On her beginnings
I am a New Yorker. A very, very proud New Yorker. I’m born and raised in the Bronx but I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 10 years, which I find very hard to believe because I said I’d never live any place but New York (laughs). But the weather sucked me in and I found my husband and I just found a space here to be creative.
On how she got into modeling
The cliché of being discovered in a restaurant actually is true for me. I was working as a hostess at a restaurant in the Flat Iron District in New York when a patron, who was also an agent, told me, “Hey, you should really think about modeling.” She pursued me so I decided to give it a shot. I stayed with her for 6 months or so. She was a very small agency, but she believed in me and my career took off from there.
When I walked the Chanel runway for the first time you couldn’t tell me anything. This was in Paris, and I’d done shows before but I’d never had family or close friends in the audience. This time my sister, who had never been to Paris, was there in the audience. I probably started crying on the runway.
On being an older model
I am 42 years old. I had a whole other life before I started modeling. And when I got into modeling I was told immediately to lie, because I started when I was 25 years old, which is geriatric for models, at least at that time. And for years I was always, like, 6 to 10 years younger than my real age (It’s a joke that model years are like dog years). I found myself not speaking up at jobs even though I had an opinion because, oops, I can’t have an opinion if I’m supposed to be 19.
It wasn’t until a year and a half ago I was talking to a group of young black women aged 9 to 13 about being empowered when one little girl innocently asked me, ‘Miss Tomiko how old are you?’ And I looked at her and I was going to go into my very learned, very ingrained lie. Then I said, ‘Sweetie, you know what, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m 40.’ I decided then that I was going to stop lying about my age. We as women need to embrace our years because we’ve earned them and they’ve made us who we are.
On being the first black woman to sign an exclusive contract with Maybelline
On how natural hair is received in the modeling industry
It’s still not an easy time for some hairstylists to have to work with natural hair. And that’s on the stylist, that is not on the model. I always go to jobs with my hair pretty much done so that they don’t really have to do much to it. Or I’ll work with wigs and/or weaves because the majority of the time, they don’t know what to do with my hair. They love that I come prepared but I really shouldn’t have to do that.
Natural hair is becoming more acceptable. I do Target ads all the time and they use my hair in its natural state. But not every company is ready for that — nor is their customer.
On America’s Next Top Model
I give kudos to Tyra for having this platform for women to explore modeling in a way they probably wouldn’t have had a chance to, so I definitely applaud her for that. And I do know that there’s been some successes from some of the past winners. I’m actually good friends with the runner up from Season 2, Mercedes Yvette. She has lupus and we work together with The Lupus Foundation.
It’s a reality show, you know, reality shows are fantastical so they’re meant to have drama and strife and things of that nature to bring viewership. Is it my cup of tea? No. I don’t believe women getting together and having to be catty with each other is necessarily a good thing. But, I’m also in television so I understand how it works.
Does it set up unrealistic expectations for some women? Possibly. I don’t know of many winners, honestly, that have gone on to supermodeldom or superstardom. So I’m kind of on the fence with it. I applaud Tyra for doing her thing as always. But I don’t know if the premise of the show and its after effects are most ideal for the modeling world that I know.
On her skin
I wish that I could take full credit for it, like I made it this way, but no, it’s definitely genetics. But it’s my responsibility to take care of those genetics so I do the old adage of washing your face twice a day using some kind of astringent, and also moisturizing.
Never go to bed with makeup on. Even if you’re that tired, that drunk, that whatever. Have some of those facial wipes by your bed, wipe your face off. Drink a lot of water. If you are in a position to get facials, do that. And there’s so much information on the web about doing at-home facials with products from your kitchen. Treat your skin like you treat your hair. Take care of your entire self.
On her natural hair journey
Then I went to a trichologist who told me that my scalp couldn’t handle the chemicals anymore (I had been getting perms since I was 11.) I was concerned because at the time I had my Maybelline contract and I thought, ‘There is no way that Maybelline is going to have a natural haired model with darker skin as their spokesperson. That’s just not happening.’ But when I explained the situation to them they thought it was fine. We used wigs and weaves, and eventually we used my hair in a couple of ads because it had grown by then and was full and healthy.
So I went natural because I had to, but it was the best forced decision I’ve ever had to make.
On her hair regimen
Felicia Leatherwood is my friend and my hairstylist and she takes such good care of me. I am a chameleon when it comes to my hair. I use it as an accessory. I’ll put twists in, then I’ll use weave for a little while, then I’ll use my own hair. I like playing with it. Thankfully I have a very skilled and patient hairstylist who just rolls with me. My regimen is pretty much washing it, keeping my scalp moisturized, keeping my ends clipped and just playing. I don’t think hair should be a chore. I think it should be fun.
On what she wants women to learn from The Goddess Gathering, an LA-based women’s support organization she started six years ago
On her husband, Chris
I got married at 38. It was the perfect time for me to get married. He works in television. He’s also a spoken word artist and he’s yummy delicious. I have married perfectly for me.
Also look out for Tomiko’s new Old Spice commercial coming soon and her first photo book, Unbound.