THE IT: Model Cici Ali

Story by Allison Dean. Photography courtesy of Elmer Olsen Models.

New York is a fashion mecca for any aspiring model, but for Toronto native Cici Ali, hailing cabs en route to New York Fashion Week is all in a day’s work. Discovered at 14, Cici took a relaxed approach to modelling: She finished high school, and then studied fashion at Humber College before pursuing it full-time. Cici, who grew up in Richmond Hill, now splits her time between Toronto and New York, and also jets across the globe to stomp on the world’s most exotic runways.

In between juggling castings for Glamour and Allure, Cici spoke with The Style Notebook about her Michelle Obama moment, her definition of Toronto style and her (refreshingly honest) thoughts on the size zero debate.

Were there any models you looked up to growing up?

“I was a tomboy, and I didn’t really read magazines growing up, but I remember Christy Turlington. I remember seeing her and being mesmerized by her natural beauty. She was the perfect essence of a model to me.”

Are there any models you look up to now ?

“It’s more their styling that I admire. Erin Wasson, I love—I like grungy, cool, DIY kind of girls.”

Is that how you would describe your personal style?

“I’m more laid-back, tomboyish with heels on. Lately, I tend to wear a boy’s V-neck with skinnies and high pumps. Maybe I’ll throw on a blazer or an old-school leather jacket. But I like to mix it up, I don’t think I have a definite style.”

What does “Toronto style” mean to you?

“There are so many different styles—it’s a city where everything goes. You have hipster style: people who keep it funky with funky patterns and different textures. Prep-posh styling, like big shoulders, big sunglasses, big purses—pretty much Yorkville! Then there’s downtown, which is like New York’s Lower East Side, with people wearing toques, T-shirts with holes in them, but which look kind of hot when paired with baggy pants.”

Who is your favourite designer?

“I really like Giambattista Valli. His clothes last forever—I wear it now and I will wear it in my 60s.”

Favourite place you’ve been?

“Definitely Beijing—we did a show for DTVI, which I wasn’t familiar with beforehand but it was a huge deal over there. It was amazing—they took us to the Great Wall and toured us around the countryside. One day we ate with farmers from the far west coast who had probably never seen a black girl with a huge curly ‘fro before!”

Favourite model moment that really stands out in your mind?

“In my first season I did a show for Jason Wu and I was so nervous! The runway was made from mirrors and I was the only new girl there. Backstage, I saw this huge group of photographers and security, and I realized that someone special must be here which made me more nervous. Then I looked over and saw Michelle Obama! Yeah, I actually saw her! But the story gets better. So then Jason Wu comes up to me and says that I look like his friend Kerry and that I have to meet her. I was playing along and went to meet his friend. A petite girl turned around and I realized that it was Kerry Washington!  The whole show was so surreal.”

Has anything embarrassing or nerve-wrecking happened to you?

“After my first season, I got a call to head over to a photographer booking. I grabbed my heels and rushed over to this little office that was packed with girls. I was getting Polaroids taken, my hair was a mess, I looked frazzled and was wearing something you would probably wear to sleep. I asked what the casting was for and was told it was for Steven Meisel—the photographer of my life! It was the most horrendous thing ever but I will never forget that moment: It taught me to always be on point for any appointment.”

Is there anything you dislike about modelling?

“I’m slowly realizing that you can get into certain situations where you aren’t treated as a person, as horrible as that sounds. You go to a fitting, or a casting, you’re working with a client, and people talk about you as if you’re not there, like you’re a product. A few times I’ve spoken up, but that’s frowned upon. Some people do whatever they want to you, like taping your hair for a shoot or gluing stuff on your skin—treating you like you’re a doll. It’s understandable because you’re a model and that’s your job, but to constantly be accosted by it can be draining.”

There has been a lot of debate about model sizes in fashion. What’s been your experience with size pressure in the industry?

“A lot of models will probably never admit it, but some people in the industry expect you to be not just skinny, they want girls who are stick figures, emaciated and not eating for days. I’ve tried dieting, but it doesn’t make me happy and I don’t think anybody’s body should be put through that kind of pressure. I decided in the last couple of months that I am not even going to bother, and if someone won’t book me because I am not a double zero that is too bad for them!”

Do you have any advice for girls interested in fashion or getting into the industry?

“I know it’s a cliché, but be true to yourself. People will try to change you and people say so many different things, but you have to be true to yourself because at the end of the day you can only perform if you feel comfortable. You also have to work with people you feel trust and feel comfortable with because they are the people who have your career in their hands. Some people just want to be supermodels, but it takes time, so just work as hard as you can and do the best that you can.”

Cici in Glow.

Cici in Flare.

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