love at first site.
“Obviously I think his objective was a little different. My initial encounter with him was for personal training because he is a personal trainer and at the time, I wanted to get in tip top shape, although like I was shooting for Nike but I wanted a trainer. And so I was like, hey we should get connected, you know, I would love to try one of your sessions. And he was like, ‘absolutely.’”
Bennett may have wanted to fine tune her instrument through additional exercise but like the client, her future fiancé thought she was perfect as she was. “I remember him making a comment. He was watching me model and he was like, ‘Oh wow. If we were to have children ,we can make a Kobe Bryant.’ And I’m like, ‘What? You met me five minutes ago and you’re already planning our future child?!’ So, I think that was his pickup line. But I guess you could say it’s definitely not the most conventional pickup line.” Conventional or not it worked. “One thing kind of led to another and here we are.”
Bennet’s walk down the aisle is not leading her away from her hustle. She has her hands full with a number of philanthropic and professional projects, that she is managing as she makes her way to the alter. “I actually have my degree in media and business. And so because of that I started a blog and because I started a blog, I’m able to do a lot of PR on my own. And so I was able to get myself my own CG contract.”
Source: Photo by Michael Tullberg/ / Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images
She thinks having additional skills adds to her value as a model. “I think that brands like to kind of see the different side to you, like, ‘Okay, great, you’re a model for what else?’ You know? And I think kind of having my education and being able to use that hand in hand in my field has been has enabled me to work with such a large brand in different ads. in a different way, you know, like as more than just the model is what I’m saying.”
She is not content just to increase the way she way she engages with other brands. Like her business owner beau she is an entrepreneur as well.
“I started a hat line, which was kind of, I felt like my first, step in the right direction of being an entrepreneur because I think that as a model, most times you are waiting for somebody to pick you and think that you’re beautiful and waiting. You’re waiting for somebody to kind of accept you. And I think it’s another thing to kind of take some of that power back. You know? And I think for me, taking that power back by starting my online that’s pretty great.”
Her power move has proven to be profitable. “We’ve been getting a really great buzz these last couple of months.”
She uses the attention and prestige of her business and her brand to highlight non-profits that may not have as much limelight as a new pair of Air Maxes. She advises others with a platform to do the same.
“I think that, you know, the bigger your brand is, the more reach you have. The more people are willing to move. Support, the things that are important to you or even support things that might be important to them, you know, and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about doing that. I didn’t think about that. But I would love to get involved. I would love to come and support you.’ My, uh, one of my great friends, she just invited me to participate in NIDA. And, I did the walk alongside her and we pretty much raise awareness for models and not even just models, but people with eating disorders, you know. So like I said, I feel like when your brand becomes bigger, you now have the platforms that only raise awareness for causes that are important to you. But that applies to other people too, you know.”
Other causes she has devoted her time to include the American Heart Association, and the Foundation for AIDS Research, whom Naomi Campbell is a big supporter. She flew all the way to Milan to support the later recently determined to make difference through her level of access.
On red carpets and at cocktail parties she looks carefree but her unlikely success story is committed to safeguarding all that she has achieved through hard work. When she isn’t creating a new collection, volunteering her time to causes, or striking a pose on set she is working to maintain her role as one of the biggest names in the industry. A surprisingly relatable superstar, she doesn’t pretend not to know her place is a coveted one. She admits to being aware of the high profile place she is in and does not play it cool when it comes to talking about it.
“Even when you have your moments of success, you feel like you’re running in place trying to keep up, you’re running in place trying to like stay on top and relevant. And you know, it’s a lot. Half the battle is getting there, the other half of the battle is staying there. It’s definitely something that us as models contend with every single day.”