My Story: Model Nova Stevens on Beauty Pageants, Activism and More

Photo by Kate Whyte. Designed by Danielle Campbell.

Welcome to My Story, our weekly series dedicated to color creatives and their path to success.

Nova Stevens’ path to her current career as a model and actress has not been easy. She was born in Kenya to parents who, prior to the civil war in South Sudan, decided to send her to Canada at the age of six to give her a better life and more opportunities. She has not seen her parents in 22 years but lived with various other family members in Alberta and Ontario until she decided, at the age of 15, to move out and live alone. Modeling appearances came to her at the age of 16 and after a brief stint in New York, she moved to Vancouver in 2014 where she worked as both an actress and a model.

Later this week, Stevens will be competing for the Miss Universe Canada 2020 crown and we caught up with her to find out why it is so important for her to win this beauty pageant, continue to partner with various nonprofits, and get involved with races Justice.

On her challenging past and journey to success:
“I think that definitely made me more resilient. I have to thank my past experiences because they really shaped me and who I am. Without the struggles I experienced as a child, I don’t think I would be as strong as I am. I don’t think I would be able to overcome obstacles that come out of nowhere. I firmly believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s a motivating factor to keep pushing and keep pursuing my dreams. Because I don’t just have to be there for myself, but also for my family, who are in a war-torn country with very few res. “

About volunteering with nonprofit organizations:
“I’ve always said that I’ll pay it up in any way I can. Canada essentially raised me. His organizations and people have given me res and support while my family is in Africa. So giving back to the community was always something I would do no matter what. 6ix keep is an organization I work with in Toronto. Her mission is to help incarcerated youths get back on their feet, rehabilitate them and give them res that will enable them to reintegrate into society and change their lives for the better. Then there is Operation Smile, which offers free life-saving surgeries to children with cleft lips and palates, and Feed it Forward, which is responsible for eliminating food waste and making the food unsafe. Through them I learned that 58% of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted and that one in five Canadians is food unsafe. Many people do not know that. You never think that there are people who are suffering in your own garden. “

To organize the Freedom March in Vancouver last summer:
“I went to the first protest against Black Lives Matter at an art gallery and at the time I wasn’t interested in speaking. I just wanted to go there to support all who march in solidarity. But when I got there I had this sense of urgency, I had this voice in my head telling me to go speak. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew I had to go up there. So I only spoke from the heart, nothing was rehearsed. Shamika Mitchell [an actress/activist] reached out his hand to me and said, “I heard you speak, you inspired me, let’s march together.” And so Shamika and I began the freedom march [which brought together over 15,000 people in the streets of Vancouver on June 19].

We’re also in the process of creating a nonprofit with the aim of continuing the conversation and helping black, indigenous and colored people with res that are often lacking in our communities. What is important to me is education and financial literacy. Part of my work with my organization is to have grants for children and to provide business grants to black entrepreneurs. It’s important to empower yourself, and I think business really does that. “

Nova Stevens model
Image courtesy Nova Stevens

On racism in the model industry:
“I worked as a model in Milan and I remember one casting where the casting director said, ‘What are you doing here, we told your agent – no black girls. ‘In my mind, I thought, “This is not okay, you can’t just tell someone that.” I was a grown woman so it didn’t bother me that much, but imagine if I were a 16 year old girl who heard someone say to me at a time when I was still trying to figure out who I was am This can do a lot of damage to someone. “

For hair and makeup artists who don’t know how to work with darker skin tones and textured hair:
“All my life I’ve been told to bring my own foundation and do my own makeup, and it’s so hurtful. If you are a makeup artist you should be able to do makeup on all people, not just white people. It is problematic that schools fail to teach makeup artists and hairdressers to do hair and makeup for people of different backgrounds. You are essentially saying, “This is what you have to focus on because that is what matters and that is what society sees as beautiful.” It’s a chore, but if it’s your career, it should be taken upon you to learn. “

Why she is fighting for the Miss Universe Canada crown for the third time:
“The first time was 2014 and my second time was 2018. This time I competed with short hair. It was very important to me to be authentic by competing with my natural hair on a national level to show other girls that we don’t have to conform to be beautiful. You can be as beautiful as you are. When I didn’t win, I was devastated and renounced pageants. But something happened when Zozibini Tunzi won the Miss Universe competition in 2019. I saw myself in hair. She is a black woman from Africa with short hair – the same texture as my hair, the same skin color as me. That is why representation is so important. When you see yourself in someone else, it inspires you to be the best version of yourself. She did that, she inspired me. So I said to myself if she can win Miss Universe, if Miss Universe can see her, maybe Canada can finally see me too. “

On the fact that Miss Universe Canada has only crowned one black winner so far:
“In 1989 Juliette Powell was the first (and last) black woman to win Miss Universe Canada. That was over 30 years ago. It disturbs me that there hasn’t been another black woman good enough for the crown in the last 30 years. I will not accept that. Because I don’t think that’s even the case. Canada is a country of immigrants and it is our diversity that makes us so beautiful. But I find that in certain industries – many industries – often there is a face shown as the face of Canada, and I’m tired of it. We have to show the world that Canada is truly diverse and an equal opportunity country. “

On her response to people who say beauty pageants are sexist:
“I don’t agree with these people. Beauty pageants empower women. The skills you use in competition are skills you will use for the rest of your life. You speak publicly in front of thousands of people, which takes a lot of courage. Preparation – You need to be mentally and physically prepared. It’s not as easy as people think. The questions we are asked on stage are not easy. There is more to it than “world peace”. You must be able to answer questions eloquently while remaining diplomatic and within 30 seconds. I don’t think many people can do that. These are women who are strong and confident, resilient, diverse and leaders. To stand there is a sign of guidance. These are leaders who have worked hard and are using their voices. I want to win so badly because I want to use this platform to not only encourage others to use their voices, but also to advocate change. “

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