THE OUTNET’S Head of Content, Claudia Mahoney, got to catch-up with model, philanthropist and Founder of the Malaika, Noëlla Coursaris Musunka. In case you missed their inspiring live conversation, we made sure to save some of the best bits…

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Claudia:  Look at your hair! It looks amazing! So gorgeous! Welcome Noëlla to In Conversation with THE OUTNET!

Noëlla: Hey! How are you? Thank you Claudia for inviting me.

Claudia: So, I should say that I’ve interviewed Noëlla before, because we did an amazing project with Roksanda, and, you modelled for us, the beautiful exclusive collection that Roksanda created. But I wanted you to tell us a bit about your childhood and where you grew up.

Noëlla: So, I was born in the Congo, and, my dad died when I was 5 years old and I was the only child and my mum didn’t have any resources to keep me, so she sent me away to give me a better chance with access to education and to better my life. I went to Belgium; it was cold, new family, new environment, but you know, it’s what makes you stronger.

Claudia: Do you remember arriving there and the culture shock of…?

Noëlla: Yeah, the culture shock was very tough, and to not have any of your friends or your mum. But I think I adapted ok. I went back to see my mum after 13 years; I was 18 when I went back to see her. I hadn’t seen her for 13 years. She couldn’t afford to come and see me and on the other side of it, I didn’t have money either to go and see her.

Claudia: So, tell me also, you then worked as a model, do you remember the moment that you were spotted?

Noëlla: Yes! It was at Agent Provocateur! A lot of people actually were stopping me in Switzerland. But, my mum sacrificed a lot so I wanted really to study and to have my diploma in my hands! And say ‘Mum, I studied and I want to look after you.’ Because in Africa we have the culture to look after our family. So, I wanted really to study but when I came to London some of my friends entered in a competition for Agent Provocateur, and I was one of the winners. It was very funny because, you know, African culture is kind of very prudish. So, to do my first campaign in lingerie, in a big photoshoot where you have like 20 people on the set makeup artist, hair stylist, assistant photographer, photographer… And you are like, just in a bra and underwear and it’s your big break so you don’t want to fail.

Claudia: But you were saying to me, you’d been on holiday and you had some photographs in bikinis and people were saying ‘oh my goodness Noëlla, we never see you in a bikini anymore.’ So… 

Noëlla: Yeah, because I did so many shoots for lingerie and I don’t know, I just went off of lingerie and bikinis. But, I have a lot of young followers and they’re always asking what I eat, what I drink, if I do exercise. And, more than ever you need to be happy with yourself and I have no shame to be in a bikini by the pool with my kids and have a picture taken. And it was nice but it’s funny because when I posted a few of these pictures I received so many messages! ‘Noëlla, we haven’t seen you in a bikini for so many years.’

Claudia: So, you mentioned about African culture and then being on this sort of sexy lingerie shoot, how did you square that in your mind? Seeing this world of luxury and, you know, beautiful brands and clothes. Did you fall in love with fashion or did you have an appreciation but distance with fashion?

Noëlla: It’s very funny because when I started modelling, my family in the Congo they were kind of shocked you know? They couldn’t believe it. I’ve fallen in love with fashion, I love to get dressed. But I think, the world we live in today we have to be careful the way we’re shopping, the way we buy, the way we’re consuming; we really have to check where and how clothes are made. We need to know who is making the clothes, the conditions they’re working in, the wages, and we need to really have longevity in the clothes that we’re buying. I love clothes that are easy with my kids you know? I go to drop them, I’m on the road, I’m taking the train. So, my wardrobe is quite… every piece that’s in my wardrobe is different. And, a day when I’m at a photoshoot and I have a fashion meeting, I need to be trendy, but still always myself. I go more kind of corporate but with a fashion touch.

Claudia: So, you fell in love with dressing up but with a sustainable, ethical approach. Do you have like go-to brands that you like to wear and support.

Noëlla: Yeah, I love my Roksanda, you know. Roksanda is very special to me because we worked together with THE OUTNET on this campaign with a percentage going to Malaika. But, I love her clothes because they’re very… it’s very architectural. I love clothes that have a shape, there’s a statement and, for me, the key to clothes is quality. I love Dries van Noten, I love Iris & Ink, I love Victoria Beckham, I love a lot of different brands.

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Claudia: I wanted to ask you to tell the viewers a bit about Malaika and how it all started. How long has the charity been running for now?

Noëlla: Oh, Malaika has been 13 years, this is our 13th year. And, we had so many events we were supposed to have to celebrate 13 years of work and everything has been cancelled. Events, marathons and even my trip to Congo. But, you know, it’s a challenging time but you need to reinvent and readapt yourself.

Claudia: So, did it all start from an idea for a school or was it smaller than that, how did it all begin?

Noëlla: It started only with three classrooms, four bathrooms and one well. So, it’s all in one building and now we have more than 12 buildings and we’re working in a small village where there’s no water, no electricity, it’s an ecosystem actually we started. I never thought it would become what it is now, today. The school, we have 346 students, all girls. During the Covid crisis, they made more than 1,100 masks that we distributed to the doctors, local hospitals. And the school is great because the student arrives at 5 years old until 18 years old and they all have aspirations, they have these leadership skills in them, we try to get them to think out of the box, to take initiative. And, the success of Malaika is the team on the ground. Malaika is completely protected by the community. And the community center that we built is very important because you cannot educate kids without educating the parents. So, we have more than 5,000 people a year going there to learn. And the community center distributed more than 11,000 malaria nets all over the village, because we lost two students to malaria. We closed down the school, all the programs in the Congo because of the Covid-19, but beyond that, there’s so many problems in Africa. Congo has been through war, Ebola, it’s a resilient population, but the effect of Covid was the food price went completely out of the roof in the Congo and we had to do a food emergency fund that we were distributing food every Tuesday and Thursday at different points in the village. And, a lot of people were asking us how our students could keep continuing because our school was closed for four months. But, great news! Our school opened last Monday! Oh my god, it was like one of the best days of my life.

Claudia: You are, you are there at every opportunity, speaking out to governments, speaking out in political situations, speaking at as a fundraiser and a representative of Malaika. So, over the years you’ve really like been really pushy and that’s such an amazing spirit to have and I think people really buy into your um, conviction and amazing stories.

Noëlla: I think people see I’m very passionate, what we’re doing is very authentic, we don’t raise money with misery pictures. We want positivity and you were asking me when I go to Congo, when I go to Congo I just want to work in the village and be simple. And that’s what is great, they see me walking every day in the village. I have to entertain donors or people coming to visit the school, and I work. People think I visit Malaika, no, I work. I check for the maintenance, I have meetings with the parents, with the team, with the students. I work in the village to talk to the community about what they need. I’m involved at every step. I’m 100% there to support them. And when these kids, one day, it will be one of those students that will take over Malaika. I’m definitely sure, and when you set the example, they follow, and there’s a reason the team on the ground are really working very hard.

Claudia: So, if you had a message to get out to people about how they could keep donating, keep supporting Malaika, what is the most effective way that people can help you?

Noëlla: Donate their time, donate their skills, fundraise for us via a virtual dinner or hold an event or run marathons when possible. Sponsor our students, sponsor our teachers or sponsor all the school supplies because in September we will have 370 girls, we will have 30 more students coming into our school, we need the uniform, school supplies. We train our teachers during the summer and we train our whole team, so, it’s an important time September, and we really need all the support.

Claudia: Thank you so much for joining us everybody this evening and thank you again Noëlla. We’re really, really grateful.

Noëlla: Thank you Claudia. Lots of love! Bye!

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