Adwoa Aboah: ‘People assume you do it because everyone else is, it wasn’t peer pressure ... I wanted to take drugs, drink and stay out all night
High-profile model Adwoa Aboah was once hooked on hard drugs and tried to take her own life, but now she's helping girls fulfil their ambitions, writes Hamish MacBain
On a swelteringly hot summer's day in the gardens of Chiswick House, Adwoa Aboah and I are sitting outside the cafe. Dressed in a white oversized men's shirt, black sunglasses and battered Reebok Classics, she sips bottled water and smokes Camel Lights ("Do you mind?"): the latter, given that she has now been drink and drug-free for almost two years, being the last vice that she has left.
Sobriety, of course - and talking about sobriety in the context of all the other issues she has faced - is now a big part of Aboah's life. Because as much as being a successful model who has walked a huge number of high-profile shows, appeared in campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs and who in March featured on the diversity-celebrating 'Women Rule!' cover of US Vogue (alongside Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Ashley Graham), she is now just as well known for Gurls Talk, the online platform she founded to encourage girls to open up about mental health, body image, addiction, sexuality and "just whatever we want". This, she says, is now her primary focus.
"When I first talked about my mental health and my addiction background it was a massive responsibility," she adds, in a deep, world-weary voice that belies her 25 years. "I was like, 'Okay, if I'm going to do this, then this is a journey'. I can't just put a foot in and then be like, 'I've done my work'. This is what I'm going to have to do."
Aboah has kept this promise to herself. On the first of this month, she put on a free, one-day Gurls Talk festival in London. A collaboration with Coach - "I've known Adwoa for many years and we've also worked together lots so it felt very natural," says executive creative director Stuart Vevers - it saw more than 700 young women turn up for a day of talks, workshops and pop-ups and was the culmination of "a year and a half's work".
Sporadically, too, she has been going into schools talking directly to girls of the age she was when her own troubles started. "We get a lot of girls writing in and asking if I'll come and speak at their school and that's where I want Gurls Talk to be. When we get to a place where we've done our groundwork, I'd love it to be part of the academic curriculum, so schools have to give an hour out of their week where someone comes in and talks from a place of experience."
It was when Aboah first talked of her own experience that she really captured her generation's imagination. The video she made in April last year for StyleLikeU's What's Underneath Project - in which subjects remove their clothes while describing their own personal battles - still seems superhumanly brave. "I'd only ever talked about it in front of my parents or my doctor," she says. "So to be talking about it with strangers was cathartic and amazing. But I think I blocked it out. It came out and I went, 'Wow, okay… my life is out there'. I mean it was quite scary… but it was amazing, the response that I got."
The story that Aboah told, her true story, goes like this. She was born in west London in 1992: not far at all, in fact, from Grenfell Tower. "I flew from the US that day and landed that evening and it happened that night," she says. "My family knows everyone: those people in that Moroccan shop we know, the people in the corner shop we know. It's this amazing, beautiful community and then this has happened.
"We might not know the people personally but, say, the person you buy your electronics off: their uncle's died. It's just so close to home, and it's awful, and it makes you so angry because it's something that shouldn't have happened. But the way in which everyone's pulled together is amazing."
Her parents were ensconced in the fashion industry: her mother, Camilla Lowther, the founder of highly regarded creative agency CLM (which represents the likes of Rankin, Katie Grand and Juergen Teller), her father, Charles Aboah, the head of a location scouting company. They knew everyone, though "my mum never put those fashion ideals into the house. I didn't wear make-up and I had my hair all frizzy".
She went to private school at the Harrodian in Barnes, which she describes as "a very sweet school. I had lovely friends. It's a lot different now, but I went when it was, like, portacabins and really sweet families". She says that she just remembers "being very happy and at ease about life and everything that was coming my way at that time".
Her problems began when she started, aged 13, as a boarder at Millfield School near Glastonbury. "My parents sent me there because they wanted me to do sports and they wanted me to do activities, and I'm grateful to them for that," she says. "But I looked a lot different to all the other girls: everyone was blonde and blue-eyed." At Millfield, she adds: "It was, 'This is how you dress. This is how you do your hair, and you put loads of foundation on and wear high heels'. And I was like, 'F***, I don't even know how to be this person'."
