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Jo Malone London Adwoa Aboah
Courtesy of Jo Malone London

How Adwoa Aboah brought real talk to the mainstream

Adwoa Aboah speaks to Dazed about straddling her jobs as actor, model, activist and Gurls Talk founder, sharing mental health tips and how she really feels about Instagram

“I start getting resentful of the things that I see on Instagram because it all feels quite fake. But really, why should I put so much attention into other people’s lives that I don’t even know? I mean that’s my shit as well,” says Adwoa Aboah. “It’s like, ‘oh this all feels so silly and cringe and I feel embarrassed.’ But I also feel a bit embarrassed about my behaviour on it. It’s like a full circle.”

Aboah is a very thoughtful interviewee. Sitting on a massive sofa at the Jo Malone London headquarters, still a bit jet-lagged from being in LA, she takes time to think about her answers, not afraid to change her mind, correct herself, and consider all sides of a topic carefully. She candidly speaks about her own issues, including the insecurities and triggers that we all experience sometimes while scrolling through Instagram.    

It’s characteristic of Aboah to be this open about her feelings, even if it’s the less palatable side of life. Throughout her career, she has shared the issues she has confronted, including struggles with depression, addiction, self-hate, bipolar disorder and dyslexia, suicide attempts, acne. From helping people feel less isolated to trying to destigmatise mental health battles, she believes in the power of sharing stories to heal. It’s why she founded her non-profit organisation Gurls Talk in 2015 – a community-led space where young people can share what they’re going through, connect through their experiences and get the resources they need to nurture their mental health.

It was the commitment to this cause that brought Aboah and Jo Malone London together. Last year, she became the fragrance brand’s global ambassador and is currently the face of the new campaign for English Pear & Sea Pea Cologne. Initially unsure of whether the partnership would make sense, Aboah says she soon learned of their shared morals and the work Jo Malone London has been doing in the mental health space over the past decade. “I didn’t have to explain anything because they already know, they’ve already done it for so long,” Aboah says. “There was no small talk, we just got straight to it and understood that we wanted to work together for the exact same reasons.”

Dazed caught up with her to chat about Gurls Talk, looking after your mental health and taking the time to process your experiences.

When you describe your career, you’ve said in the past you’re an activist first and model second. Is that still how you think of yourself?

Adwoa Aboah: I don’t really know anymore. I find it harder and harder to say what I do when people ask me. In LA, that’s the culture, they ask before they even ask you what your name is. Obviously, I am a model but I run a charity as well, and then my acting. Also, there are the things that people aren’t necessarily that interested in hearing about, but those are the things that I love. But I’d say everything that surrounds Gurls Talk definitely comes first.

You founded Gurls Talk in 2015, so you’re coming up to ten years. 

Adwoa Aboah: Wow. That’s crazy. God, I just got shivers. Yeah, because I’ll be nine years sober this year, which is crazy. Wow, that is mad.

It’s amazing! How has that journey been? 

Adwoa Aboah: Anyone who works in any sort of nonprofit sector, they know it’s just endless. There have been many moments when I feel like we’ve really accomplished great things, but the work isn’t really ever finished, is it? So I think I forget that we’ve been doing it for so long, because it just feels like…

You have so much more to do?

Adwoa Aboah: Yeah, I just don’t ever think we’ve done enough. And maybe that’s the beauty of doing it and maybe that’s just the name of the game – if you felt like it’d been done then probably there’d be no point in doing it. You can only do this sort of job if you love it. It’s amazing but it’s all I can think about most of the time. Everything goes back to what I can do for the community. And I decided to do this, that’s the responsibility I decided to take on. And I don’t want to look like I contradict that responsibility or what I’ve aimed to do, or the things that I say, whether publicly or just in person. I want to be the real deal. Obviously flawed, but what I aim to do, I want to do it.

You’ve been so open about your mental health, about your addiction and recovery. Were there times when you felt that you didn’t want to share so much with the public?

Adwoa Aboah: No. Maybe there are more times now where I think it’s important to have some privacy on certain things, but I’m not that good at it. I feel like it comes quite naturally for me to be honest about these things. Because that’s how I’ve been taught to deal with stuff and it’s such a big part of what we do at Gurls Talk – that lived experience and the storytelling.

But I try to process things before I start speaking about them. I’m not speaking about these things as I’m going through it. I try to have some distance because I do understand that our stories change all the time. My perspective on things that happened even just the other day is different. And I also don’t want to keep on talking about the same thing. Not only is it sometimes quite traumatic, I’ve also moved on since then.

With social media, it can sometimes feel like everyone needs to decide right away what they feel about things. So you don’t really have time to process, which takes time.

Adwoa Aboah: Yeah. And we talk about that a lot at Gurls Talk, because obviously, it started with me sharing my story. So we know how important that is in terms of stigma reduction and prevention. But I do think you have to really take some time to think about when it feels right, you don’t just jump on board because everyone else is doing it. Because once it’s out there, it’s out there. There’s literally nothing you can do about it.

And once you open up the conversation to the public, you’re going to be hearing all their opinions and people you don't even know having thoughts about it. So if you haven’t even processed yourself, it can get confusing.

Adwoa Aboah: Yeah, I understand why people don’t talk about things all the time and don’t want to have an opinion about certain things. Because we’re not living at a time where it’s easy to voice your opinion and just get away with it. And everyone be like, ‘Oh, cool. They’re speaking their truth.’ [Instead it’s like,] ‘No, no, no, that’s wrong. You’ve offended this person, you’ve offended that person. You didn’t mean it like that, but this is how it’s come across to me.’ And maybe you should have taken a little bit of time before you said what you said or maybe we’re all a little bit too sensitive. I don’t know, I’m still kind of figuring that one out.

It’s probably both!

Adwoa Aboah: It’s probably both! Because I know, there are times when I get offended by things. And then I’m like, why? Actually, it’s quite nice for people to not just agree with each other all the time.

Do you have things that you do for yourself to help look after yourself and your mental health?

Adwoa Aboah: Figuring out a different relationship to my phone, reading, doing lots of exercise, making sure to take the time away before I burn out, not when I’ve actually burned out which is what I tend to do. Or I used to do. Understanding the difference between isolating and taking some time away from myself is also a big one. I’m prone to isolating and I have to realise when it’s isolating and when it's actually just that I need a little bit of a break.

Because actually sometimes a recharge is being around people. And I forget that because I’m like, ‘Oh God, I’m gonna have to speak to someone.’ You know, with my job, I want to be a good person to have around when I’m on set or doing my Gurls Talk work or whatever it might be, so sometimes it gets to my own personal life and I’m like, the last thing I want to do is be asked a question. So understanding the differences and being like sometimes being around people and someone asking me something is actually a recharge. And I should push myself to do that.

This interview was done prior to the SAG-AFTRA strikes.

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