A model of achievement
From behind the rows of seated delegates a clicking of heels on the wooden floor indicated that the main speaker had just arrived.
Eunice Olumide, tall and slim, dressed head to toe in bible-black jacket and trousers, made her way to the lecturn and beamed a broad smile.
She began telling her story of how she rose from a council home in Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes district to the glossy magazines and the catwalks of Paris and Milan. By her own admission it has been an incredible journey, but one that has been strewn with hurdles and some personal pain.
Olumide, the daughter of Nigerian parents, was born in Scotland and was back home speaking to an audience of women on the theme of returning to work, providing a glimpse of what is possible, even for someone who seemed to have the odds stacked heavily against her.
Her skin colour marked her out in a country with a small population of African immigrants and it added to the usual challenges that face those trying to make a success in the world from humble origins.
It is partly because of her background that she has dedicated much of her time to helping others, working with charities and other good causes. Accepting an invitation from AAI (Adopt An Intern) to join its series of events in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen was another opportunity to put something back.
“It is imperative to help the local community,” she says, speaking after her half-hour address at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.
“Women are still marginalised in many ways and I feel my journey has shown how it is possible to make things happen.”
Despite her youth – (she is 30 though she says no one from Nigeria declares their age until they are 50) – she has packed a lot into her life. At the age of 15, she was spotted shopping in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, and was later scouted by Select models while visiting family in London.
It provided her first big break and she went on to work for many big names including Vivienne Westwood, Gok Wan and Myleene Klass.
It was not all plain sailing, she admits, explaining how it is still rare to see a black face on the cover of a magazine and how the industry’s love-hate experiences with Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell cast all black models as “difficult”.
Even so she puts up a robust defence of the industry against critics who accuse it of being shallow, disloyal and too focused on slim models.
“The fashion industry is nothing like many people may think. Models make more money if they are not a size zero. It is also one of the few industries in which women get paid more than men,” she says, a broad smile spreading across her face.
She took a break from modelling to go to Glasgow Caledonian University and once again excelled when others thought she would fail. She achieved a first class honours in Communication and Mass Media and by the age of 21 she had a postgraduate degree in Film Studies from Queen Margaret University. She didn’t stop there, earning an MA in Metaphysics through a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.
Since graduating she has worked in broadcasting, doing interviews and presenting BBC Radio One’s late night music show Music Match, but not without a fight. Surprisingly, it was not the stereotypical white male who proved to be the problem.
“Women do not support each other enough,” she says. “In my career it has always been women who have stopped me from achieving something.”
It went beyond being female. Her colour and even her Scottishness proved to be obstacles in proving to potential employers that she could do the job.
“I was greeted with people saying things like ‘she’s not only black, but also Scottish!’ In England it still comes as a surprise that I can be both.”
In fact she is not keen on being referred to as black, preferring to be known as Afro-Scottish or a “woman of colour”.
Whatever the term, she admits that racism has been an ever-present part of her life, including a particularly nasty incident on a bus four years ago when a male passenger spat at her and used the “N” word to insult her.
“I just have to live with it and make sure it does not knock me off course from achieving my goals,” she says.
Those goals included acting and she has credits in Star Wars Rogue One, World War Z and Absolutely Fabulous, but her feet remain firmly on the ground and the charitable work she does is massively important to her.
She has run and tutored at several youth groups, and leads workshops for young people throughout the UK on confidence building, music, dance and graffiti. She has helped raise funds for numerous charities, including Children’s Hospice Association Scotland, and is an ambassador for Zero Waste Scotland and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.
Her contribution to industry and charity has been recognised by the Scottish Fashion Awards and she was appointed an MBE in this year’s Birthday Honours for services to broadcasting, the arts, and charity.
She says that success is something she strived for, but she keeps it in perspective.
“To be awarded an MBE is really awesome and I want to accept it for inspirational purposes. Many people I grew up with didn’t even finish school, so this proves that if you work hard, good things can happen.
“I try and use the status I have now to make a difference to the things I care about,” she says.
Education: Balerno High School, Glasgow Caledonian University, Queen Margaret University, University of Pennsylvania
Career: Model, actress, broadcaster, charity worker
A sell out show at The Stand Comedy Club during the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival and five star review for a solo production ‘Metamorph’ at The Traverse Theatre.
Also immortalised as a Star Wars toy.
Played herself in Absolutely Fabulous, the movie, which also featured Kim Kardashian, Kate Moss and Lulu.
Ambition in acting?
“I’m hoping to get some good decent lead roles in the future. I won’t be happy until I’m the lead role in a film like Kill Bill.”