Yaya Deng is one model whose name you’ll want to learn. The 20-year-old Kenyan-born Australian model is doing pretty well for herself.
Discovered through Westfield’s model search and appearing alongside Naomi Campbell in The Face Australia, Yaya has just landed her first acting gig in film The Gods of Egypt, alongside Geoffrey Rush and Gerard Butler.
And that’s not all. Yaya has also been tapped as the face of Westfield’s Own Your Story campaign, which sees Yaya embrace herself and invite others to do the same.
We stole some time between the busy model’s schedule to talk about her journey and the importance of self acceptance.
Own Your Story, is all about celebrating empowerment. Has there been a turning point in your life where you began to conquer your previous struggles?
I think mostly I was insecure and unsure about my future. When I look at 'owning my story,' I reflect on my younger self. I wasn’t very sure of who I was, what my fashion sense was or how I could express herself.
Some of the opportunities I’ve had have allowed me to grow into myself. Especially with the Westfield campaign film, you can see how the younger self experiences the challenges of growing up: the challenges of being embraced, being different, being taller than everybody else – and embracing that through modelling. Usually it can be hard to be different, but you can choose to use your individuality in different ways.
Do you feel like you’ve nailed a specific style with your fashion sense or is this something you’re stilling working with?
I think I’m still experimenting. But I love the fact I can show that it’s OK to be different through style choices. I love bold, colourful designs. I definitely can’t bracket myself to a specific look.
I’ve read in your bio that you didn’t actually tell your mum when you applied for a modelling agency...
Oh my gosh, yes. It was the most awkward experience. I was at Westfield with my cousins and we saw signs for the Westfield model search. We were like ‘okay we could do this for fun, let’s see how we go.’ I ended up winning the competition, so then I had to tell her. I was like, ‘hey I did this for fun, but I ended up winning.’ So that was interesting.
Is there a mantra or quote that inspires confidence in you?
I like a quote from the Westfield campaign film, it’s about experimenting with fashion. It says: ‘If you dress like everybody else, you might as well stay in your school uniform all your life.’
I think this is such a beautiful quote, because you don’t want to be average. You want to be above and beyond, and stand out. I think the quote relates to me now.
Naomi Campbell has been one of your long-term idols. What was it like to work with her on The Face Australia?
I was intimidated the very first time I saw her. The more you get to know her, the more you are able to understand how she functions. I love the fact that she isn’t afraid to tell you how to improve. She had great vibes. Learning from a supermodel is awesome, you learn so much and you become better than you were when you first arrived.
What is most different about Yaya Deng now when compared to Yaya Deng five years ago?
She was still in high school (laughs). My younger self was more focused on school. At the time, I was never sure if I was going to pursue modelling in the near future.
While we’re reflecting, would 13-year-old Yaya Deng ever have imagined she would land a major acting gig in an epic fantasy/action alongside Geoffrey Rush and Gerard Butler?
Oh my gosh, no! When I was in school, I did drama, but fashion was always the one thing that I wanted to do. So getting this opportunity was something I never imagined.
Do you share any similarities with your character, Windsor?
Maybe not in terms of fashion, my character’s a bit cray cray with her dressing. But in terms of personality, she’s a strong, confident, bold individual. She knows who she is and I see these similarities in myself.
Do you have any advice to other young girls who are trying to find themselves?
Just be beautiful, be strong, be outgoing and be fearless. I think we can definitely be all these things, without feeling insecure. Sometimes some of our insecurities can be our greatest features; it’s important to just embrace and enjoy where you are in life. In the Westfield campaign you will see how every element in my life has come together, bringing me where I am today.
So do you feel like being approached for the Westfield campaign has come at the right time for you?
I think it has, because I’m at the beginning of my career. It’s a great platform.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I hope to keep modelling and acting. I am really enjoying where I am right now and how many incredible opportunities I’ve received. Working with Westfield, being able to create my first ever campaign, has been incredible. It’s allowed me to give insight into where I’m at with my career and where I’m going. I would love to do more travelling, hopefully go to LA and see what that has to offer for me.