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Caribbean’s Next Top Model

By Kieran Andrew Khan From Newsday TT

Photography: Jeff K Mayers

LeShae Riley is a paradox in personality. On the one end she is the confident and photogenic face and winner of Caribbean’s Next Top Model (CaribeNTM) cutting the figure of the ideal model in her portfolio and on the runway. On the other hand, she is a thoughtful, insightful, humble and almost shy person in a one-on-one type situation. It’s clear the winner of this year’s competition was chosen for far more than just her aesthetic.

At just 21, the five feet 11 inches Trinbagonian claimed the bragging rights as one of the most beautiful models in the Caribbean, complete with a US dollar cash prize and a contract with a prestigious modelling agency based in New York. And it was all unplanned.

“I never thought of this as an option. This wasn’t my dream growing up but rather something I discovered as a passion afterwards. I was pursuing my business management degree at SBCS but I was going through a couple of things and I just needed a change; something different. I spoke to my uncle about quitting the programme. Around this time too, I was feeling a little less than confident in myself and I decided to do a photoshoot with a local photographer to sort of get inspired and feel myself again. After that collaboration I just fell in love with the idea of modelling,” she explained.

When the opportunity came up to apply for CaribeNTM, she told her mother she would be going to the auditions. However, that same weekend a family member was getting married and she could not miss the wedding. “I was caught in the middle of knowing it was an opportunity I needed but I would also have regretted missing that big day with my family. So I went to the wedding,” she recounted. But as luck would have it, the date for the CaribeNTM audition was changed. “God was working something for me. It’s happening this way because I had a real chance.”

The experience was a challenging one – far from just what’s seen on TV she noted. The vacation environment offered by being on location at a resort in Jamaica had much of a boot-camp feel – constant activity required to be a part of the show and the competition. This, paired with the constant threat of elimination. But it was all worth it for Riley.

“You have all these moments that test you – from standing on the beach waiting for your shoot for ages while it’s chilly and you’re in a bikini, or changing in a room full of other models where you wonder, ‘what did I sign up for?’. Then there are the eliminations when you or your friends may be going home and the constant assessments during the period. It tests you and your confidence. Then there’s the fact that you have no contact with the outside world,” she noted, as competitors’ phones are taken away for the filming period. “I live with my phone; as I often don’t go to bed early I would scroll it late at night. That took getting used to,” she said, laughing. Despite being late to bed, she was often the ‘house alarm’, often up early and ready for the day’s challenges.

Having won, she knows this is just the start of a new journey for her. “My vision is to reach my full capacity as a career model in a few years. Of course I would love to walk a Victoria’s Secret runway just once! But eventually I would love to open a swimwear store under my own brand. If I can build me as a brand, then I can get there.”

Her ambitions go beyond walking the runway and extend to walking a different type of stage too, “I would love to give a TED talk one day, or be able to share my journey and experience with other people. I write a lot; I think it’s important to have those conversations with yourself. And sometimes I write just to get something off of my chest and other times my writing might make my way into an Instagram caption,” she noted.

Her understanding of herself also extends so effortlessly to others. “My friends always thought I would be a good counselor or psychologist due to my ability to understand and empathise with people,” she pointed out, “but I think when I am able to reach somewhere more substantial I would definitely like to put this ability to work to help uplift women and children especially.

“I recently saw a little girl selling vegetables in what should have been done after school hours. She was no more than seven or eight and there she was selling on her own with no parent in sight. It broke my heart. I want to help people like this as best as I can,” she said.

“I want to be in that position where I am not hopeless to help like I feel now.”

IMAGES: Jeff K Mayers

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