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Estifanos Berta-Samuel, a lifeline to Ethiopian arts and entertainment



Beautiful Ethiopia is known for many wonderful things; splendid culture, striking women and a civilization rooted firmly in African history. It is the dream of model/dancer/actor Estifanos Berta-Samuel to add to that by starting a corporation that will build a world class industry for arts, fashion and entertainment professionals in his home country and across Africa. Judging by his determination and journey through the industry both overseas and on the continent, he may very well be on his way to achieving that.

Estifanos hails from the Amhara Tribe and with his impressive physique – 6 .5ft height, brown eyes and caramel skin – he has dazzled on the stage of several runways and graced the pages of print publications across the globe.  He currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa and shuttles between New York and Los Angeles under his agency, HEADS MODELS in Johannesburg

He started modeling rather unwillingly in High School at the 10th grade but today looks back on his journey with pride, having worked with some of the best stylists, photographers, and designers in the industry. He has worked as an assistant to the in house stylist at ENYCE, and appeared in several campaigns like: Absolut Vodka commercial in Paris, France; History Channel commercial in Hollywood, CA;  Los Angeles Fashion Week; and BET Awards Fashion Show just to name a few.

I caught up with Estifanos, who lists Tyson Beckford, Tyra Banks, Kimora Lee and Iman as his role models in the industry, to find out about his journey into the world of fashion, his spirituality, his ambitions and personal battles.

Ameyaw Debrah: How did you get into modeling?

One of my younger sisters was into modeling in high school and I would take her to castings and fashion shows. Every time I arrived I was asked by the organizers and agents to model for them. I never accepted any offer or gave the idea much thought because in my culture modeling was just not something that men did. After hearing so much from every one “you should be a model, you have that look” I entered some nationwide model search competition only to be scammed out of my money. I thought this whole modeling thing is just one big convoluted mess. I went back to my life thinking “I can’t believe those judges chose people that clearly looked like they crawled from under a rock”.

In my sophomore year of college, Howard University, a guy that lived in my dorm was a photographer for a local upstart model agency. Every time I saw him, he suggested to me that I speak with the agents because I had the look that they wanted but of course I declined each time. One day while returning to the dorm from dance class, as I was sweating and breathing like a beast, I saw that guy and the CEO of the agency leaving the building. As fate would have it, I was stopped and questioned about modeling, and then asked to meet later with the agency. I did after several weeks of thinking it over and was given my first contract for representation. The rest is history

Ameyaw Debrah: What kind if modeling are you into?

Currently I primarily do runway and commercial print modeling. I think I would like to try my luck at fitness modeling as well. However, I’m afraid that getting so big would damage my opportunity to keep my career going for runway and commercial work. I would simply be too big and muscular.

Ameyaw Debrah: Do you think African models have the opportunity to succeed internationally while back home?

I personally think and believe that any African model worth his/her salt can hold it down anywhere on earth contrary to popular belief from the “powers that be”. It is very disheartening to be in this industry and see that everywhere outside of Africa black models are disappearing and getting less and less work. We have to fight three times as hard to be recognized in markets that are saturated by models from every corner of the earth excluding Africa. It hurts to sit in a fashion show and see twenty to forty models pass on the runway and not one face looks like my own and what’s worse is that I’m expected to buy and parade those garments around proudly. I do know that among our own in the Western world there are many opportunities to be taken advantage of. However, it remains a dream for so many models here in Africa to go to the West and work but it is more than possible!

Ameyaw Debrah: What else do you do aside modeling?

Currently I am working as a wardrobe stylist, I have designed a course for fashion show production/coordination and thankfully I will be lecturing at fashion institutions in the near future. I dance and choreograph (East & West African, Ballet, Modern, Jazz, some Hip Hop, & Salsa). I am also working to lay the foundation for the corporation that I’m breaking ground in the very near future. I was working for the U.S. Government while “doing my thing in fashion & entertainment” and decided that I would leave that job and country to come back home to Mumaland and make it happen here! The best decision yet!!

Ameyaw Debrah:  Do you have any other ambitions, say acting etc?

Well, I would love to work in the U.S. as an Actor on the silver screen, television and Broadway. I do dance so that is a good a place as any to do the same. I simply love being creative and choreographing pieces for stage, Theatre is my first love there is nothing like it! Aside from my career in the arts I do desire to be a powerful business man a force to be reckoned with.

Ameyaw Debrah: What have been your highlights so far?

Spiritually, I would have to say above everything else discovering the true me and finding out what my role is in the life of God on earth. In the natural sense, attending and graduating from Howard University; traveling internationally and living my dream in the fashion/entertainment industry, being a back up dancer for the South African Sensation Khabonina Quebeka , starring in a television show on DSTV Africa, writing scripts for Cartoon Network’s Dance Club, and acting in two films in the U.S. last year.

Ameyaw Debrah: What have been some of the challenges for you?

I think by far the most challenging entity for me has been the fight to be myself and not allow other people, their opinions and or good intentions build walls and hurdles for me to jump over. Once I decided that I would be my own man and live in my own world in way that is pleasing to both me and God “all hell broke loose.” I’ve observed that people are “ok” with you as long as they can figure you out or predict your next move, and manipulate you. They do so because of their own fears, inadequacies and failure to manifest their highest potential. In the presence of greatness & truth those areas are highlighted & magnified so it warrants that weaknesses need to strip you of your personal power. The moment one decides that he will sell out to the greatness, to the eternal inside himself every force of opposition arises to resist you. However, that which is inside you is greater than any opposition because it is the living God himself!

