In Israel, Esti Mamu stands out in a crowd — especially when the crowd is made up of the country’s top models. For while British-born Naomi Campbell and Somalia-native Iman long ago set a new standard of beauty in the American and European fashion industry, black models like Mamu are still largely invisible on the Israeli scene.
Mamu, a 22-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, is ready to change that, thanks to a string of recent high-profile jobs.
“In America it would have been easier,” Mamu said of her career. “But I wanted to break the ice here first. My community is here.”
Mamu, one of eight children, said that growing up in a small village north of Addis Ababa, “all our lives we prayed to reach the Holy Land.” Yet when Mamu, at the age of 10, immigrated to Israel as part of Operation Solomon in 1991, she was not prepared for what she found. “I was surprised to see so many white people,” she told the Forward.
Her family first lived in northern Israel and then moved to Kiryat Malachi, a heavily immigrant town on the country’s central coast. Despite having a perfectly proportioned figure and naturally lithe physique, Mamu, who grew up in a religious family, never thought of becoming a model. A business major in high school, Mamu dreamed of earning an MBA.
Her career path changed in 1999. She was shopping one day in Tel Aviv when she was spotted by a friend of the owner of Image, the prestigious Israeli modeling agency that launched the careers of Shiraz Tal and Nina Brosh. He stopped Mamu, she recalls, told her that she was more beautiful than Naomi Campbell and insisted that Mamu stop by the agency. She signed with Image, and her modeling career took off — slowly.
For the first two years, she found little work — and not, Mamu said, because at 5 feet 6 inches tall, she is somewhat shorter than most models.
“In the start it was hard because people said black doesn’t work in Israel,” Mamu said. Jobs came slowly. And when she was in demand, she said, it was not because she was deemed the most attractive but because the company hiring her wanted “diversity” among its models.
“Whenever they needed someone black, like for a chocolate ad, they would use me,” Mamu said. “It wasn’t because I was Esti Mamu and I was pretty, like it is with a white model.”
But now, she said, her career has turned a corner. In the last year and a half, she has started to beat out white models for jobs. Mamu recently appeared in a Versace ad, is featured regularly on television and is set to model jewelry in Israel for H. Stern. She has started to branch out into European markets; she is set to star in a campaign for Kenvelo clothing, where she will be the featured face among 10 international models.
While Mamu has found fame, she said that her parents have had a more difficult transition to their new lives in Israel — her father had been a high-ranking officer in the Ethiopian army. But they are proud of their daughter’s success. “Finally they see that someone black is successful,” said Mamu, who currently lives with her aunt in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion.
Mamu sees herself as a role model for Ethiopian girls, albeit one in a bikini. She said that she hopes to teach Ethiopian girls that they can make it in an Israeli society that has long privileged the Ashkenazi Jew. “I think black people are the most beautiful people in the world,” she said.
Dreaming big, Mamu has set her sights on the catwalks of New York City. And after she has conquered the world of fashion, she said, she still hopes to get that MBA, to return to her Ethiopian community and help others succeed.