Brothers Uwakmfonabasi and Mokutimabasi Nyong, who moved to Ontario from Nigeria less than seven years ago, now appear on a 21-metre billboard in downtown Toronto.
The identical twins — also known as Whak and Mo — started experimenting with photo shoots when they arrived in Canada.
Now, the 22-year-olds have signed on with one of Canada’s top modelling agencies, NEXT Canada, and have appeared in Vogue Italia.
But the journey hasn’t always been easy. The twins faced racism and many hard rejections before gaining recognition.
Facing racism at school
The Nyong brothers recalled that when they arrived in Canada in May 2015, they were very excited and noticed that the weather was “very cold.”
They enrolled in summer school in Mississauga, Ont., soon after, so they could get used to Canada’s education system before the school year began.
“The first couple weeks in summer school were really quiet,” Whak said. “Just observing and kind of trying to learn how people communicate with each other, how people communicate with the teacher.”
At school, the twins faced racism for the first time.
Whak remembers that in 2016, “certain kids [made] it a point” to let them know that they were “different.”
He said some of their classmates made fun of their accent or made jokes about their race.
At first, the two brothers were on a mission to fit in, even asking their mother for money to pay for accent-reducing classes, but they soon decided to embrace their differences and their identity.
“I remember that until we just accepted that this is who we are like, there’s nothing that’s going to change this, that is when [the kids] were like, ‘Oh, you guys are cool’,” Whak said.
Soon after, the two discovered photography and started having photo shoots in their backyard, posting the photos on social media.
This earned positive attention from their classmates, who admired their work.
Starting ‘all over again from scratch’
In 2017, Whak and Mo moved to Hamilton, where they had to start “all over again from scratch.”
The brothers, who didn’t know anyone in the city, began exploring their artistic side together during their free time, researching fashion and doing photo shoots.
Their work quickly gained a following on social media, and photographers started reaching out to them about potential modelling work.
That same year, the brothers decided to try getting work with a model agency for the first time. They were rejected.
Despite many more rejections in the years to come, Whak and Mo kept a practice-makes-perfect attitude.
Over time, they broke into what they call “Toronto youth culture.”
In 2019, they put together an art show called “Self Obsessed,” showcasing photographs they took since moving to Canada. The goal was to inspire youth to believe in themselves.
“If you believe in yourself and your ideas, your true, authentic self enough, then you could do anything,” said Whak.
After a few hard-won connections, in 2019 they made it in Vogue Italia.
One year later, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Nyong brothers achieved their lifelong dream: they were signed on with NEXT Canada, one of Canada’s top model agencies.