The Power of Resilience: Joy Kinglsey-Ibeh Shares Her Story of Struggle + Survival
August 7, 2020 @ 10:00am
“All I’ve known is struggle, but all I’ve learned is how to work through that struggle and survive.”
I’m sitting across from Joy Kingsley-Ibeh on the patio of a coffee shop in Adams Morgan, completely oblivious to the sweltering heat of the July morning and the three hours that fly by as she shares her inspiring story with me. The entrepreneurial powerhouse speaks with a steely calm and unnerving candor as she describes a life full of tragic and transformative experiences that far exceed her years. In a past life, she played professional volleyball in Holland, modeled for high-end fashion publications and commercial advertisements, and slayed as a contracting officer for the federal government. Now, she owns two successful D.C.-based businesses, Style by Kingsley and Kingsley Model + Talent Management, and works as a celebrity wardrobe stylist for the likes of journalist Soledad O’Brien and Wizards star John Wall.
Kingsley-Ibeh is no stranger to hardship, or adversity. She spent her childhood moving with her family from Nigeria to London to New York and ultimately, to the D.C. area, while her father pursued higher education as a means to support his wife and four children. In her formative years, she carved out her own identity as a Black woman – self-made, multitalented and resilient – while coping with deep and profound loss. After decades succeeding in sales and government work, she took the big leap two years ago and began styling and running her modeling agency full-time. At each turn, she’s faced what it means to be Black in America, to be Nigerian, to be a woman, to come from humble beginnings, to lose loved ones and to have no other option than to persevere. She is magnetic, drawing people in with her impenetrable sense of self and ability to find meaning in every single part of our existence – from the minutia of our everyday lives to the heartbreaking moments one never truly recovers from.
Kingsley-Ibeh moved from Nigeria to London with her parents when she was 5 years old because her father was accepted into the University of Liverpool. Her two older siblings joined two years later when her parents, who were pregnant with her younger brother at the time, could afford to bring them.
“We always moved because of my dad’s education,” she says. “As a typical Nigerian family, it’s all about education and advancing yourself. I think those years in London were my fondest memories because it was the last time that I had those moments with my dad, and I had him to myself.”
Her family then moved to New York when her father was accepted into a master’s program at NYU. They lived in the Bronx, where she vividly remembers her father returning home bloodied after being held at gunpoint and having his briefcase stolen. Shortly after, a gun was held to her mother’s head while she and her three siblings slept through a robbery in their one-bedroom apartment. The second incident was the catalyst for the family to relocate yet again, first to Brooklyn and then to Maryland, when Kingsley-Ibeh was 9 years old.
Her father was temporarily working at a gas station while waiting for his full-time job to start, and her mother was working at a nearby thrift store. On nights when they both had shifts, she’d meet him at the gas station and they’d walk home together. Three weeks into their new life in Maryland, her mother went to pick him up post-shift. The gas station was robbed, and her father was shot.
“Two teenagers came in with ski masks on, asked for the money, shot him, shot at my mom, missed her, and my dad died in her arms. That was really the beginning of the change for us – for my whole family, for me.”
Her mother was able to pick the shooters out in a high school yearbook, and they both received life in prison. The lawyers who handled their case became close family friends and recommended one more move – this time to the safe, quiet town of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Kingsley-Ibeh and her older siblings received scholarships to their high school, and the natural athlete began playing basketball, track and volleyball.
“Sports kind of saved my life because they allowed me to focus on something other than the tragedy that happened,” she says.
She played Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball and Junior Olympic volleyball in high school and went on to play volleyball for George Mason University, where she still holds several records. She was then recruited to play professional volleyball in the Netherlands. The same day she arrived in a new country to pursue a new career, she received a phone call while at her team manager’s house.
“There was a strange voice on the other end [that said], ‘Joy, your brother’s been killed.’ My older brother was murdered in a home robbery, and that literally was on the day I landed.”
Kingsley-Ibeh describes her brief time abroad as the hardest year of her life. She did the best she could in a strange country at only 21 after losing her brother to a senseless murder, but decided it would be too difficult to return the following year – and her family still didn’t know who killed him.
After a three-year search involving private investigators and the FBI, her family went through an arduous two-week trial resulting in prison time for all perpetrators, and a life sentence plus 101 years for the man who shot her brother.
“There have been times when I have felt so lonely, because who can I talk to? I don’t have a friend in my life that has experienced the kind of tragedy I’ve experienced. When you grow up trying to make everyone else feel comfortable with your losses, you master the art of telling people, ‘Oh, my dad died,’ and just moving on to the next sentence. As African women, we’re raised to not show emotion, and as Black women, we’re always supposed to be the strong ones. I literally want to scream sometimes, ‘I am not okay!’ But then I just put on a smile and fake it.”
While an outpour of raw emotion may not be her natural inclination, she has ironclad insight into how these tragedies have shaped her life.
“I value every experience. Even the traumas my family went through have made me a more compassionate person. A lot of my friends are now experiencing death, and I’ve learned that I’m a source for them – even if it’s just by my mere existence. You see me smiling. You see me living life. So, you should know that one day, this will be you, too. It’s always going to get better.”
She speaks in earnest of the ways she honors the memory of her father and brother, remembering them in her daily life and speaking with other family members.
“My older brother had a daughter, and I’ve singlehandedly kept my brother present in her life by telling her stories about him and making sure she doesn’t forget him.”
The Success Story
The key to Kingsley-Ibeh’s success lies in her ability to live each day fully and with deep appreciation. After years of hard work, ambition and commitment to honoring the Kingsley name – her father’s name – through the ethos of her businesses, she’s now wholeheartedly enjoying the fruits of her labor.
