NAOMI HEPHZIBAH

PORTRAITS BY CHUN-LI 'KEN' HUANG

 
 
Naomi H by Chun-Li Ken Huang.jpg
 

Famous Rapper, songwriter, and entrepreneur Sean Combs (better known as P. Diddy) is originally from Harlem, New York in Manhattan. Surrounded by frustration and hardship in his hometown, Combs never lost hope in his pursuit of success. He once said, “If you're chasing your dreams, you're not running fast enough. Run faster.”

Naomi Hephzibah, a Marist sophomore with an already established modeling career, employed Comb’s method to conquer some dreams of her own. “I live by that quote,” said Naomi, an international business major with a fashion merchandising minor. “I really do kind of look up to people like Sean Combs just because of where he came from and where he is now. The whole time he was up there he had a sort of business mindset.”

A graduate of Inglewood High School, an underprivileged institution in Southwestern Los Angeles, Naomi has experienced first hand the struggles of cultivating larger-than-life goals in a defeatist environment. With a passion for modeling, breaking historical barriers as a Black woman in the industry, and aspirations of someday attending college in New York—Naomi had to break conventional standards. She then proved herself through strength and perseverance. “Growing up here teaches you to be strong,” Naomi said, “People looking at Inglewood from the outside don’t think [its students] can go anywhere.”

 

MAKES ME THE STRONG PERSON I AM TODAY--But strength is not a new concept to Naomi. Born in London, she underwent a difficult transition when she moved with her family to Los Angeles at the age of seven. Even as the elementary-schooler attempted to orient herself with American culture, her lingering British accent garnered frequent—and sometimes negative—attention. “I remember [the transition] being weird,” she said. “People didn’t find the accent to be as cool as they do now.”

Naomi’s background initially created a sort of wedge between her and her classmates, which persisted throughout her early years in L.A.  Throughout middle school, Naomi’s classmates consistently reinforced this notion that Naomi was different than themselves. “People would always say, oh you don’t know what this is because you haven’t been here,” she recalled.

Nonetheless, Naomi drew strength from her family. As the only girl in a family of five children, she inherently developed thick skin not only to stand her ground with her brothers, but also to fulfill her protective obligations as the second oldest Hephzibah in line. “Being the only girl; people probably think, oh, you would want a sister,” Naomi laughed. “But I don’t think I would. Growing up with boys makes me the strong person I am today.”

Shortly after arriving in L.A. with her parents and siblings, Naomi’s father returned to London, leaving her mom to raise five children as a single mother. She worked tirelessly to instill in her kids a solid work ethic and sense of educational prioritization. Her courage inspired Naomi.  “My mom was always my main motivation all throughout high school and college...just seeing her being the strong woman she is today.”

Naomi used her mother’s example to propel her future—which largely revolved around her passion for modeling. In an industry still ridden with subtle racism and founded on individual, appearance-based biased, Naomi sought to use modeling as a vehicle to not only mobilize her own goals, but also to break the mold and catalyze change. During her junior year of high school, she launched what would eventually develop into a very successful modeling brand. Her Instagram account inadvertently cultivated a following, and suddenly, Naomi’s feed was flooded with messages from photographers, inquiring about her interest in modeling for them.

Optimizing on the interest, she began to attend casting calls, where she enjoyed a great deal of success for her age, while also encountering a share of frustration. “It was difficult because there would be people with a totally different look than you,” she said. “They’d be taller or smaller than you, or sometimes look the same as you, but [the directors] would choose someone else because they just liked that person’s look better.”

The hypercompetitive environment undermined Naomi’s confidence in her modeling. She began questioning her path, and eventually stopped attending castings altogether. But in the midst of Naomi’s frustration, she was introduced to a fellow model who rekindled her determination. The model, with whom Naomi was introduced to through a family-friend that coordinated modeling workshops, exuded a confidence that resonated with Naomi. “The girl I met was only 5’5, but she had so much confidence,” Naomi said. The model reassured her that, as long as Naomi maintained self-confidence in her walk, she could conquer the industry.

 

SERVING AS A ROLE MODEL IN HER COMMUNITY--With an awakened perspective and more determination than ever, Naomi once again began to capture her dreams. She used her community’s doubts as motivation, aiming to serve as a role model to the Inglewood High School students.“I wanted to prove that you don’t have to do the typical thing to get where you want to go,” she said. “There’s so much more you can do.”With her modeling career beginning to flourish, Naomi focused on her ambitions to attend college in New York. After researching schools in the Northeast, Marist’s fashion program and close proximity to the city garnered Naomi’s interest. Ironically, soon after, Marist ambassadors paid a visit to Inglewood High during the school’s college fair program.  

“Not a lot of colleges would come down to my school, so I was surprised that Marist came,” she said.  “Seeing a school put in that much effort to come to my school...I was like, OK, they really do care. They really are reaching out to people with different backgrounds.” A few months later, Naomi was catching a flight to New York. She would undergo yet another transition, this time, thousands of miles away from her family. But with her dreams still in tact and her will to succeed unwavering, Naomi fell into stride and gathered a close group of friends at Marist. One of these friends, Co-Dou Diallo, would eventually join Naomi in cultivating a successful modeling brand.

“Co-Dou and I have been best friends since freshman year,” Naomi said. Both equipped with devotion to the industry and experience behind the camera, the two joined in modeling for a Marist fashion student’s lookbook in 2017. They began attending casting calls together, and soon enough, Naomi and Co-Dou were landing modeling gigs with nationally-acclaimed fashion brands.

 

YOU HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO HOLD YOUR OWN--In February, 2018, the sophomores were walking the runway in Manhattan for ShayKawaii during one of the world’s most renowned fashion events: New York Fashion Week. The show was “insightful” for Naomi. She experienced first-hand the racial undertone that still in some ways plagues the fashion industry. “Behind the scenes it does get really crazy—you do have to be a backbone. People will be disrespectful but you have to learn how to not take it to heart.”

She recalls her and Co-Dou’s eye-opening moments behind the scenes of the show while the two prepared to walk to runway. As Co-Dou asked around backstage to locate a hairdresser, she was patently disrespected by a hair stylist. The stylist was overtly reluctant to address Co-Dou, and proceeded to flood her with rude comments while brushing her hair. “The whole time, he kept saying, ‘what is wrong with your hair; I’m gonna have to cut it,” Naomi recalled. When Naomi went in search of a new stylist to rescue Co-Dou, she encountered similar derogation. This time, the new hairdresser refused to acknowledge Naomi at first, and when she finally did, she ignorantly inquired ‘Are you in the show?’”

“There’s a lot of racism in the industry,” Naomi said. “But you have to learn to hold your own. Being up there on the runway made me forget about it.”

Today, Naomi’s strength and confidence guide her journey not only in the fashion world but in her road to success. With goals of one day becoming an entrepreneur and owning her own clothing line, she continues to not simply chase but harness her dreams through her extraordinary work ethic and will power.

“I believe, if you have that motivation; don’t wait for handouts; you have to just go for.”

  
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