Calgary model graces runways around the world; now she wants to give back

Awar Odhiang was folding sweaters at her after-school job at Market Mall when a chance meeting with renowned fashion agent Kelly Streit changed her life

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Awar Odhiang was at her after-school job at Market Mall when a chance meeting changed her life.

She was 17, folding sweaters at Old Navy when renowned agent Kelly Streit approached her and asked her if she wanted to be a model. Odhiang, as it turns out, was already a model and had an agency. She also had no idea who Streit was.

But Streit saw something in her and he has a history of recognizing the perfect look and talents for an international career. Over the years, the founder and owner of Mode Models has discovered a number of stars of the modelling world, including Heather Marks, Tricia Helfer, Kim Noseworthy and Paul Greene. He also worked with Lisa Kauffmann, a supermodel in the 1980s and 1990s who had signed Odhiang to her agency a year before Streit spotted her at Old Navy.

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So modelling wasn’t completely new to Odhiang. But she had no idea what was to come.

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Awar Odhiang has agencies representing her in New York, Paris, Milan, London and Barcelona. Photo by Royal Gilbert cal

“I was very oblivious to what modelling was,” says Odhiang, in a phone interview from New York, where she was about to board a plane for another modelling job in Capri, Italy. “When he did come up to me, I was very shy at the time. Not very extroverted in any way. But when he came up to me it was a bit of a shock, to have someone express that much support and interest in me was very surprising. It felt very good as well because I felt that he saw the beauty in me that I didn’t see in myself. So that made me feel really good and gave me confidence as well.”

It was a friend on her high school basketball team who convinced Odhiang to try modelling and introduced her to Kauffmann. But in 2017, the former supermodel was about to shift careers and knew Odhiang would benefit from Streit’s instincts and talents. He signed Odhiang that year with Kauffmann’s blessing and put her to work. At first, the jobs were only in Calgary. But before long, she began working with SSENSE, an online retailer in Montreal. That exposure led to her getting signed to an Italian agency. In January 2020, she boarded a plane for Italy for her first international modelling job. It was the first time she had left Canada since arriving at the age of two from a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

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“The progression went quite fast,” she says. “It was quite smooth for me.”

Odhiang now has agencies representing her in New York, Paris, Milan, London and Barcelona, but Mode Models International remains her mother agency overseeing her career. During Milan, New York and Paris fashion weeks in February, she did 34 shows and walked the runways for top brands such as Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Versace, Chanel, Hermes, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and Isabel Marant.

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Awar Odhiang’s family is part of the Anyuak tribe from South Sudan. Photo courtesy Mode Models International cal

She is the face of Saint Laurent, starring in their last six campaigns, and has appeared in American Vogue, British Vogue, W Magazine and on the covers of M de la Monde Magazine and French Harpers Bazaar. Models.com lists her as one of the world’s 50 most in-demand models and she won Model of the Year in 2022 at The Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards.

It has been quite the trip for the 24-year-old. Her family is part of the Anyuak tribe from South Sudan but fled that country’s ongoing civil war before Odhiang was born. The middle child of six siblings, her mother gave birth to her in a refugee camp in Pinyudo, Ethiopia. When she was two, they came to Moose Jaw after being sponsored by a church. Modelling was the last thing on her mind when growing up in small-town Saskatchewan.

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“I was always bullied,” says Odhiang, who moved with her family to Calgary at 16. “I was the odd one out in my class and society in general. Growing up in Moose Jaw, there weren’t very many Black families there or Black people in general. I really felt like an outcast. I didn’t really see myself as beautiful, I guess.”

Whatever doubts she may have had, they were not shared by Streit. He says he saw her potential from the moment he saw her folding sweaters.

“Quite often, the people I pick are not what you would think is the prettiest girl in school or the hottest guy in school,” he says. “But in pictures, they register incredibly. I could tell with Awar right away, with those high cheekbones and very square jaw. She just had that face. She was just in the moment. She was the girl of the moment in my eyes and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I want this girl so bad.’ I saw everything that was going to happen for her and, sure enough, it worked out.”

Streit has a knack for this sort of thing. He was only 20 when he founded the agency in Red Deer in the 1980s. His discovery stories are legendary. Tricia Helfer was a 17-year-old farm girl from Donalda when Streit spotted her lining up for a movie in Stettler. She became a top supermodel for nearly a decade. She was on the covers of Vogue and Cosmo before becoming an actress in 2002, winning acclaim for playing the icy Number 6 in the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Like Odhiang, Kim Renneberg was discovered in a Calgary shopping mall. She was 14 at the time and would go on to become the face of Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche perfume and walk runways in New York, Milan and Paris.

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Streit has worked with hundreds of models over the years and he says to have what it takes to reach Odhiang’s level is extremely rare.

“It’s like a lottery ticket, that kind of odds,” he says.

Streit says Odhiang also represents a changing industry. Just in the past four years alone, it has become much more diverse.

“Awar was at the right time and the right place because the world was ready to diversify and open up to all the types of Black models, not just the Black girl who looks like a white girl,” he says. “I think that was really in her favour as well and then she just did a really good job and was very professional and away it went.”

Streit says Awar has it all: the face and body and a strong head on her shoulders. This is a necessity because, despite misconceptions about the profession, being a model at that level is not an easy job. There can be a lot of rejection early on and what Odhiang vaguely calls “bad behaviour” from some in the industry.

“It’s a pretty cutthroat business,” she says.

“People looking from the outside in, I feel like they do think it’s a very glamorous job. There are many times when it is. However, there are just as many times when it’s not. A lot of that comes from not being able to control your life in general because your schedule is very volatile. There are some beautiful days but also a lot of ugly days, just because there is a lot of loneliness you have to deal with. You’re away from your family, you’re away from people that you love and places you are familiar with and that can be very detrimental to your mental health and quality of life in general.”

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Still, Odhiang maintains a healthy gratitude for her position. Before becoming a model, she had ambitions to be a doctor. She has since studied health sciences during some rare time off. She has also worked with her father on a project bringing grinding mills and convenience stores to his village in South Sudan.

“This ties back to remembering where I came from,” she says. “That’s my heritage, that’s my ethnicity. I want to give back to my people. You get a lot from modelling. You get a platform and a voice that can be heard amongst nations. I want to be able to use my voice and my education to improve the state that my country is in. With modelling, a lot of times you can be lost in the moment. But remembering where you came from always grounds you. I feel that gives me purpose. I’m not changing the world as a model. But the voice and power I have that comes from modelling, I want to use that.”

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