Esti Mamo: Because I’m a woman of color, I speak for everyone, I’m global.Esti Mamo is exquisitely beautiful, with cocoa-colored skin, enormous almond-shaped eyes and full, shapely lips. She has poise and presence, and as she strides into the Tel Aviv Hilton wearing the de rigueur belted trench coat, it’s inevitable that faces turn.
Mamo, 23, is Israel’s first Ethiopian-Israeli model. And after several years on the Israeli modeling circuit, she has high hopes for strutting on the global catwalk.
Discovered by a modeling agent when she was 16 while shopping with a girlfriend in Tel Aviv, Mamo insisted on waiting until she was 18 to take her first job – an advertising campaign for Pepsi Cola in Israel. She then moved on to the prestigious Image Model Management agency, and began modeling regularly for Israeli clothing chains Castro, Renaur, Kenvelo and Diesel.
It all felt very natural to Mamo, who despite her simple beginnings in an Ethiopian village, was always the type of kid to prance around on imaginary high heels. As a teenager, she spent many hours preening and primping with her friends, and during high school, created a dance group that performed in local clubs.
“It’s in the genes,” says Mamo, explaining her looks and her self-awareness. “I always paid attention to what I looked like, but I always critiqued myself as well, I was deeply involved in the whole process.”
Yet it’s taken a while for her to get to where she is now. Mamo came to Israel with her family on Operation Solomon, the 1991 airlift of Ethiopian Jews. Originally from Chila, a small farming village in Ethiopia, her family spent two years in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa before leaving when Mamo was nine years old.
When the Mamo family first came to Israel, they were placed in the seaside town of Michmoret, and then moved to Kiryat Malachi, where Mamo’s grandmother was already living. Like many traditionally observant Ethiopian Jews, the Mamos had always thought of Israel as the ‘Holy Land’, says Mamo, a place full of God-fearing, religiously aware Jews.
Modern Israel, says Mamo, with a lift of her perfectly shaped eyebrows, is a very different bargain.
Like many other Ethiopian families in Israel, the Mamo family’s aliyah and absorption has not been easy. For Mamo, the difficulties faced by her family came to a head in 2004 when her younger brother committed suicide.
“I don’t like to talk about it, because it’s very painful,” she told ISRAEL21c. “No aliyah is easy, and none of the aliyot to Israel by any of the other groups – Yemenite, Moroccan, Polish – have been easy. People don’t know how to accept the differences of others. They need to feel love for other kinds of people.”
Mamo, however, does feel that her story of achievement holds out hope for other Ethiopians that they too will find satisfaction and success in their personal and professional lives.
“I don’t forget what happened to me,” she insists. “I’m part of the Ethiopian tribe, and they are part of me. That’s why I feel that given my work, I can present myself as an example, as an Ethiopian and an Israeli and a Jew, and offer pride and satisfaction in who I am.”
Mamo has often given talks at schools and local community organizations, what she calls “small things” that she’s happy to do in order to show others that they also can make something out of their lives.
But while Mamo is happy to have ‘made it’ in Israel, she is working hard to expand her work beyond advertisements and catalogs to the fashion spreads and pages of major magazines such as Vogue, Elle and W. In fact, her goal is to land a campaign with one of the cosmetics empires, such as Estee Lauder or Chanel.
“I don’t have a problem doing fashion, but I think I fit better with cosmetics and beauty products,” she said. “Because I’m a woman of color, I speak for everyone, I’m global.”
Mamo often finds that Europeans can recognize her as an Ethiopian, and New Yorkers are sometimes familiar with her delicate, Ethiopian features. But more often than not, people are not aware of what is it to be an Ethiopian Jew, or the story of Ethiopian Israelis and the long, arduous journey they have taken.
During her increasingly frequent travels around the world, Mamo tries to keep herself grounded by being in regular contact with Ethiopian and Israeli friends living outside of Israel, not, she says, living the typical model lifestyle.
According to photographers and stylists who have worked with her, Mamo appears to have both the looks and the drive necessary to make it in the world of modeling.
“In the last few years since Esti opened the doors, the general taste of the fashion world has expanded to embrace models of all colors,” supermodel photographer Avi Harel said in a recent interview with JTA. “Today, it’s a normal part of Israeli culture.”
“It’s a process, you have to build up your exposure,” says Mamo of her modeling career. “I love the work and I’m always looking to improve what I do, always curious to see the photos during a shoot, to see and be responsible for what we’re creating.”
Mamo is clearly a woman who knows what she wants, and what she likes. While she’s not a “fashion victim,” she says, and tends to shun brand names, she still confesses a love of Chanel and buys much of her clothing from Spanish fashion chain Zara.
She can eat what she wants, and loves lamb in particular, but doesn’t crave junk food. When she wants to be domestic, she’ll clean her entire Tel Aviv apartment, but prefers to stay away from the kitchen. She is fiercely protective of her independence and her ability to make her own decisions, but is inordinately close to and proud of her family.
“People call me a lucky girl,” she said with a laugh. “And I do feel that things that I’ve wanted to happen, have happened. But once I’ve accomplished what I want to do, I’ll come back to Israel and have a family of my own. My feet are always on the ground.”