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When Ngo Okafor recalls his photo shoot with Gisele Bündchen for V magazine in 2005, the first thing he mentions is her everyday appearance. “When she walked in, she looked like a regular girl,” Okafor, 42, says of the former Victoria’s Secret angel. “But when it was all done — the makeup, the tanner, the bronzer — you’re like ‘Oh, shit.’”
Okafor has undergone his own “oh, shit”-worthy transformation — from a scrawny computer-obsessed preteen (“you could see my ribs front and back”) to a 6’3”, 189-pound male supermodel who has posed for Vogue and appeared in campaigns for Nike and MAC Cosmetics. “I knew one day I was going to get mine,” he says.
On a gloomy Thursday evening, the multi-hyphenate is playing the role of personal trainer at Clay Health Club + Spa, a luxury fitness center in Greenwich Village. Wearing electric blue leggings, black gym shorts, striped Adidas, and a stretchy gray workout shirt barely concealing his hulking physique, he squats low on the floor. His final client of the day, a 43-year-old woman half his size, is performing abdominal raises, a weighted bag on her stomach, as he watches intently.
The gym is busy and noisy — shoes squeaking against the floor, a barista blending a protein shake, a man in oversized headphones stomping on a Stairmaster. But Okafor’s eagle gaze doesn’t falter. “Good,” he says briefly, a cue to relax before the woman starts again.
He has relied on this hyperfocus throughout his two-decade career. It catapulted him into the modeling industry in 1999. It earned him back-to-back Golden Gloves (the highest honor in amateur boxing) in 2008 and 2009. It caught the attention of film director Obi Emelonye, who cast Okafor as the lead in his latest feature Oxford Gardens, which premiered in London this fall and is set to debut worldwide next year. It pushed Okafor to launch numerous other projects, too: his charity Champion Spirit Foundation, his self-produced documentary Three Rounds, his workout class Raka! Fitness, and a fitness community app he plans to release next year.
But before Okafor became one of the city’s buffest entrepreneurs, he was a boy growing up in Nigeria. Raised near the University of Nigeria’s Enugu campus (where his father taught English literature) Okafor is the second of four brothers. His father is a Harvard graduate, his mother taught school. “Education was the only thing,” he says. “My dad grew up very poor. He went from a tiny hut in a village with no bathroom to a Harvard Ph.D. What got him out was education.”
As a boy, Okafor’s small frame and high intelligence allowed him to skip grades but landed him in classrooms with older children, making him easy prey for bullies. “I was a little weakling,” he says. “But I wasn’t a meek kid. I had opinions, so I got into a lot of fights. I got beat up a lot as a kid. Even when I was getting my ass kicked, I was like, ‘You wait.’”
At 14, Okafor began lifting weights at his local gym and quickly put on muscle, catching the attention of classmates, but not his parents. “My parents did not support sports. If you wanted to work out, you go run around the house, come back, and do your homework,” Okafor says. “You go to that gym, you come back, and you study.”
After three years at the University of Nigeria’s Nsukka campus, Okafor transferred to the University of Connecticut to study computer science. Early on, he loved radios and electronic toys, which he attempted to pry open and reprogram. “I saw computers and I wanted to learn as much as I could,” Okafor says. “That’s all I cared about, at that time.”
Okafor didn’t make it past his junior year before he left to take an IT job with Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. He then jumped around before landing a software job in New York — where he was eventually laid off at 22. “A lot of it was my fault,” he confesses. “I was young. Everything came so easily. I was irresponsible.”
Okafor tried modeling after meeting a fashion photographer at his gym who agreed to shoot him in exchange for workout tips. He hand-delivered his headshots to agencies, hearing no after no for six months, until finally signing with R&L Models, a modest firm, in 1999.
His first campaign, a print ad for Paco Jeans, paid $1,500. The day it came out, Okafor recalls, he rushed down to the subway newsstand at 14th Street and Second Avenue, ripping open an issue of The Source magazine to see himself front and center, smirking at the camera in light-wash jeans and a tight yellow T-shirt. “The next day, I went to Kinkos and I made 20 copies.”
