LONDON, United Kingdom — The first time Adwoa Aboah saw herself on a Vogue cover was just over 18 months ago. It was the magazine’s Italian edition, the one that has launched some of the most successful modelling careers of the past few decades. “Oh, that’s just me and I’m really happy I got a cover,” was her initial reaction. Then she thought, “This is something I’ll really have to get my head around.” Smart, she is.
Aboah was raised in fashion. Mother Camilla Lowther is one of the world’s most successful fashion agents, father Charles Aboah is London’s go-to location scout. But that Vogue cover was her ticket to the industry’s inner circle, and she had a good idea of what she wanted to do with it.
The starkly beautiful young woman has since used her model profile to open doors to a world of Millennial activism, fuelled by searing honesty about her own battles with addiction and mental illness. Her vehicle is Gurls Talk, an online community she launched and devoted to giving a voice to young women as lost as she once was. That first Vogue cover? It arrived on newsstands a couple of months after a suicide attempt that left her in a coma for four days.
Fall and rise. It’s not the kind of career the fashion industry gets to celebrate, because it’s usually the other way round. We mourn the Descent. With Adwoa, we mark the Ascent. And when the Ascendant speaks, it’s with the irrefutable voice of experience, commandingly deep but warm, never strident, always determined, speaking of revolution in such a restrained, reasonable way it compels focus on the words being spoken. Every so often the spell is broken with a hearty, human laugh. But how quickly we return to that warm, buzzing, mesmerising voice.
This year’s Glastonbury was a measure of the changes in her life. “I’ve been going since I was 15, and it was such a massive part of my drive for oblivion and debauchery,” she says. Now, sober and clear-headed, she was able to take the measure of — and to enjoy — the impact of finding her own voice. First, there was the StyleLikeU video, a revelatory bolt of lightning for girls who might look at Adwoa and be fooled into thinking she had it all. Then there was i-D’s short film on Gurls Talk. Finally, there was the Gurls Talk site itself. Together, they created a potent troika, its power realised in the event Adwoa hosted with accessible luxury brand Coach at 180 The Strand, a brutalist building turned creative hub, in London on July 1. There were 700 attendees, mostly women, and a small handful of men. Some of them had travelled across the continent. It was an incredible physical manifestation of a community which had, until that point, existed solely on the internet.
“A lot of Gurls Talk started online, through the internet. At the event, I realised how important it was to be in my community. I kept saying to all the girls, I’ve found my tribe. When I’m around those women, so much of the burden I carry, the depression and the bipolar, the fear of ever going back into that dark hole, is completely taken away. When we’re all taking part, I don’t have to be ashamed about it or explain myself, they all understand. So Gurls Talk is as much for my benefit as anyone else’s.”
One indication of how much Gurls Talk has been driven by Adwoa’s own need was the detailed PowerPoint presentation Dr Kathryn Abel gave at the event. “I wanted to hear from a female doctor and someone who was a friend,” Adwoa explains. “Everything she said was amazing, some of it quite sad. Like the effect of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, on women. I realised I’m not just making it up. SSRIs do block your orgasm. I’m not even able to have a sex drive because of them.”
That one conundrum outlines the enormity of the challenges confronting Gurls Talk. For Adwoa and maybe thousands of young women like her, antidepressants keep a daily darkness at bay. But there’s a penalty. Dr Abel acknowledged as much when she finished her talk. After so acutely outlining the problem, she held up her hands and asked the audience what they thought the solution might be. Adwoa could think of two. “Kathryn said we must educate ourselves on our hormones, our mental state, what’s going on inside, in order to progress. So one solution was all of us being in that room, taking the info in. And just the conversation itself was another solution, the fact we were talking about it.”
It’s that aspect, the simplest and most direct, which is Gurls Talk at its most radical. The message is hardly unique: you are not alone. It’s the uniqueness of the messenger that gives it its powerful new relevance. As an addict in recovery, she knows the risk she’s running. “I want to give everyone my time, but I have to be very careful now, going forward, that I leave some time for myself, thinking time, love and self-care. I’m highly co-dependent. I just want to givegivegive. It’s why I started Gurls Talk, and why it’s still going.”
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