African model Maria Borges is smiling her way to success
This leggy Angolan is conquering the pouting supermodel world with a smile all the while busting model stereotypes, writes Andrea Nagel
American boxer Rocky Marciano once said: ''There is no second place. Either you win or you lose." And although there are many people who'd agree with the heavyweight champion, a striking, 1.8m tall Angolan beauty has proved him wrong.
Maria Borges, who came second in the 2010 Elite Model Look Angola competition, is now one of the most sought-after supermodels in the world, eclipsing, in the greater scheme of things, whoever it was who came first.
Marciano, who never lost a title fight, had an "exceptionally durable chin". Borges's durability is different. Hers comes with the tenacity born of surviving a tumultuous childhood during Angola's civil war, and from being blessed with a million-dollar smile, not to mention the determination to persevere despite not winning that first competition.
"I think I have helped raise awareness among African girls that if you work hard and keep going, you can achieve something great," she says.
Borges was recently in SA to shoot a campaign for Woolworths's Spring/Summer 2018 Edition label.
She was brought up in a fatherless household and her mother died when she was 11 years old. To all intents and purposes she was raised by her 16-year-old sister. At the age of 18, Borges's sister started working in a supermarket so that she could pay for her younger siblings' schooling.
''I learnt a lot from that period of my life," says the model. "It has made me so much stronger. I wanted to get into modelling so that I could help my sister earn money and pay for our university someday."
Borges entered the Elite model competition in 2010 when she was 17 years old, and was spotted by a talent scout from the Luanda-based agency STEP Models, who recognised her potential and was impressed by her positive attitude. Angola, once a Portuguese colony, still has ties with Portugal and Borges was soon sent to the Lisbon agency We Are Models to further her career and work all over Europe.
From there she was sent to join Supreme Management in New York.
"They didn't sign me right away. They wanted to see if I would be able to book enough jobs to cover my expenses," she says. "All I could think of was I've come this far and I didn't want to disappoint."
At the time Portuguese-speaking Borges hadn't learnt any English. All she could say was "thank you" and "great meeting you", which she always paired with her killer smile. "That got me my first jobs. Your smile is your brightness and power, and with it you can conquer the world."
In her first few months in New York she went to 30 castings a week, and in her first New York Fashion Week season she was booked for 17 shows.
For her second season, she was a Givenchy exclusive. Since then Borges has appeared in editorials for French, Italian, British, Spanish, German, and Portuguese Vogue, German and Australian Harper's Bazaar, Brazilian Marie Claire, French Numèro, V, W, i-D, and Interview, to name a few.
Regarded as one of Givenchy's rare muses (she refers to Riccardo Tisci, creative director from 2005 to 2017, as her "godfather"), Borges says she was encouraged by the appointment of British Vogue's current editor, Edward Enninful, the first African to be editor-in-chief of such a prestigious fashion journal.
"He's inspired and encouraged me as well as many other black models," she says.
She has walked the runway for labels like Banana Republic, Dior, Elie Saab, Emporio Armani, Givenchy, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Versace and, famously, for Victoria's Secret.
If you Google "Maria Borges", most hits will be about her stereotype-busting 2015 Victoria's Secret show, for which she dropped the extensions and weaves she'd been required to wear in previous years (2013 and 2014), and wore her hair naturally in a tightly cropped Afro.
Enninful and Tisci had advised her that her look and her body were "high fashion", but that her braids and extensions made her look commercial, and that it was better to go the high fashion route as that would increase her chances of longevity in the fashion industry.
At the time Cosmopolitan reported that this was the first time a black woman had worn her natural hair on the Victoria's Secret runway. Even Alek Wek, who is usually photographed with natural hair, had previously worn a wig for the show.
Borges describes hitting the runway with her natural curls as a "big opportunity".
"I've met so many other girls who think it's scary [to wear their hair naturally], or if they change their hair, they won't feel beautiful anymore," she told Glamour magazine. "I want to show women that anything's possible. You can still look beautiful with short hair."
Before the show she worked on her body every day, telling Forbes magazine: "I felt I needed to compensate for my hair, so my body had to be in better shape than the other girls'." Since then, she said, she's learnt that sexy is the way you carry yourself, it's about confidence, not about your hair.
"I realised, OK, I don't need to be like Adriana Lima with long dark hair to be a sexy girl. I need to be myself."
Last year, Borges was the first African woman to feature on the cover of the US version of Elle this century, 20 years after Sudanese model Wek in 1997. As a proponent of diversity in fashion, Borges said it is important that more African women participate in the international industry.
"The entire continent needs to be seen as more than a faraway place," she says. "There are millions of Africans who follow and are inspired by fashion, just as in other countries. The fashion industry must realise that women from all over the world are important. It should reflect everyone."
And what's the best advice the international supermodel has received? "It was from my sister, who told me 'step by step'. I have those words tattooed on my arm to remind me each day."