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

photo of Kate Whyte. design by danielle campbell.

Welcome to My Story, our weekly series defending color creations and their path to success.

Nova Stevens’ path to her current modeling and acting career has not been easy. She was born in Kenya to parents who, fleeing the civil war in South Sudan, decided to send her to Canada at the age of six in the hopes of giving her a better life and more opportunities. She has not seen her parents for 22 years, but lived with various other family members in Alberta and Ontario until the age of 15 when she decided to move out and live on her own. Model gigs started coming to her at age 16 and after a brief stint in New York, she moved to Vancouver in 2014 where she began working as an actress and model.

Later this week Stevens will compete for the 2020 Miss Universe Canada crown and we caught up with her to find out why winning this beauty pageant is so important to her, her continued work with various nonprofits, and her commitment to the race. Justice.

On his difficult past and his journey to success:
“I think it definitely made me more resilient. I have to thank my past experiences because they have really shaped me and who I am. Without the struggles I went through growing up, I don’t think I would be as strong as me. I don’t think I would have the capacity to overcome obstacles that pop up out of nowhere. I firmly believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s a motivator to keep pushing and chasing my dreams. Because not only do I have to be there for myself, but also for my family who are in a war-torn country with very few resources.

On his volunteer work with non-profit organizations:
“I’ve always said I’m going to pay him any way I can. Canada basically raised me. His organizations and staff have provided me with resources and support while my family is in Africa. So giving back to the community was always something I was going to do, no matter what. Keep 6ix is an organization I work with based in Toronto whose mission is to help young people who have been incarcerated to get back on their feet, rehabilitate them and give them resources that allow them to reintegrate into society and change their way. life for the best. Then there’s Operation Smile, which offers free life-saving surgery to children with cleft lip and palate, and Feed it Forward, whose mission is to eradicate food waste and help those suffering from food insecurity. What I learned from them is that 58% of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted and one in five Canadians is food insecure. A lot of people don’t know it. You never think that there are people suffering in your own backyard.

About the organization of the Walk for Freedom in Vancouver last summer:
“I went to the first Black Lives Matter event in an art gallery and at that point I had no interest in talking, I was just going to go there to support everyone who was walking in solidarity. But when I got there I had this sense of urgency, I had this voice in my head telling me I had to go talk. I didn’t know what I was going to say but I knew I had to get up there. So I just spoke from the heart, nothing was repeated. Shamika Mitchell [an actress/activist] reached out to me and said, “I heard you speak, you inspired me, let’s take a walk together.” And so Shamika and I started the Freedom March [which brought together over 15,000 people in the streets of Vancouver on June 19].

We are also in the process of starting a non-profit organization whose mission is to keep the conversation going and help Blacks, Aboriginals and people of color with resources, which are often lacking in our communities. What is important to me is education and financial literacy. Part of what I want to do with my organization is have scholarship funds for children and give grants to black entrepreneurs. It’s important to take responsibility and I think business really does.

model nova stevens
image courtesy of nova stevens

On racism in the modeling industry:
“I was a model in Milan and I remember doing a casting where the casting director said ‘what are you doing here, we told your agent – no black girls.’ In my mind, I was like “it’s not right you can’t just say that to someone”. I was a grown woman so it didn’t affect me as much, but imagine if I was a 16 year old girl hearing someone say this to me, at a time when I’m still trying to figure out who I am. It can cause a lot of damage to someone. “

On hairdressers 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’re a makeup artist, you should be able to apply makeup to everyone, not just whites. It is embarrassing that schools do not teach makeup artists and hairdressers how to style and make up people from all walks of life. They basically say “this is what you need to focus on because that is what matters and that is what is seen as beautiful by the society”. It’s embarrassing, but if it’s your career, you should take it on yourself to learn.

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

On the fact that Miss Universe Canada has only ever crowned one black winner:
“In 1989, Juliette Powell was the first (and last) black woman to win Miss Universe Canada. That was over 30 years ago. It bothers me that in the past 30 years there hasn’t been another black woman good enough for the crown. I will not accept this. Because I don’t believe it is at all. Canada is a land of immigrants and it is our diversity that makes us so beautiful. But I find that often in certain industries – a lot of industries – it’s always a face that is shown as the face of Canada and I’ve had enough. We need to show the world that Canada is truly diverse and a land of equal opportunity.

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 in public, in front of thousands of people, which takes a lot of courage. Preparation – you must be prepared mentally and physically. It’s not as easy as people think. The questions put to us on stage are not easy. There is more than “world peace”. You have to be able to answer questions eloquently while remaining diplomatic and within 30 seconds. I don’t think a lot of people can do that. They are strong and confident, resilient, diverse and leading women. Making yourself known is a mark of leadership. They are leaders who have worked hard and who use their voices. I want to win so much because I want to use this platform not only to encourage others to use their voice, but also to advocate for change. “

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