By Howard Campbell
The Associated Press
Just one year ago, Nadine Willis was a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Today the 23-year-old Jamaican rubs shoulders with supermodels, lives in London, and graces catwalks from New York to Paris.
"It's been amazing but it's good so far. I'm enjoying every minute of it," she says.
With close-cropped hair, a wide smile and seductive pout, Willis has become a favorite of top photographer Mario Testino, who featured her in a recent layout for French Vogue. Testino also shot a new Gucci ad that features Willis in a white high-collared trench coat, a baby in her arm. In the past year, Willis also has appeared in Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese Vogue and walked in Bill Blass' spring runway show in New York.
The Web site www.models.com rates her No. 24 on its list of the world's top 50 women models and calls her "Jamaica's hottest new export."
"I get to travel to Paris and Milan," she says. "I have gotten to know a lot of good people in the business."
Willis grew up in the impoverished and often-violent Kingston neighborhood of Waterhouse, one of five children on her mother's side and 21 on her father's.
At 16, she started working as a go-go dancer, which she says was an escape from an otherwise depressing existence. She became pregnant at 18, and her daughter, Tatiana Areka Berg, is now 4.
As a dancer, Willis worked at Kingston clubs, but she also found ways to travel. In 1997 she worked for seven months in Poland and did a three-month stint in St. Maarten.
In 2002, she decided it was time for a change.
"She came to us and asked if there was a chance she could be a model. She wanted to stop dancing, she wanted a new life," says Kingsley Cooper, of the modeling agency Pulse Entertainment Ltd.
Cooper says Willis was eventually signed to the London-based agency Select Model Management where, he says, promoters were taken with her "look and spirit" and placed her in the London Fashion Week.
Willis says she has earned about $100,000 in modeling this year, appearing in fashion shows from New York to Europe and most recently doing photo shoots for a catalog.
She says dealing with sudden success has been challenging but fun.
"I'm in a very privileged position now," she was quoted as saying in Caribbean Voice, a monthly newspaper in New York. "I've gained the respect of the people in Jamaica, and ... the great thing about my life right now is that I can provide a good life and an education I never had for my daughter. That's the most important thing to me."
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