ACCRA // Hot on the heels of the success of America's Next Top Model, the reality television show that spawned a generation of would-be models, the show's producers are bringing the catwalk to West Africa. When West Africa's Next Top Model airs in the autumn, Africa-based viewers will watch contestants compete for an international modelling contract. While America's Next Top Model is hosted by supermodel Tyra Banks, contestants in the West African version will come under the tutelage of Nigerian model Oluchi. She grew up in a low-income part of Lagos and was discovered by a scout while selling bread on a street corner. Though fashion is practically a keystone of West African society, many know the region better for its links to gun running and conflict diamonds. But in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's economic capital, life beneath the skyscrapers is set to a soundtrack of clicking heels. Chic women ride scooters through the dusty streets of Burkina Faso while Fulani villagers in the arid Sahel region invest hours turning their bodies into colourful works of art. At Africa's first official fashion week - held in Johannesburg this month - six West African fashion designers are showcasing their creations, including Ghanaians Ben Nonterah and Aisha Obuobi. Auditions for West Africa's Next Top Model have already been held in six West African countries, including Sierra Leone and Liberia, both recovering from long-running civil wars. "West African girls are beautiful and we relish new challenges", said Ghanaian model Matilda Mikekpor, who tried out for the show. "We want to show our faces to the world." Executive producer Tope Esan says he hopes the programme will help unbutton negative perceptions of West Africa. "This version of Next Top Model will not only highlight a diverse mix of models, but [also] the region for its tourist attractions, cultures and values." Ms Mikekpor says it will do more than that. "In West Africa, models are sometimes seen as irresponsible dropouts who just drink and smoke and party", she said. "West Africa's Next Top Model will show people that there's much more to us than meets the eye." At 24, Nana Yaa Adadewa Addo is Ghana's closest thing to a supermodel, with razor cheekbones and television appearances to her name. Though she and Ms Mikekpor both auditioned for West Africa's Next Top Model, neither heard back from the judges. "For me, the audition was a chance to seek fame and attention outside of Ghana" she said. "When my friends and I see American supermodels in magazines, we know we can look as good as them. But we also know that living in Ghana means we're probably never going to make it." Tonight, in the empty assembly hall of an orphanage, models from Accra's Exotic agency are rehearsing for a charity fashion show. As they squeeze their feet into kitten heels and plastic-looking stilettos, children press their faces against the grubby window panes. Fluorescent strip lights flicker and the music begins - local hip-hop laced with imported American pop. Throwing their shoulders back, the models stride through the hall in unison, perfecting the catwalk. As they swing their hips, ceiling fans coated in grit - a hangover from the Harmattan season, when the dry and dusty West African trade wind blows - turn impotently. The paint on the walls has cracked and peeled in Ghana's humid climate. Ghana's nascent fashion industry is flooded with young hopefuls and wages are as slim as the models. Taking a breather from the rehearsal, Ms Mikekpor says many Ghanaian models are waiting for their Cinderella moment. "Lots of supermodels started out in small agencies. I don't see why girls like us can't someday achieve the same level of fame." But their concept of fame is tethered to success in Europe or the US. Among their role models they list Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, black women raised in middle-class families in California and London. They have not heard of Ethiopia's Liya Kebede or the Somali-born model Waris Dirie. They do not mention Iman, one of the first black supermodels, or even Alek Wek, whose chiselled cheekbones and long legs have famously taken her from troubled southern Sudan to the runways of New York. Though the region's fashion industry is on the up, it is not unlikely that the winner of West Africa's Next Top Model might leave the region for greener pastures. That irony is not lost on Ms Mikekpor. "Lots of people in Ghana want to emulate people in America. Maybe we should be focusing on developing the fashion industry in Africa instead, but for now that's the way it is," she said. "Whoever wins West Africa's Next Top Model will also win the chance to model outside Africa. Who wouldn't want to enter?" firstname.lastname@example.org
West Africa sashays down the TV catwalk
Executive producer of The Next Top Model says the TV show could change perceptions about the region by highlighting its cultures and values.