Israeli-Ethiopian Instagram Heartthrob Andebet Ayalla Is Breaking Local Modeling Boundaries
Andebet Ayalla stands out in the Israeli modeling world. The lanky 25-year-old with a flair for wearing Dior, Gosha Rubchinskiy, and a variation of fanny packs is one of the few Ethiopian Jews, also referred to as “Beta Israel,” in the country’s fashion industry—or otherwise. (There are only about 150,000 of the group in the world; the majority now reside in Israel.) The small community has a fractured past: In the early ’90s, the Israeli Army led several clandestine initiatives to rescue the threatened community out of Ethiopia, which included operations to airlift them into Israel.
Ayalla immigrated to Israel at the age of 7 in 2001. For him and his family, the result was culture shock. “My parents thought that [black Jews] were the only Jews in the world,” he says. “And that there aren’t white Jews.” Ayalla also grew up speaking the Ethiopian language of Amharic. (Ayalla’s first name, Andebet, means destiny in Amharic; he notes that his parents refused to give him a Hebrew name.) He boasts a proud attitude towards his culture, continuing to speak in his native tongue when possible. “When I was younger, they [people] used to laugh at me because I spoke in Amharic,” he says over Skype. “A couple years ago, I chose to speak more. I have my parents to speak to me in Amharic so I don’t forget that.”
Currently a graphic design student in Tel Aviv, Ayalla has been interested in fashion since a young age, and cites longtime Vogue editor André Leon Talley as an inspiration. “Maybe since I was 7, I would help my mom with her clothes and hair and with dressing my little brother and sister,” he says. “I was a very visual boy.” About two years ago, he caught the attention of the local Israeli streetwear store +972 on Instagram. “They sent me messages and I thought they were kidding,” he says. “They said, ‘We aren’t kidding. We will pay you.’ I started to [model] from there.”
Ayalla admits that many of the opportunities in the local fashion scene are still reserved for white Israelis, but adds that the younger generation is more accepting of him. He has been quite successful internationally, too, having modeled for labels in Paris, Seoul, an Milan. Though for him, there is one drawback to modeling abroad: eating. Ayalla was raised in an observant household and strives to keep kosher when possible. “I cannot eat a lot of stuff when I am abroad,” he says. “But there is a Jewish community in almost every country.”
Eventually, Ayalla hopes to start his own label, though his dreams go further than the material world. “I want to influence the culture. I want people to know my people, [the] Ethiopian Jews. I want to show the legacy,” he says. “I want people like me to know they can do anything. Believe in yourself and you can make it.”