An interview with Mehdo Dosso

I met Mehdo Dosso while volunteering with the Encampment Support Network, a grassroots group delivering basic humanitarian aid to people living in tents in six Toronto neighbourhoods. At that time, Mehdo was employed by a private company hired by the St. Felix respite centre, providing security and first aid to residents of the Lamport Stadium encampment. After speaking to him during my weekly visits, I quickly discovered that Mehdo was a compassionate soul with a great love for the people around him. A few more conversations revealed that he had experienced a globetrotting life as a model, actor, and humanitarian, driven to give back to the children in his home country of Côte d’Ivoire. We connected for an interview where he shared some wonderful stories about his life, work, and family inspirations.

Jesse Locke: How did you get started as a model?

Mehdo Dosso: I started modeling at a very early age. I was in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. I think I was about six or seven years old when a French woman named Paula came to me and said I could become an amazing model. She helped me study and became like my second mother.

How did you first meet her?

She used to live across the street from me when I lived in a nice neighbourhood called Riviera Golf. That’s where I grew up. I won’t say I was rich, but it was mainly for middle class people.

Were you already tall?

I was tall and skinny for my age! [laughs]

How did that lead into your modeling career?

I moved to Paris when I was 16. I was walking next to La Défense when another woman named Chanel came up to me. She was a scout for a modeling agency called Giovanni and we started talking. Right then she told me I could have a contract. It was a different era and I would say there weren’t a lot of big time Black models. There were only a few names coming out like Tyson Beckford and Idris Elba. I told myself that if I used that opportunity the right way, I might be able to do something and add my name to that list. Giovanni was doing a lot of video shoots and they used me for a few of those. Then I started to have my first gigs. The paychecks weren’t big but I was excited to get out on the runway. 

What were the highlights of your modeling years?

The biggest things I did were for Jean Paul Gaultier. If you dream to be a model, you can’t top that. Once I started to do runway shows regularly, I couldn’t believe it because it was my dream when I was a teenager. I moved from Paris to different cities and came to Montreal in 1999. When I went to the agency there, people told me I was too tall and too big. It was hard for me to fit the mould of what they wanted, but I told myself I wasn’t going to give up because something told me there was a place for me. 

Since I couldn’t find an agency in Montreal, I decided to go freelance. The first gig I had there was with a guy named Dan Loiselle. He’s the one who got me into the spotlight in Montreal. There was a big event there called Festival Mode & Design, and also Montreal Fashion Week. I couldn’t find a way into either of them, but Dan told me that I could wear his clothes and that we would make a big impression. We were trying to do different things to get attention from photographers and the media, and it worked! His vision and my drive paid off. Unfortunately, he passed away from cancer a couple of years ago.

Did you do a lot of photoshoots at that time?

Yes, I did a lot of photoshoots for big brands like Armani. When I got to that point in my career doing runway shows for Jean Paul Gaultier, I was traveling to cities like New York and Miami, but I wasn’t satisfied. Something inside me was telling me that I should do something to better my community or develop Black fashion. It became like an obsession for me and that gave me an extra lift. 

The vision and timing was just perfect because as I was growing that Black fashion idea in my mind, I started to meet people with the same mentality. They wanted to help fashion grow in Africa, and we worked together at events in Paris like Black Fashion Week. If you research my name, many of the photos they’ll see come from that event. People remember me because I was part of the group of male models in the first two years of Black Fashion Week. 

Male models don’t have a lot of good gigs because fashion has more to offer to women. I had to work extra hard to get on that stage because there’s so much competition. Talent is not enough. I wasn’t sleeping and was always trying to find something extra to do. I would spend days on my cell phone or computer doing research because I was a freelancer. That’s how I developed my entrepreneurial vision and started to understand how to brand myself. 

Can you tell me a bit about the acting you’ve done?

Here in Toronto I work with an agency. I’ve done a couple of gigs with a TV show, and acted in three movies in Montreal. One of them was called La Prix. I met the guy who made the movie at a fashion show. He came to me and said “I think I have something for you.” I was playing the role of the doctor and one of my patients was eight years old. She was diagnosed with cancer so I had to announce the bad news to her mom. It was a crazy, dramatic scene.

What other kinds of roles have you had?

I’ve also acted in an action movie and a comedy. In Ivory Coast, I did a lot of commercials. When I was there I had some offers to act in a national television show, but my mind was still set on coming back to North America and learning to develop myself. 

The process of acting for movies is almost opposite to the world of fashion. As a model you walk on the runway, but when you’re acting you need to talk to yourself in your mind. In both you need confidence, but in acting gigs you’re in front of the camera and really need to project. You need to become the character. Acting has 10 seconds of glory because by the time you get to the end of the podium, you have all of these guys photographing you. There are so many flashes in your face but it’s just for one moment. 