“I’ve learned that you may be this person today, and tomorrow, you lose everything,” she says. “I know what it’s like to not have, and what it’s like to have. I’m in this space now where I have, and I often pinch myself. I can’t believe this is my life right now.”
After receiving her degree in communications and spending years in IT sales and real estate, she transitioned to working for the federal government. But fashion was always a mainstay in her life, and it was only a matter of time before it came to the forefront of her career trajectory. From the moment she saw Naomi Campbell on the cover of Vogue as a teenager, and was thrilled to see a beautiful Black woman in the limelight, she was hooked. Modeling became a side hustle for Kingsley-Ibeh, and she managed the fur department at Saks Fifth Avenue. Soon, friends and family members were asking her to style them.
“There was a constant theme I would see. Every time I would take them shopping, we’d be in the mirror and I’d put them in something, and they’d start crying. They were mothers and married women. They were just like, ‘I forgot that I look like this – that I could be beautiful.’ And that’s when I realized, ‘Wow, fashion doesn’t have to be this vanity thing.’”
She was adamant about studying her craft, eager for a vast knowledge of the human body to aid in her styling prowess.
“What people don’t understand about styling people is: It’s not about you. Just because something works for your body as the stylist, it’s not going to work for everybody else.”
Her ability to think through the lens of her clients paid off, with countless styling opportunities presenting themselves. From a friend’s Grammy appearance to working with Mystics players, her collaborations now run the gamut. And with styling comes creative direction, as her skills are often needed in showing models how to pose and paying attention to every little detail of how their clothes lay on them during a shoot to ensure a flawless photo gets taken.
Kingsley-Ibeh’s own experience as a model has proven invaluable in her field, uniquely equipping her to be at the helm of her own modeling agency. Her client roster ranges from small, local brands to big names like Olympus and Bank of America; but regardless of who she’s working with, she remains firm on being a diverse, inclusive business that supports its models.
“I am one of the few Black-owned modeling agencies in the country, and I have a responsibility to be a leader. Especially in times like this, I have to be a voice for my Black talent to make sure they know that at this agency, there is no room for racism or anti-anything.”
Because she attended a predominantly white high school and college, she says she learned how to navigate as a Black person in a white community. She bridged the gap between her Black friends saying, “She sounds white,” and feeling like the token Black friend of her white friends – a constant push-and-pull between other people’s narratives.
“I’ve always tried to approach everything by being my authentic self and coming into it with an open heart and an open mind. I think when you try to come into these scenarios in that manner, people get to see who you are. I feel like my compassion allows me to connect with people on a human level, because I’ve had experiences that most people haven’t had – the good and the bad.”
Her humanity and empathy have carried over into her passion for the Black Lives Matter movement. Though admittedly disappointed in non-Black friends who haven’t done more to support the Black community, she chooses not to turn her back on them; but instead, to be vocal about how she feels and what she thinks they can do.
“I’ve had to learn that not everyone is going to react the way you want them to, and it doesn’t mean they don’t care. It doesn’t mean they’re not down for the cause. It just means they react differently. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’m learning in this time: I have to give people the space and room to react to this how they want.”
Even still, she says she’ll never back down from a fight. Her mother’s determination to find her brother’s murderers motivates her to this day, as she proudly remembers her single-handedly forcing the sheriff’s department to do their job and put the proper manpower on her brother’s case.
“Otherwise, he would have been another Black man dead on the street,” she says. “I will never sit silent when I see harm done to someone. I’m always going to be on the front lines marching when it comes to gun violence, women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights – you name it.”
She’s even had to fight for love, spending the first nine of 13 years with her husband Azam behind closed doors. He’s Pakistani and Muslim, and they kept their relationship hidden from their families for many years to avoid a culture clash. But once his family realized that Nigerian and Pakistani cultures are actually very similar, and saw how many shared values they had, she says they became quite close.
“I had to stand my ground about certain things that were important to me just so they know what I value. I didn’t want to start bending and being someone I wasn’t. I wanted them to know who I am. It’s been an interesting journey. What I think has been amazing is showing his nieces and nephews that it’s okay to step outside of your culture and your race. Now when they are like, ‘Oh, my aunt is Nigerian,’ I think that gives them a sense of pride. That’s been really beautiful to see.”
Kingsley-Ibeh and her husband live in the Columbia Heights/Petworth area, and she says the District feels like home because it has treated her well and allowed her to collaborate with like-minded people.
“I love D.C. for the fact that it creates a sense of community. I’m proud to say I live in Washington, D.C. and to represent that flag and everything it stands for, because D.C. is ahead of the game.”
Her pride extends beyond the nation’s capital. She speaks fondly of the U.S. and the opportunities it has afforded her and her family. Though her Nigerian roots remain firmly planted, Kingsley-Ibeh is embracing life in this country – flaws and all.
“I’m just like, ‘Whoa, girl. How are you this girl that migrated to this country from Nigeria, who went through everything you went through, who went through poverty, and now you’re here?’ That’s the American dream, and that’s the country I choose to believe in. We might be going through turmoil right now because it’s shaken up the underbelly of what this country is about, but it’s still a great country and a girl like me would have never accomplished this. I would not have been this in Nigeria. I know that for a fact. So, that’s why I hang in there.”
Follow Joy Kingsley-Ibeh on Instagram @joykingsleyibeh. Go to www.kingsleymanagement.com for more on Kingsley Model + Talent Management and www.stylebykingsley.com for more on Style by Kingsley. Follow her businesses on Instagram @kingsleymodels and @stylebykingsley.
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