Even being scouted on the street "a few times, when I was like 15-ish", didn't help her confidence. "I felt very unattractive at that school. I based my worth on how many boys fancied me. And even though back in London my parents' friends were like, 'Oh your daughter's so beautiful, would she like to model?' that didn't matter. It was the kids, and the boys, and the fact that I didn't have blonde hair. That's all that mattered to me."
It was at this point that her experimentation with drugs began. She smoked her first spliff at the nearby house of a day girl on her 14th birthday. As a first-time attendee at Glastonbury in 2008 - a mere 20 minutes down the road from her school - she took ecstasy for the first time. She tried but ultimately "wasn't into" cocaine.
She did a lot of mephedrone, which in 2009-10 was briefly semi-legally available by mail order in the UK, but it was ketamine that she really fell for.
Aboah stresses that she "never felt peer pressure to do anything. I think there can be an assumption that when you're growing up you go, 'Oh everyone else is doing it, I should do it'. No. I wanted to take drugs, I wanted to drink, I wanted to stay out all night." She says, for example, that at first she "loved how comfortable" that first pill made her feel, and of ketamine that she liked "that oblivion, that quietness that you get with all the stuff up here". She taps her head. "That's what I wanted all the time, and that's why it just got more and more and more and more, until it was just dark and depressing, and very insular."
Her usage only escalated as she began studying drama at Brunel University, culminating in her arrival home after a Glastonbury binge in 2014. She was so bad that her parents sent her off to a place in Arizona called Cottonwood, an addiction rehab and behavioural health treatment centre.
When she got back to London she was installed in a South Kensington halfway house called Start2Stop, but by her own (retrospective) admission, wasn't ready. She overdosed almost immediately "because I just didn't want to take anyone's advice. I was like, 'No, I can go back to university, I can do this, I can do that, I can live in London, I can hang out with the same people and do all those things right now'".
It was at this point, while staying at Start2Stop, that she took another, this time deliberate, overdose and tried to kill herself. She remembers the date - October 3, 2015.
"In a weird way it's like a birthday for me. I like to remember where I was and where I am now. It's not something I'm going to forget. I could have very easily not been here, so I feel like it's respectful to remember," she says.
Almost two years on, things are much better for Aboah. She has gone through more successful treatment. She spent time away with her family, including a road trip across the US with her sister Kesewa. She describes the fact that she made it through Glastonbury last summer completely sober as "such a breakthrough". And now she just wants to focus on work.
Happily, sobriety has coincided with her modelling career really taking off, with 2017 thus far feeling very much like her year. She's already extremely well connected: her Instagram featuring photos of her with Edie Campbell, Lily James and Lily Donaldson, Zoe Kravitz ("photo by Mr Frank Ocean"), Jourdan Dunn and, of course, Cara Delevingne, who she has known for a decade and with whom she is particularly close (the pair have matching half-heart tattoos).
If she baulks at the idea of fame on the level of her long-time friend - "I mean it is mental; I've been there from before she was famous to when it boomed up and just got more and more. But she's kept grounded and amazing and the same" - then she is happy to use whatever attention does come her way for good. As well as Gurls Talk, she speaks out constantly on the issue of diversity in fashion, which she says is "not even close to where it should be. The industry is still very lazy in terms of casting and is not looking outside the box. Diversity can't be a fashionable thing: it should be here to stay".
She is, however, optimistic about Edward Enninful's arrival at Vogue and the impact that will have. "I didn't even think about it when everyone was like, 'The first male, black editor of Vogue!' It's more just: 'It's Edward Enninful. Have you seen what he's done?'"
Since February, she has been based in Brooklyn, which she likes because she feels the same sense of community as she does in Westbourne Park. "I like that the kids play outside of my door," she says. "I really, really need community. I'm a Taurus, I need a home." Having split from her boyfriend of six years, photographer Tyrone Lebon, last October, she has for three months been seeing a "really handsome" guy that she's known "for ages" from London named Riccardo Ambrosio, now a student at NYU, who she bumped into again during her first few days in New York for Fashion Week.
"I don't know how it's got to this place," she smiles. "It just did. I'm happy."
- Adwoa Aboah wears Coach 1941 Fall 2017 collection, available in store and at uk.coach.com from September 1 (gurlstalk.com)