Okafor’s career soared. An early MAC Cosmetics campaign with Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, and fashion photographer David LaChapelle proved a launching pad for campaigns with brands like Nike, Under Armour, Adidas, and Reebok. He transitioned briefly into acting, nabbing small roles in shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and in films opposite A-listers like Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Franco, and Jonah Hill.
“Ngo has told me, ‘Nigerians refer to America as the land of milk and honey,’ obviously meaning that there are so many opportunities here,” says Okafor’s best friend Myron Primes, a former model who met Okafor at a Chippendales casting call in 2001. “His ambition is like no other. He’s taken a lot of knocks that would deter a lot of other people, but he keeps up the fight.”
When Okafor grew tired of entrusting his fate to others, he self-produced a shirtless calendar of himself and sold them for $20 apiece at hair shows across the country, raking in $4,000 per event in extra cash. He chose hair shows specifically for their popularity among women and gay men. “On paper, that’s where there would be an audience who would buy my calendar,” he says.
In 2002, his tech background helped him launch his own website, getingo.com (still active today), which offered modeling tips and shirtless photos and earned him the title “most downloaded black model” from Arise magazine.
“Nobody else had a website. Tyson Beckford didn’t even have a website,” Okafor says, citing the site, which garnered 50,000 visitors a day, as his big break.
Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at University of Florida, sees Okafor’s internet popularity as a precursor to the modeling industry’s current practices of using social media to scout talent.
“Social media is a democratizer, as it allows more voices to be heard and more people to be seen,” Selepak says. “Male and female models can create websites and Instagram accounts and post pictures using little more than a cell phone and some basic understanding of Photoshop.”
Okafor’s most recent gigs include a 2015 athletics campaign with Under Armour and a WSJ Magazine menswear spread for the 2012 Olympics alongside athletes like Ryan Lochte and fencer Jason Rogers. He is currently a social media influencer for Modell’s Sporting Goods.
Despite his success, Okafor had yet to impress his parents. “They were like, ‘You’re an embarrassment to the family. What are we going to tell our friends? We’re going to tell our friends that our son is a model?’” Okafor says. “My dad drove me around for hours trying to convince me to go back to school.”
“We are education first. We expect our children to move in the academic direction,” his mother Rose acknowledges. Still, she adds, “That’s the direction that he wanted. We gave him all the support we could.”
Only this fall, when he walked the red carpet as the star of Oxford Gardens, a romance in which Okafor plays a down-on-his-luck boxer who falls in love with a woman with cancer, did his parents express their pride. “It was a full-circle moment for them to finally say, ‘Wow, okay. Ngo, now you’re truly successful,’” he says.
At 42, Okafor has been in the modeling game for almost two decades. While he believes there is a shift in the campaigns male models receive as they get older — from athletic wear to watches and golfing gear — Okafor says his young appearance and fit physique have kept him marketable. “I'm still in shape, so I can still do athletic campaigns,” he says. “But if you do look older, it’s harder.”
He says the bigger issue is the dwindling number of campaigns available for men versus women, regardless of age. “It's harder for guys period, let alone when you get older,” he says. “Women have a lot more options of products to work on. Women have makeup, clothing, lingerie, hair products — all kinds of other avenues.”
Recently, when his wife of three years became pregnant with their first child, a son they’ve named Chioma, Okafor took a step back from modeling to pursue a more stable training career. It still involves 12-hour days and 60-hour weeks, however.
On a chilly late fall Saturday, Okafor serves as celebrity host for Run NYC, a five-kilometer race along the Hudson River supporting a nonprofit for people with disabilities. Running late from his morning boxing session, he catches a cab to Chelsea, getting there in time to chug a bottle of water, take a pre-run selfie at the starting line, and kick off the race. “You can run, but you can’t win,” an organizer tells him.
By the race’s after-party at a dim pub in Chelsea, Okafor looks exhausted, slumping over a high-top table, waiting for his wife Kindra and son to pick him up.
A black Honda van pulls up; Kindra rolls down the window and whispers that 18-month-old Chioma is asleep in the backseat. Chioma, nestled in a puffy jacket, opens one eye to see who’s there.
Okafor hops into the passenger seat and the couple decides where to go. Several cars and taxis speed past. For the first time in a while, Okafor can sit still. But only for a few minutes.