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The 24-year-old South Sudanese model gets candid about her journey, experiences that have shaped the woman she is today, and why she’s called the ‘Queen of the Butterflies’. 

By Innocent Ndlovu

Jul 9, 2021

If you grab recent editions of the British or Japanese Vogue or watch the SS '21 shows, you’re bound to come across Shanelle Nyasiase and her infectious smile more times than you can keep up with. Since debuting on the international fashion circuit in 2017, the model has walked for both small and major fashion brands including Hermès, Oscar de la Renta, Alexander McQueen, and Marc Jacobs, and appeared in campaigns for Giorgio Armani, Versace, Balenciaga, and Pat McGrath.  

Nyasiase’s ambition has always been to travel the world, never staying in one place for too long. Growing up, she dreamed about careers in acting and the airline business as both options that would enable her to satisfy her wanderlust. Those goals eventually faded into the background when she turned 16 and decided to try modelling. 

A South Sudanese national born in Gambella, Ethiopia where she was raised by her grandmother, Nyasiase moved to Nairobi, Kenya when she was 13 years old. “I get tired when I’m in one place for years,” the self-confessed nomad reveals. Fresh from her holiday during which she toured Kenya, Nyasaise opens up to Industrie Africa about her charmed childhood and career. 


Shanelle Nyasiase by Jamie Hawkesworth for Alexander McQueen. Photo: Courtesy of Select Model Management

You were born in Ethiopia but grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. How have those two places shaped you?

Both countries have different memories. Being with my family and grandmother [in Ethiopia] was fun. Where you are born is something you can never forget. I’ve been learning a lot of stuff because Kenya has a different culture [from Ethiopia]. We have the freedom to do what we want and it’s where I started my career. Nairobi is small, the people here are happy and they like having fun. 

What kind of child were you growing up?  

I was naughty and I used to beat my friends. That’s why my mom sent me to live with my grandmother. 

You refer to yourself as the queen of butterflies. What’s the story behind that title?   

I was raised by my grandmother and her house had a big garden. When I woke up in the morning I would chase after butterflies. It’s something that I grew up doing and when I started my career I realized that I could not stay longer than two weeks in one place. It kept reminding me that I was a butterfly. You can meet with beautiful people and make friends and then the next day you disappear. Today I’m here and tomorrow I'm in a different place. 

You once said that freedom to you is the ability to travel. What’s your favorite travel destination and why?

It’s always Africa. Coming home is always the best for me because I can see my childhood friends and family. 

How were you discovered? Could you take us through your journey from Kenya to an international fashion model?

I was discovered on Facebook by photographer Daniele Tamagni who texted me saying, “Do you mind sending me a picture of yourself without a wig and makeup? I think you have the potential to be an international superstar.” And I was like ‘who are you?’ I was very stubborn in the beginning until Tamagni gave me a lady to contact and it was Ingrid [Tamborin], who is now my mother agent. Ingrid came all the way from Milan to Nairobi to convince me to go overseas. I was skeptical at first because I was happy [in Kenya] working with Adele Dejak and Ann McCreath. I agreed [to go overseas] and my first international season was in winter [of 2017].

What do you consider the biggest achievement of your career so far? 

I cannot pick one. I’m grateful for everything I’ve been able to do. 

You’re working on launching a program to fund the education of young girls in South Sudan. Could you tell us more about that project? 

It’s for young girls who are not able to speak up for themselves. They need someone to [speak for them] and that’s what I’m working on right now. It might go beyond South Sudan, but it's good to start it from there. 

Who inspires you? 

In the industry, icons like Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, and Liya Kebede. I love these ladies so much. Outside of my industry, I would say my grandmother.

Shanelle Nyasiase for Roger Vivier. Photo: Courtesy of Select Model Management

Shanelle Nyasiase for Vogue Ukraine. Photo: Courtesy of Select Model Management

Shanelle Nyasiase for Vogue Ukraine. Photo: Courtesy of Select Model Management

How do you stay grounded?

You can be famous but if you don’t know how to use it, it could turn into something else. I always tell myself that whatever I do is not for myself, [but] for the people. I don’t like attention. I’m always looking for what’s next.

What’s keeping you motivated and busy right now? 

I’ve been learning more about African cultures and also working on my initiative for young girls. 

What advice would you give to aspiring models? 

It’s not easy for any African model with an African passport to travel. [I would say] choose the right mother agency that will support and help you to grow. 

If there was one person you could exchange lives with, who would it be? 

Nelson Mandela. He’s someone whose life I could have learned a lot from.

Describe yourself in three words…

Fun, giving, and non-judgmental. 

If a movie was made about your life, what genre would it be? 

Emotional drama. 

Who would play you? 

Lupita Nyong’o.

What’s your favorite song right now?

There are so many. [I have a playlist called] African Relaxing Music