Name: Makeena Oluwabunmi
Agency: New Icon NY/ Bounty Models
Claim To Fame: Oluwabun has appeared in Vogue spreads and worked with designer Kim Shui.
Makeena Oluwabunmi knew she wanted to model before first grade but with limited resources and other children to care for, quitting her job to become a stage mom wasn’t happening. “My mom was a single mom with three kids,” said Oluwabunmi before adding that the family matriarch was “super, duper busy.”
Her mother supported her by encouraging her, enrolling her in occasional runway classes, and allowing her to enter a Cosmopolitan competition but she had to wait until she was a young woman to truly kickstart her career. “Even if I had booked a job, you know, she’s working, she can’t take time off,” she continued. “I really started focusing on modeling like when I had my own freedom as an older person.”
Oluwabunmi modeled while pursuing her undergraduate education at Atlanta’s Emory University. “I was always looking for opportunities, even if I was a full time student,” she said.
She appeared in several spreads in the school’s fashion publication Bubble. Colleges including NYU and The New School are increasingly seeking to offer students experience by sanctioning and facilitating official school magazines that present original editorial content. The Bubble didn’t just offer her experience, it was a mild distraction from the heartache she was experiencing. “In high school, I lost my first love to gun violence. It was very, very traumatic,” she said. Oluwabunmi turned Bubble into her personal classroom. “I remember finding things to build my confidence and to actually learn how to like move on to the camera and be expressive and take direction and like bring art to life with the team.”
She brought that collaborative spirit to her work with local photographers when she chose to remain in the Atlanta area after graduation.“I stayed in Atlanta for a year and I took a job I hated because I wanted to be able to like call off work and not feel guilty if any modeling stuff came up,” she said. During the hours she wasn’t serving as a payroll specialist she was serving in front of the camera for free in exchange for photographs that would help build her portfolio.
“I was definitely making sacrifices to try to make it happen. It was a hard year for sure.I just kept building.” She submitted her book to dozens of agencies hoping to get signed.
Her portfolio was an asset but the ambitions of the artists she was working with was a stronger one. “What was really helpful actually was that these photographers were trying to submit,” she said. As editorial budgets shrink fashion photographers often stage their own high quality photoshoots on spec and submit them to major fashion titles in the hopes that they will be purchased for publications. “The fact that they were submitting was helping give it credits basically.”
Oluwabunmi’s work with renowned fashion photographer Mark Clennon unexpectedly landed her in Vogue. “He was just so supportive and communicative and like a person who’s just very genuine,” she said. “I feel like that’s kind of what helped me feel comfortable to even just say that I’m a model. Cause I’m yes, I was doing a lot of test shoots, but they were getting picked up for publications,” she continued. “That also helped build my confidence a lot in the industry.”
As she stacked credits she devoted more time to modeling. “My early adulthood has really looked like me slowly leading more and more into being more available for modeling,” she said. She briefly signed with a Midwestern agency she chose to part ways with when she found she wasn’t being submitted for the types of jobs she expected. “I’m not against any job as long as you’re being well paid and treated well by your agency and representatives,” she asserted.
Oluwabunmi balanced work, and looking for new reps with continuing her education. She moved to New York to pursue a Master’s degree in social work at Columbia University inspired by a desire to understand the motives of those who caused the brush with tragedy that changed her life. “I felt bad for them. And, I felt sad. Like what makes a young Black person kill another young Black person,” she asked. “I just knew that like, no one does that for no reason.”
“I landed in empathy and I think that when I landed there, I hadn’t really shifted out of that space. And that’s what drew me to social work,” she continued.
Her move wasn’t just personally fulfilling, it was professionally advantageous. At a time when fashion was at a standstill she secured an agent with a respected New York based agency during the COVID-19 pandemic using the photographs she had worked so hard to acquire. She is currently balancing the gigs they bring her with her day job as Licensed Master Social Worker.