LYNDSEY MCINTYRE, a scout for Elite Model Management, scans the garbage-heaped streets of Nairobi`s Eastleigh slum and sniffs its fetid air. Her quarry, McIntyre senses, could be close. “But where is she?” she murmurs, stepping through slurry in her black heels.
“She” is to be the next African supermodel, to follow in the well-spaced tracks of Iman and Alek Wek. Here in Eastleigh, tumultuous home to half a million Somali refugees – the ethereal Iman`s own people – she might even be plentiful.
“Beautiful people, wonderful bone structure” says McIntyre, a 37-year-old British former model and long-time Kenya resident, who opened Elite`s first office in Africa last month.
And, with that, she suddenly goes rigid. “Oh, look at her!” McIntyre cries, as a well-wrapped young woman disappears into the market just ahead.
“She`s gorgeous. God, I hope that`s not her baby.”
A rapid inquiry reassures. “He`s my little brother,” smiles Saretho Abdi, 17 years old and heart-stoppingly lovely.
McIntyre makes her pitch in smooth Swahili. She`s looking for beautiful girls to make adverts for companies such as Coca-Cola and Nivea. They could make a lot of money. Is Abdi interested?
Draped chin-to-toe in a billowing black robe, and with not a wisp of hair showing under her headscarf, it is hard to imagine Abdi emerging bikini-clad from crashing Pacific waves, or applying creamy moisturiser to a well-rounded shoulder. Yet she is nodding keenly.
“It has always been my dream, providing there is no nudity,” she says.
Abdi is too short for the catwalk, but McIntyre is pleased.
“In 10 minutes we have one extremely promising girl, who I could definitely find work for,” she says. “What potential!”
Alas, spotting supermodels is rarely so easy, as McIntyre discovered on her virgin scouting mission last week. Her target then were the Orma tribe of remote northeast Kenya, whose women are especially striking. But McIntyre didn`t get to see many of them.
“The elders were a bit suspicious – they wouldn`t let me meet too many of their girls,” she explains. “There was one stunning girl, a real natural beauty, only she was boss-eyed.”
The Orma are among the most impoverished people on earth. Their women are married at 12, mothers at 14 and dead at 50.
No wonder, says Father Tom Hogan, an Irish missionary, that they found the modelling concept hard to digest.
“They`re a conservative bunch – they have to be,” he says. “These people live very near the edge. They`re nomads: they make the wrong decision and they die. That makes them slow to change.”
Another problem for McIntyre is that such testimonies aren`t always reliable, as she discovered when one of an Orma village`s “most beautiful girls” turned out – not coincidentally – to be its weightiest. “I tried to tell them that Western advertisers have a different idea of beauty – a less plump idea – than the traditional one.”
The Orma are not alone in believing fat is beautiful. In Nigeria, for example, prospective brides attend “fattening rooms” and in East Africa “You`re looking fat” is a chat-up line.
“I am baffled by the fashion industry`s obsession with small hips,” says Jan Malan, a judge for the Face of Africa, the South African-run contest.
“But because we want the girls to succeed and to see African models working internationally, we give the fashion moguls what they want.”
Back in her smart new office, McIntyre also heads off criticism by citing the greater good.
“Of course, I`ve got reservations about pulling someone out of the bush and sending them off to New York, but we will nurture them and make sure this is something they really want to do,” she says. “I`m going to look after them, help them, I`ll be their mummy. I`m not rushing anyone into the First World.
“But Africa is the great untapped source, and it`s time the advertising market woke up to the fact that there`s this huge black commercial market out there, and yet only 2 to 3 per cent of models are black.”
On McIntyre`s desk sits an image of her strongest candidate so far: a stunning teenager from Kenya, clad in a leopard-skin bikini and wielding a spear.
“There`s such grace, a natural serenity, a lack of complexity to Africans, which could really make them do very well in this business. It`s a very exciting beginning.” – OBSERVER.