Kristina Menissov: How Ethnically-Ambiguous Model Found Her Limelight

In fashion, no place is left untouched for creative output, and models are no exception. Ahead of each fashion season, casting agents meticulously search for the latest female and male models, only to package them into uber-creative agency show portfolios, in order to catch a glimpse of attention of fashion houses, designers, audience, discerning casting directors, agents, photographers, stylists, etc.

Modeling can be considered by many as an extreme competitive sport despite advances made toward body positivity and more diverse representation on the runways. Today, what’s ethnically diverse or ambiguous has tremendous appeal. On and off the runways, what is perceived as desirable is, often, a model face whose heritage is hard to pin down.

Part Ethiopian, part Kazakh model Kristina Menissov was able to use her unique appeal to become one of the leading models in what fashion industry calls “ethnically-ambiguous category” – the exotic beauty that transcends race or geography. Menissov has appeared on the covers of Vogue Mexico, Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam, and Elle Arabia, to name a few. Recently, she was the face of Thrive Cosmetics and Terramea Jewelry.

Menissov’s modeling journey began in her native country Kazakhstan, where she started her career in 2010 during Kazakhstan Fashion Week or KFW, playing a critical role for bringing diversity to the platform known to struggle with diversity on the runway. Because of Menissov’s involvement as a model and due to her unique beauty, KFW attracted a number of international brands seeking a more diverse representation in Kazakhstan.

With a bachelor degree in Opera Singing from the Kazakh National Conservatory, Menissov traded opera halls for fashion houses, and became one of the best-paid ethnically-ambiguous models that has worked for brands such as Cartier, Chopard, Balmain, and Saint Laurent. For Menissov, the journey from her native country Kazakhstan to the international fashion podiums has been not only challenging, but also extremely rewarding. I sat down with Kristina Menissov to learn more about her unique appeal, how the modeling industry norms are changing, and what the future holds for the ethnically-ambiguous models.

Tell us a little bit about your background. Where do you come from? Where are you located now?

Originally, I am from Kazakhstan, and I part Kazakh and part Ethiopian. I moved to Los Angeles from Italy, where I studied opera singing. Since moving to LA, I focused on my modeling career.

What advice would you give to someone who is ethnically diverse and wants to be a model?

The time for multiracial, ethnically-diverse models has finally come, this is what we’ve been waiting for! I feel like the industry is finally changing towards being more open to models being more than just the criteria that they fit in, and the look that they represent. Now, there is a huge spike in demand for mixed models. Currently there are not enough of us, ethnically-ambiguous models, to meet the need. My advice to those with mixed features like me, if you feel like you weren’t fitting the criteria before because of your look, now it is time to go and get ahead of the trend. I kept hearing that my look is the future look, so the ‘future’ has finally arrived for models of not just single ethnicity.

What challenges have you faced as a model of color?

My challenges are about being mixed and not fitting a criteria of a single race, if I had a penny for every time I heard “you are not black enough” and “you are not Asian enough” I would have 1691 pennies.

With modeling standards changing, how is that affecting you directly?

It has had a very positive impact. Since just a few years ago it was hard for me to even get through the door of castings directors. During the pitches it would be clear what they are looking for, i.e. if it was a diverse minority it was more often of single ethnicity, which for me, being half Asian and half Black wasn’t fitting. It was challenging to build a name in a single-race fashion industry. Before, I used to be booked not because the industry needed an ethnically-ambiguous look, actually the opposite, but because of my name and/or professional qualities. Now, with modeling standards changing I feel like I have a fair chance, I am glad I stuck with it.

How do you stay in shape? Any specific diet?

Personally for me the ‘diet mentality’ doesn’t work very well, it feels to me like it’s a false hope and I think it’s important biologically for the body to honor your hunger. However, living a balanced lifestyle, instead of peaks and valleys that leads to either excessive eating or excessive dieting. I try not to reach the moment of excessive hunger and doing that I avoid overeating. I believe it is called ‘intuitive eating’. I gave myself unconditional permission to eat, which helps me avoid guilt-provoking thoughts. I try to listen to my body signals when I am no longer hungry or if some type of food makes me feel uncomfortable – I stop eating. I make sure that the food that I am eating brings me satisfaction.

What is the ratio as a model between talent and experience?

What is ‘talent’ in the modeling industry? It is the looks, the way you represent yourself in front of the people, the way you photograph, the way you shine in front of the camera, the way you walk on the runway and at the same time the way you not outshine the clothes that you represent. Unfortunately, if you don’t have the talent it will be incredibly hard to even get through the door to gain any experience. In case when don’t have a lot of experience, it is important to learn fast on the job when opportunity presents itself. It is all about how good you are in following directions, how you act, and how easy it is for shoot directors, fashion designers, and creative crew to work with you, how professional you are, how you always evolve and improve your poses, and walk according to the trends or standards of fashion at the moment. Talent is more important than experience because without it you won’t even have a chance to gain that initial experience, but as one grows: experience and attitude is more important than your talent to stay in the industry and keep booking more opportunities.

Which runway shows were your favorite to walk?

I love walking the runway, those moments when you are on the podium and nothing else matters. Every new show takes a special place in my heart because it’s always a new look, and new moment with the audience. Surprisingly, it was not a runway show that was my favorite to remember, it was creating a cover story for Vogue Mexico that remains my favorite experience to date. Everything on that day was magical, amazing crew by Dennis Leopold, second model Zarina Yeva, outstanding pieces by Cartier and Bulgari, the lighting and setting made everything magical, it was carved into my heart.

With a rise of virtual models, how do you see this trend impacting your work right now?

I love it, I actually think that would be very good for so many little girls’ mental health, since they wouldn’t be comparing themselves to people that do this for a living.

Can modeling be a sustainable career?

I feel like after taking off it definitely can be a sustainable career, I can almost compare it to a regular business where in the beginning you invest a lot in it, but eventually it pays back. After doing tons of modeling work I have finally broken through into lucrative highly paying repetitive contracts. I am on pace to triple my income from 2021 exclusively related to modeling and I have just signed four contracts for 2023.

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