Long before the present crop of African models began to gain prominence and recognition in the global stage, Agbani Darego had walked the walk. The highly decorated model and beauty queen gained global acclaim after winning the Miss World in 2001. She was the first indigenous African to wear the crown.
Born in Lagos on December 22, 1982, her full name is Ibiagbanidokibubo Asenite Darego. She hails from Abonnema in Rivers State where she is the sixth of eight children. Her father, Asenite Sikibo Darego was a customs officer while her mother, Inaewo Darego owned a rice trading business that saw her travelling often. At the age of two, the family relocated to Portharcourt where Agbani grew up in the D-line area. Inaewo eventually opened a clothing boutique where she sold clothes she bought on her trips. And it was by flipping through the pages of foreign magazines in the boutique that Agbani was introduced to a semblance of what will later become her passion.
At ten, she was sent off to a boarding school at the Federal Government Girls’ Secondary School, Abuloma, to shield her from her mother who was becoming very sick with breast cancer. Her mother died two years later while she was away. She was hurt when she realized she had been sent away because of her mother’s health condition. “I wasn’t too happy at first, but it prepared me for my life now,” she told Julia Llewellyn Smith in an interview. “I learned to be on my own. It makes you independent.”
She began nursing a dream of becoming a model in her teens, but her conservative father dismissed the career plan. Being ‘too’ tall and lanky at six feet, he believed she didn’t have a chance. Despite her father’s disapproval, she started out by auditioning for the M-Net Face of Africa modelling contest. She was rejected in her first attempt.
“I went for the casting for the Mnet Face of Africa, I did not make it to the competition, I got cut off before the competition but that was where I actually ran into the pageant manager for MBGN and she convinced me to go for the pageant,” she said during her 17th Miss World anniversary in 2018.
Due to the setback, she chose to study Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of Portharcourt as a backup plan. By then, her father was already in full support of her passion for modelling. She entered “The Face of Africa” modelling contest in 1998 and finished as the runner-up.
She deferred her admission and began pursuing modeling agencies in Lagos, and also entering pageants. Her big break came in January 2001 when she entered the “Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria” contest. She won and was automatically eligible to represent Nigeria in the Miss World pageant later that year. She was also a contestant at Miss Universe where she became the first Nigerian to place among the top 10 semi-finalists, coming in at seventh overall.
By November 2001 she beat 90 other contestants to become Miss World. Her victory was monumental as she was the first Nigerian to win the Miss World crown. But more importantly, she was the first black woman from Africa to win it as well. Three other African winners such as Penelope Coelen (1958) and Anneline Kriel (1974) from South Africa, are of European descent, while Antigone Costanda, who represented Egypt in 1954 is of Greek heritage.
Agbani was elated with her triumph as she was granted a national honour — Member of the Federal Republic, MFR and celebrated for days. Reminiscing about the honour, she told Mail Online, “There were receptions in every city. I met presidents, royalty and film stars and received standing ovations from people I’d never even dreamed of meeting.”
She dedicated her crown to her mother and chose to become a patron of a breast-cancer awareness program. She also invested some of her cash prize in buying a parcel of land back home.
Following her victory as Miss World, she was signed by the London and Paris branches of Next Model Management. She was also offered a three-year contract with L’Oréal, making her the second Black model to accomplish such feat after Vanessa Williams.
Due to growing demands on her schedule, she dropped out of the University of Portharcourt and moved to New York to take up a contract with Next Model Management and Ford Models. She later enrolled at New York University where she studied Psychology. She graduated in 2012, the same year that her father died.
Over the span of her career, she has featured in both local and international magazines like Elle, Marie Claire, Essence, Allure, Cosmopolitan, Complete Fashion, TW Magazine among others. She has also modelled for many international brands, including Avon, Christian Dior, Sephora, Target, and Macy’s. While working with designers like Oscar de la Renta, Marc Bouwer, Tommy Hillfiger, Ralph Lauren, and Gianfranco Ferre.
She has been a judge on numerous pageant and modelling competitions including Miss World 2014, Elite Model Look Nigeria 2012 and 2014, Miss England 2002 and Mr. Scotland 2002.
In 2013, she launched her own fashion label AD by Agbani Darego, which includes jeans, dresses, sunglasses and bags.
She got married to her longtime boyfriend, Ishaya Danjuma, the son of Retired General Theophilus Danjuma in a ceremony held in Marrakesh in April 2017. They both have a son born in September 2018.