When I started in modeling I was never satisfied with myself. People said the photographs looked nice but I thought they caught me at a bad angle or I was smiling in the wrong way. The fact that I was trying to be perfect made me a great model. I was always hungry for more. If I didn’t have that drive, you would have never heard about me. Some of my biggest accomplishments are gaining recognition in Ivory Coast. After modeling at those Black fashion events, I showed people that I could perform at a high level in Europe. At that same time I could come back home where they would consider me an expat. When people talk about me, they know I’m from Ivory Coast but have also traveled around the world. That gives you a different dimension, whether you want it or not.

How do you feel about your career, thinking back on it now?

Looking back now, I think it was all about God. You have a vision in your mind and want to do something every day, but it’s hard to see what’s going on while it’s happening. It was only in 2015 when I lost my mother that I started to take a step back, and decided to spend more time with my kids. I just took a breath and started to enjoy something different because I was always on the go. When I revisited everything that I’ve done, watching videos of myself on the runway, I realized that I was very good. I showed those videos to my youngest son Moya and asked him who it was, and he said “that’s papa!” Those things gave me joy.

When I was just starting out, I told myself that when I had kids we would look back and daddy would be looking fresh! As you get older, your body and your face change. I’ve looked at photos of my father when he was in his 20s, and now when I look at him I see the age. That was one of my worries. I knew I needed to leave something for my kids so they could see what I had done. I was a big African giant and my kids get to enjoy it.

One of my biggest thrills came when my oldest son Jalil went on the internet and Googled my name. I got scared for a second! [laughs] But he looked at the photo of me and it was beautiful. I don’t know how he found it. I started to respect the fact that I had been an international model because you never knew where it could lead you. I was in front of my own son doing research and showing him something about me. At that moment, I felt like I had done something.

There was proof of what you’ve done.

Exactly! When I first started modeling I hid it from my parents. I came from an African family with a father who was considered an elite. He worked in finance for the African Development Bank when I was kid. My father was so good that the president nominated him as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. That was another turnaround for me because I had to leave with my father and enter into a totally different culture. It was just crazy.

Can you tell me about your foundation?

The foundation is called Mehdo for Africa. The goal is to give back to people in Ivory Coast. When I worked at the shelter here in Toronto, I never told anyone about my foundation, but sometimes instead of talking you have to just do. I’m saving up to buy clothes and toys for kids that I can send back home. There are always people in need. I can’t wait for COVID to be over so I can bring it to them myself. With a little bit of organization, I know I can do it.

I’ve also started to work on a soccer tournament in Ivory Coast that I want to do every year. I’m creating it in the name of my mother who passed away. She used to give back a lot, so it will be a fundraiser for children that will also help them appreciate their summer. I want them to forget about their stress. Teenagers are starting to get into trouble at an earlier age, so sports are always a good thing. 

The population in Ivory Coast is very young. Almost 70% are under 21, and young people don’t always know how to organize themselves. Here in Canada you can find places to meet people and look for a job, but Ivory Coast is still growing as a country. I’m not saying we don’t have those services but there are people like me who learn a lot by working here. We can also do our own part without waiting for the government to help us. Everyone is waiting for a miracle to happen, but we can start our own projects. 

Everything I’m doing is non-profit, so it’s all meant to benefit people. I’m doing things from my own pocket and not asking for sponsorships. Eventually I will start to look for that because a few people have proposed it to me, so we’ll see what the future will hold.

Is there anything else you want to mention for this interview?

I want to mention my kids because I’ve never really talked about them in the media. As a male model, you have a lot of people trying to understand you, but I always tried to keep my personal life separate from my professional life. I tried my best to protect them, but now they’re at an age where they understand what I did and what I’m doing. This interview came at a crucial time in my life because one of them is a teenager and one of them just turned nine. It’s like looking in a mirror. I’ve grown from the model I was as a young kid to a man and a father. I’ve won awards, but that’s not my goal anymore. It’s about showing them the way in life. Whatever you put your mind to, you can actually do it.

I started as a kid from Africa and people thought I was crazy. Nobody thought I could end up in movies or on the runway, but I saw it in my mind. I made it happen. My kids were born here and they have so many opportunities. I want them to understand the chance they have to benefit from my African culture and their mom’s culture from here in Canada. I want them to read this interview and see what daddy became. Hopefully they’ll see a hard worker and a great father. 

My mother is also my drive. She’s the one who never doubted me and always believed in me. When I was playing basketball, she would come to my practices and never let me down. I won a trophy in 2015 and said I wanted to dedicate it to her, but she said I should dedicate it to my father. As a kid, I had a hard time with him but he was my only father figure. Now that I lost my mother, I understand everything now. I have 15 brothers and sisters, so I don’t think I can name them all, but those are the people I have in my life. This interview is dedicated to my father and my mother who I lost. I think the best is yet to come. 

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