Another challenge for me has been the fact that I had no one physically to “hold my hand” and show me how things are to be done in order to accomplish goals and dreams. Well, that accompanied by the all too occasional person underestimating my strength and potential and resolving that I’m just another “pretty face” and that “there’s not too much to me.” In my pursuit of “pouring out myself” I’ve had to learn things the hard way by being left behind because I didn’t know what to do, say or where to be. I also had to educate myself about every aspect of this business, its functions, and how that affected me and how I was to respond accordingly. Through it all I learned to be resilient, proactive and not reactive. I learned how to live on the attack and stay ahead of the game! That experience really made me very strong and built me to last in this industry.

Ameyaw Debrah:  What’s the fiercest or wildest photo shoot or job you ever did?

OMG! I was shooting once at the beach in Los Angeles and the photographer said she wanted shots of me sitting on a chair in the ocean. I thought, “Well surely there’s going to be one of those glass stands that don’t show up on film or a small pool in front of a backdrop of the ocean” ha! It was nothing of the sort. I had to sit in the ocean on a chair and pretend not to be bothered by the waves that constantly crashed from behind me without warning. Every time we set up the shot I would be catapulted to the beach and buried under what felt like tons of water before I could come up for air and that was the nature of that shot all afternoon. My God, this must have gone on for what seemed like hours until she said “Ok I think I’ve got the shot I want!” Major relief for me!

Ameyaw Debrah: Who is your favourite photographer?

Nigel Barker and Lope Navo

Ameyaw Debrah: What is the state of fashion and modeling in Ethiopia?

According to the models at home it sucks! There are barely any jobs that would pay a model a salary worthy of saying I’m a professional model and that’s all I do. There is somewhat of a fashion industry regarding the fact that there are models, designers and factory facilities to make any quantity of clothing upon order. I’ve learned also that some models are not very professional due to a lack of proper training that is. They have been known to go to the client directly and attempt to make their own deal under the table even if they have representation. That is a major NO anywhere in this industry!

I have observed that there are several emerging Fashion Epicenters in Africa and I personally intend to make certain that Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is one of them! I have designed training courses for models, wardrobe stylists, fashion show production and coordination, and currently I’m building one for agents and public relations. I plan, within the next five months, to collaborate with local agencies and modeling schools to implement these courses for all industry hopefuls and lay a strong foundation for world class fashion industry. I’m determined to do so and God has blessed me to know some really awesome and over qualified people at the top of their games from Los Angeles to South Africa to assist me in pulling this off!

Ameyaw Debrah: What is a routine day for you like?

I start at 5:30 am with prayer, scripture reading and worship to cover my day in God’s presence and so my mind and spirit are in alignment with Him. Then I’m off to the gym for an intense workout; after that I could be anywhere from rehearsal for a concert performance, on set filming a TV or Film production, going to model castings, go see’s and fittings with designers. My schedule does at times change by the minute. I have been on set wardrobe styling one day, then on location for TV, the next morning on a plane across the country to meet designers and sign contracts etc. and that night I’m back in Johannesburg to do it all over again the next day. I really believe that if I do not stay spiritually sober and connected to God at all times I won’t be very productive and humble.

Ameyaw Debrah: What is your training or exercising regiment like?

It is brutal! I must work out at 6am before I eat anything. My workout consists of weight and resistance training which includes exercises that incorporate two or more muscle groups at one time for maximum muscle response and sculpting. I try to do as many reps of any one exercise as possible in each set before moving on to the next exercise. I’m in the gym only three days per week to allow the body proper rest for muscle growth and when not there I do stretch, Pilates, and dance for cardio. I hate running on the treadmill it is an absolute bore but if I don’t have any choice I make it do what it do!

Ameyaw Debrah: Any special diets or habits to stay in shape?

I eat only all organic foods absolutely no processed foods, white flour products, refined sugars and starches. For meat intake I only eat fish, turkey, and chicken grilled or baked. Red meats and deep fried food are categorized as saturated fats and are a major no for my diet of keeping very trim at all times. I do eat six small meals per day two of which are protein shakes that have enough calories to substitute a meal and multi vitamins. At each feeding I have two glasses of water and then a small portion of fruits and vegetables. This keeps the body well hydrated, suppresses the appetite, and boosts the metabolic rate. It has been a very good practice for me as well to do a total body cleanse every three months which promotes healthy organ and muscle function, a strong immune system, clean colon, and clear beautiful skin.          

Ameyaw Debrah: What’s your favourite African food?

Of course I’m partial to Ethiopian Food but Nigerians, Moroccans and Tunisians have some pretty good dishes also!

Ameyaw Debrah: What do you hope to achieve with your career?

I really want to simply live the life of a champion and open doors for so many others coming behind me that do not or may not have the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with. It is my dream to start my corporation that will build world class industry for arts, fashion and entertainment professionals in Ethiopia and across Africa; also build economically sound businesses that serve the Ethiopian population and possibly other countries in Africa. At some point I would love to open a conservatory for the arts in my country that will train and prepare artists in a pre-professional setting for the world of arts abroad. On a personal note I just want to work and do my thing as an Actor, Dancer, Model and Wardrobe Stylist in Africa and the U.S.