Just 18 years old, Jean Mpalomby recounts on the phone to me the eventful life he has led up until now. Born in the capital of Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, his parents operated a printing shop and his father also ran for the Congolese National Team. When Jean was a few months old, political and ethnic pressures came to a boil when the former president, Pascal Lissouba tried to oust current President Denis Sassou Nguesso. Supporters of Nguesso occupied the north, and the southern rebels stood behind Lissouba. Dwelling in the south, his father was an ardent supporter of Nguesso, and the opposing faction was determined to kill him. “My dad had to flee the country with the help of some connections he made. He went to Canada. My mother and I were left behind in Brazzaville. A few weeks later, my mom went to a village where my grandmother lived, and we hid out until the war ended,” recalls Jean. The family sought asylum in the States, and it would be nine long years before they would be reunited again in November 2006. “I came here when I was nine years old, being able to see my dad was awesome,” says Jean. Afterward, the family packed up and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where for the first time he encountered schoolyard bullying and was called names like “African booty scratcher.” His light grasp on the English language at the time meant he only picked up the derision. “I got into a little trouble because I fought him. After that, everything was good, and I learned the language. It took me a like a year. I was doing well in school, and everything went on really great after that.”
Relocating to New York in 2009, Jean acclimated to his new environment, flourishing at school academically and at sport, and eventually chancing upon his break into fashion via a designer friend’s fashion talent show. Immediately after taking part in it, he was approached by creative director Mykel Smith who talked him into a professional modelling career, “I knew when I saw him his look was dead-on for the industry. He has a European slender build and innocence,” says Mykel. Without hesitation Jean agreed: “He took me to the agency where his friend worked as an agent.
In September 2015, Jean walked the fashion holy grail New York Fashion Week. “I spent one to two weeks going to casting that was hard because I had to go everywhere around town. I was able to land a job, and I started meeting all these people like the designers. You see how awesome these people are and how hard they work for their brand. I just loved it, and I love doing everything in fashion. It was amazing; I am humbled and grateful for (the experience).” The fashion world loves him right back it seems. He has worked with such notable brands like Opening Ceremony, Band of Outsiders, Kenzo, and Kanye West. A few European designers have an eye on him according to his mentor Mykel.
The loss of his father recently devastated Jean’s family, and sent his mother into clinical depression. “I didn’t have enough time to spend with him. I only had seven or eight years with him. It was heartbreaking because I feel like I missed my childhood.” Most of Jean’s immediate family lives in Africa and Europe, so he feels a deep sense of responsibility to assume the head of the household. But by declaring refugee status, Jean’s movement outside the US is restricted until his green card is granted to him. Though he plans to continue to model, he is set to study pre-med and attend Lehman University in January to stay closer to his mother and brothers.
Even with all of life’s ups and downs, Jean takes none of the numerous of opportunities he has had for granted. “I did not grow up with much. Most of my cousins (in Congo) have finished school but do not have jobs, so they try to go somewhere to look for jobs. I can go to school, finish, and work. I have the modeling job. I am humbled for all the opportunities opened for me right now.”