Beyond the BinaryCover StoryFeatures

COVER STORY: Model Mania

Nonbinary artist Chiugo strikes a pose into the world of fashion photography.

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Chiugo (photo by Adaugo Akujuobi, makeup by Chiugo Akujuobi, concept by Tami Shirey)

Growing up, model and artist Chiugo didn’t identify exclusively with she/her pronouns, but they also didn’t pay much attention to those feelings. Having seen zero representation of nonbinary individuals on TV, in movies, or in pop culture, it wasn’t until college that the 21-year-old discovered their queerness. Today, Chiugo embraces gender-neutral pronouns and their authentic self while stepping out in front of the camera and making waves as a model with a bright future.

The Gen Z Nigerian came to the U.S. as a young child. “I don’t remember that much about Nigeria, but it was a fun, easy life,” they recall. “I just remember drinking Lipton tea and eating bread from the cart around the corner.”

“I feel like I always knew I wasn’t a girl, or a woman, but without seeing any nonbinary representation, you can’t place yourself as nonbinary.”

—Chiugo

Flash forward to 2005, when Chiugo’s family landed in Massachusetts before ultimately planting roots in Houston. The Westside High School graduate was inspired by Houston’s growing list of artists. “I talked to a friend about how our cities define so much of our identities, and I truly would have a tough time trying to separate myself from my identity forged by this place,” they say in reference to H-Town. “The best part about Houston is not only the culture but the art that emerges from the city. Artists who come out of Houston—such as Megan Thee Stallion, DJ Screw, Slim Thug, Travis Scott, and Beyoncé—inspire me to pursue my interest in art. It’s astounding that one city can produce so many great minds—including my own,” they add, cheekily.

This budding artist notes that in spite of Houston’s ethnic diversity, the city has room to grow in regard to queer issues. “Because it is so diverse here, I’ve found that most people don’t recognize the issues within the queer community—or the strife that Black people face.

In 2017, Chiugo decided to head west and “build a life elsewhere, influenced by Houston.”

(photo by Carolann Duro, makeup by Chiugo Akujuobi)

It wasn’t long after moving to Claremont, California to attend Scripps College that the artist discovered the gender-identity language that would ultimately make sense for them. “Honestly, I didn’t even realize my queerness until college. It’s so cliché, but it’s real. I feel like I always knew that I wasn’t completely a girl, or a woman, but without [seeing any nonbinary] representation, you can’t really place yourself as nonbinary.” The model student recalls a conversation with an acquaintance who used they/them/their pronouns, causing a light bulb to go off in Chiugo’s head. “I said, ‘That’s so interesting, tell me more!’ I was like, Wait that’s me! A genderless blob!” Chiugo admits with an infectious laugh. They credit higher education for making this realization possible. “College gave me the opportunity to find those words.”

Equipped with their pronouns, Chiugo is quick to acknowledge that not much has changed for them. “I just am who I am. I live my life and hope for the best.” However, they acknowledge the impact that this educational process has had on them, citing a significant growth in confidence and self-esteem. “That’s not always what happens when you aren’t cisgender or heterosexual,” they note.

Chiugo credits living in Los Angeles as a big reason why being nonbinary is such a non-issue. They are equally aware that being out and proud isn’t always the safest option for some, including in their home country. “I’m lucky that I go to school in the L.A. area. I’ve had a lot of support, and I was never questioned,” they explain. “In reality, it’s not accepted everywhere. Recently I found out that it is completely illegal to be gay in Nigeria.”

The up-and-coming model doesn’t let that intolerance stop them from living their truth and staying hopeful for others, as well. “I wish people could be who they want to be. I just want to inspire people to be their authentic selves.”

(photo by Xiao Jiang, make-up by Chiugo Akujuobi)

But Chiugo also reflects on the privilege they have been afforded that allows them to say that so simply. “I’ve been thinking about the [dangers] of coming out. If you are living somewhere that’s largely homophobic and you don’t have a support system outside of your family, that’s probably not a risk that you want to take. It’s such a harsh reality, and it would be a disservice to sugarcoat it because that could get people killed.” The artist exhales as if to question why, in 2020, people still live with a very real fear of gender-nonconforming identities. “I feel like being nonbinary is a big deal, but just be yourself,” they say with encouragement.

The college student, whose Instagram bio lists their pronouns and a plea for people to believe in themselves, credits the app with helping them land their first professional modeling gig. “A friend of mine’s mom reached out to me because she saw an Instagram post of me looking cute, and she was like, ‘Wait, I want you to model for me.’ I was like, Sure! Say less! I’ve always liked clothes and showing my clothes. Instagram offers a huge platform for that, and I guess people noticed.” Chiugo beams as they talk about the doors that have opened as a result of the Jil Dever fashion accessories brand approaching them during their sophomore year in college.

Much like the evolution of their gender identity, Chiugo’s career goals are also evolving. “I literally never had any modeling aspirations—I thought I would become a neuroscientist,” they recall with laughter. “Now I’m trying to get into a graduate communications program after college, so I’m doing a total 180. I love marketing, and modeling is a huge part of marketing. I love social media and what it can do. It’s done so much for me.”

(photo by Carolann Duro, make-up by Chiugo Akujuobi)

As a freelance model, Chiugo also dabbles in photography, having completed a few internships to hone their craft. “I would love to be a one-person photographer and model for companies and brands. I want to take photos of myself modeling, [which would be better for them] than paying for a team of 15 people. I do [my own photo shoots] now, so why not make it a business?”

With the world at their fingertips, Chiugo has a surprising take on their goals in front of the camera. “Modeling isn’t a huge aspiration, but I want to land one major campaign. I want to be a model that isn’t famous, but is really good at their job. Fame is really scary—the way that people feel they know me based on how I present myself online.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Through their art, this ambitious trailblazer is flipping the script on gender identity and sexuality by creating gender-fluid art that offers young people the representation that Chiugo lacked while growing up. And by challenging outdated public perceptions, they are inspiring others to lean into their queerness—whether loudly and proudly, or by simply existing in an authentic space. “I have no role models—I am my own role model. I just do what I do. I don’t need to follow someone else’s life path.”

Keep up with Chiugo on Instagram @ayeyoblackcindy

This article appears in the August 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Zachary McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.

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