Chasing Dreams: Odongongo Oballa finds a way to her goals on the runway

Published 5:21 am Saturday, November 2, 2019

Some dreams are well worth the wait, and Odongongo (Odie) Oballa is a perfect example of that.

For years, that dream was to become a supermodel, and as things stand now, she is well on her way, having recently moved to Los Angeles, California, to pursue that dream.

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But that dream came with some trials as well, having endured some of the worst things humanity can do to one another.

In 2003, Odie, and her family, which includes Oballa Oballa — the current LeadMN president — fled Gambella, Ethiopia, after the Gambella genocide, which claimed the lives of 424 people in a span of just 24 hours.

Her family fled to Kenya and eventually ended up in the state of Washington.

But during the time in between, Odie was already formulating her dreams of being a supermodel, even though at the time she saw them as simply that — a dream.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve had this crazy dream of becoming a supermodel, but those dreams were just dreams because as someone who lives in a refugee camp, where everything is limited, I never thought they would even become true,” Odie said. “Life in a refugee camp is tough and people are mostly living there just by pushing days without any hope of something new or good apart from praying to God to keep us alive under the hot sun.”

Odongongo (Odie) Oballa. Photo provided

The initial start to her dreams was hoping to simply return to Ethiopia and compete in the Miss Ethiopia pageant or to just take part in modeling of some sort.

But after fleeing Ethiopia, those dreams were put on hold. The family left Washington, and arrived in Austin. At that point, the dreams took a back seat to simply getting to know her new home. Odie said she was afraid of what people might think of her.

During her time at Austin High School, she did the high school thing, which included going out for track and field and even advancing to the Minnesota State High School Track and Field Meet in St. Paul.

But, the idea of being a model was still pretty set in her mind. It was just a matter of getting past the doubt — both from others and from herself. Odie felt that some of that had to do with her skin color.

“When I started modeling a lot of people didn’t believe in me,” Odie said. “I was losing confidence. Whenever I go out and talk about modeling, other people would say there is no dark skin people who are models.”

Odongongo (Odie) Oballa. Photo provided

It was during her time at Riverland Community College that she started to seriously revisit the idea of becoming a model.

“During my second year in college, I started taking pictures to build up my portfolio,” Odie said. “I sent out emails to agencies in Minneapolis. I began getting recognition and notoriety as a model.”

Odie started gaining momentum and was invited to fashion shows, which in turn resulted in larger and larger shows. Her confidence in her choice to follow modeling was rising as well.

She felt at home in front of the camera.

“It was amazing,” she remembered. “I felt so comfortable in front of a camera.”

She started walking shows where agencies like IMG, Next Model, Wilhelmina, LA Models and NTA were in attendance. One of the biggest was Industry Network, which featured 100 models.

It was at this show that she took first in the Runway competition as well as the Bikini category and second in Print. It resulted in her being named Model of the Year.

“After the competition, I received callbacks from 13 of the 15 agencies in attendance,” Odie said.

She eventually chose to sign with NTA Model Management. At that time, Odie and her boyfriend made the move to L.A. Things by this point we’re moving very fast; far faster than they had been in Austin.

Odongongo (Odie) Oballa. Photo provided

However, the big decision itself to move to California — away from everything familiar — was another challenge.

“It’s a difficult thing,” Odie said. “I left my family and my school. It was tough leaving family behind, but I wanted to achieve my goals. Things have been going fast.”

But the work took over and it’s been keeping her busy.

“As soon as we got there we started working fast and making connections,” she said. “We were eventually invited to the BET Experience where I got the opportunity to walk in BET’s ‘Rip the Runway’ for top designers such as Karl Kani, Milano and Sprayground.”

However, just because she signed with an agency doesn’t mean she just gets to sit back and wait for the invites. At this point, Odie can work to find her own work.

“They don’t book me like that,” Odie explained. “I book my own stuff. I reach out to designers and people who scout models.”

It’s a lot of work, but she’s often reminded of how worth it it’s been for her to achieve her long held dreams.

It’s a chance for Odie to represent and continue to promote the idea of more women of color walking the runways.

It’s a reflection of how Odie wants to take on those challenges and be a leader.

“My main hope is to be the face, to open more doors for dark skinned people,” she said. “I don’t see dark or brown skin being presented in a good way. I want to be one of those people to change it.”

Even though she is currently living her dreams, there is more that Odie wants to pursue. And it’s as achievable now than it’s ever been.

“My big dream is to one day have my own designs or shows to help the young kids who have the same dream too and put their dreams into reality,” Odie said.

Odongongo (Odie) Oballa. Photo provided