We’ve rarely had so much fun as we had in Harlem working with Olivia Burgess, an exciting human being whose face is everywhere on billboards these days, campaigning for various cool athletic brands.
Her energy is very positive in front of the camera, she has an easy demeanor, talks to everyone and makes you smile easily, with her mixture of girlish charm and sunny outlook. And the dance moves!
Yet her depth is right there too, you can see many layers , making this woman a very interesting one indeed. Here’s our conversation.
ARBOL- Where did you grow up? What's your heritage?
OB- I was born in Paris and moved to Washington DC when I was 3. I was primarily raised in DC but I feel like Paris still played a big part in my upbringing as I was frequently making trips back there to visit my dad. My heritage is French and African American.
ARBOL- You shoot you model you dance. Does all this come from the same place within, or do you have to approach each activity very differently?
OB- Dancing came first. As a kid I did ballet, competitive gymnastics, figure skating, horseback riding, taekwondo.... yes I’ve always been very active. At 12 I decided to focus on dance and it’s been my driving force in life ever since. I moved to NY at 17 to attend the Ailey/Fordham BFA program with the hope of being selected to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater upon graduation. Things didn’t go as planned. I got badly injured during my training and ended up having to take a year and a half off to recover from knee surgery. This was an extremely trying period made worse by the uncertainty of potentially not being able to dance again. In desperate need of another creative outlet/distraction, I picked up a camera and started shooting. Thankfully I was able to dance again but I did have to work around many restrictions that ultimately prevented me from pursuing a full time concert dance career. I started modeling to buy me some time in figuring out my next step never thinking that it would turn into a full time career. My favorite part about modeling is that it has given me another stage to continue dancing. Whether I’m dancing, modeling or shooting, I believe that the common thread between the three is a constant need to create and share.
ARBOL- You model for a lot of sports/active brands, how did that come about? Have you always been very active?
OB- With many years of dance training and sport activities behind me I fell into the sportswear industry pretty naturally. What’s been more difficult is paving my way into the fashion world as my curvy and athletic frame have often kept me from booking work. But I am happy to say that this is changing as the industry (especially in the US) is finally making changes and becoming increasingly more inclusive.
ARBOL- We shot in Harlem. Is that home for you?
OB- I’ve been living in Harlem for the last year and a half and I absolutely love it! In my opinion no other neighborhood in NY can match its raw energy. Gentrification may be pushing through but you can still recognize the Harlem natives from a mile away.
ARBOL- How is NY very different than Paris for you? Can you be the same person in both places, are some adjustments necessary, since the two cultures are so drastically different? Is France catching up with the US when it comes to integrating a more healthy active outdoorsy lifestyle?
OB- Paris is much more refined than NY. In its demeanor as well as in its energy. Paris has so many amazing things to offer from its history, architecture, art, cuisine but where I feel it lacks is in its openness. I feel like there is a certain unwritten code that prevents Parisians from welcoming anything too different or out there. There are no limits in NY! I draw a lot of inspiration from Paris but when it comes to creating I find NY to be the best place as there are so many people taking risks with their art and they do not have to worry about societal constraints. I don’t know if I would say that Americans are more active than the French. I feel like we have both extremes: the hyper-active and the very non-active types. In France I feel that even those that are not so active are still living active lives by being outside and riding their bikes or just spending more time on their feet walking to places.
ARBOL- What 's a great recent location you went to for work?
OB- This past fall I went to Tokyo for a job. I had been dreaming of going to Japan my whole life. I couldn’t believe that work had brought me here. It was even more special than I had imagined it to be. I was completely mesmerized by their culture. My favorite day there was spent wandering the streets alone from Harajuku to Shimo-Kitozawa by slowly observing the world around me through my lens. When I returned to NY I had never been so excited to get photos developed!
ARBOL-What are you plans for the near future?
OB- I‘ve been very fortunate with modeling this year so my immediate goal is to keep the momentum going and continue traveling and learning from the various creative minds I’m exposed to. I’m still uncertain of what my next career will be because I have so many interests but certainly something in the creative realm. Perhaps as a creative director or movement director or both!