BARRIO – Just over a year ago, the residents of the coastal town of Tumaco, Colombia, knew Valentina Castro Rojas for being a girl with a talent for braiding Afro hair.
Her 5ft 7” frame had drawn attention at some fashion shows and beauty pageants at her school and in her neighbourhood. But no one had imagined that, at barely 18 years old, Valentina was going to be parading for the biggest luxury brand in the world.
Louis Vuitton is a well-known globally, but not much for the vast majority of Tumaqueños. The only Louis Vuitton store in Colombia is in Bogotá, more than a thousand kilometers from Valentina’s house. Its products are affordable to a tiny minority.
Before her life changed, thanks to an Instagram message from a talent scout for a Dominican modelling agency, Valentina charged between US$4 and US$12 to do hairstyles in her neighbourhood.
Now she wears outfits worth thousands of dollars in places as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris or the Italian island of Isola Bella in Lake Maggiore.
“One of the things that I admire the most about the other models and also about myself is making it look easy, because it is not.. It may be very cold, it may be very hot, your feet may hurt, but you go out as if nothing had happened”.
After several months traveling around Europe, Valentina returned to Tumaco and is in her last year of high school near her home while studying English virtually.
She lives with her parents and sisters.
Her life before modelling
Tumaco, where Valentina was born and raised, is a small city on the Pacific Coast of Colombia near the Ecuadorian boarder. The population is approximately 250 thousand, and 4 out of 5 are Afro-Colombians.
It is a corner of Colombia where there is lots of poverty and violence.
According to the last census, more than half of the inhabitants of Tumaco live below the poverty line.
Valentina, however, describes it as “peaceful.”
“Even though we don’t have all the resources and the streets aren’t paved, we are all very united,” she explains when describing her neighbourhood.
“From Tumaco, I really like the beach and the sunsets, the food, I like many things,” says Valentina.
Getting her hair done with her sister is one of her favourite childhood memories, she says.
“I am simple in the way I dress, but not in my hair. I really like my hair, I like to change my hair looks I don’t like to have my hair still”, Valentina explains.
It was through an account in which she shared hairstyles that Sebastián Bedoya, a talent scout for the Nefer Models agency, contacted her.
An unexpected message
Bedoya is dedicated to looking for models in Colombia that meet a certain height and particular profile (similar to that of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti).
In November, he found Valentina on social media and sent her a message asking if she would like to be a model.
“I didn’t have a lot of followers, but they really liked the photos and poses I posted. I imitated many photos of how other models posed. I took photos myself with the front camera”, says Valentina.
When he told her mom about the messages she received from Bedoya, she too was immediately suspicious. “Nobody thought that was true”says Valentina.
The back and forth continued for several weeks, but Valentina’s insistence was such that her mother agreed to speak with Bedoya and then with Nileny Dippton, a well-known ex-beauty queen and Dominican businesswoman who runs Nefer Models.
They arranged a trip for Valentina and her mother to Santo Domingo to start the career of a young woman from Tumaco to the runways. At the time, they still did not know that the giant French brand Louis Vuitton was on the scene.
At that moment, Valentina took on the difficult task of learning to be an international model in just weeks.
“It was a very drastic change. The food was very different. She had to eat healthy. It was very difficult for me, really. I started exercising, running, training, drinking a lot of water. From the first day I arrived, I had no rest”.
Before that trip, which was the first time she had left Colombia, Valentina had never worn heels.
The change in his habits was so sudden that it ended up taking its toll on her.
Not even four months had passed since the first exchange of messages when Valentina received the news that her first debut would be in the autumn-winter show of Louis Vuitton during fashion week in Paris last March.
“I was very sure of myself, I felt very happy, very content,” she says.
Now that she knows the world of modelling better, she says that she has heard many stories of models who are excited that they are going to walk for big brands, but at the last minute it does not happen.
Her first show was held at the renowned Musée d’Orsay arrived and Valentina was the second to emerge with her hair braided and a black structured jacket.which was one of the centre pieces of the collection.
Valentina describes the catwalk as a fight against her own mind.
“There came a time when I was going up a staircase, I stepped on the edge of a step and almost fell. I started to get upset and my mind told me that I was going to fall, but I continued ”.
The guest list included superstars like Zendaya and Jaden Smith.
“Yes, I have met celebrities, but the problem is that I don’t memorize the names. They have some weird names. I am not a person who is a fan of someone. That they ask me for the photo, ”she says and laughs.
About her relationship with the other models, she says: “she smiled a lot and tried to include me even though she didn’t understand them. If they laughed, I laughed, even though I didn’t even understand what they were talking about.
“I also met other Latina models, but I did feel like I was excluded. That hurt a little bit,” she says.
After the show, she was chosen to take promotional photos and videos for the collection.
Valentina has continued to work exclusively for Louis Vuitton ever since.. In April she walked in South Korea and in May in Italy.
About his show in Seoul, he says that “when I was going to go out, the music changed. And my clothes were like flying and everything looked super cute. I felt like a superhero.”
Her return to Tumaco
Valentina has spent almost all of 2023 outside of Colombia. She returned less than a month ago to finish school.
According to her, going back was almost an impossible mission because whenever the date of her flight approached, new photo sessions and campaigns abroad appeared.
“Right now I feel good because I’m at home resting, I feel happy.”
Since she returned, dozens of young people have contacted her because they dream of following in her footsteps.
“There are many girls who want to be models, but I don’t like to sell them that dream.”
Nevertheless, Valentina has already agreed with her agency Nefer Models to do a casting of new models in Tumaco. And she’s helping some young women she sees potential prepare for that opportunity.
Also, she will travel again in September to the headquarters of her agency in the Dominican Republic and hopes to continue being an exclusive model for Louis Vuitton, although for now she does not have a long-term contract with the brand.
Besides, Valentina dreams of being a hairdresser and having a salon. And she doesn’t miss an opportunity to talk about her hair.
She says that after years of chemical straightening, she and the women in her family are going back to wearing their afro hair.
“I think it looks very pretty and you can do a lot more with your Afro than straight hair. I feel that he looks very cute. And it is also what represents us”, just as she now represents Tumaco on the glamorous catwalks of the world.