Israela Avtau, the second-highest earning sabra model (after Bar Refaeli), originally wanted to become an air stewardess.

Israela Avtau 520 (photo credit: Mc2 Oferaphaeli Agency)
Israela Avtau 520
(photo credit: Mc2 Oferaphaeli Agency)
It was past noon on a Sunday, and Israela Avtau opened the door with a shy smile. In flannel pajamas and no makeup, the truth about the Israeli- Ethiopian model was quickly revealed: She’s strikingly, naturally gorgeous.
“I love this neighborhood,” Avtau said.
But she rarely spends time in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
She’s usually on a 12-hour workday in the city, or jet-setting between Cancun, Cape Town, Honolulu, Vancouver and, occasionally, Tel Aviv too.
“If it wasn’t for modeling,” said the slim, 175-cm. Avtau, “I would have never gotten to these exotic, breathtaking places, so I thank God every day for what I have.”
Of some 120,000 Ethiopians living in Israel, Avtau is the first model to enjoy this kind of financial success. Seeing the dark face of an Israeli beauty on billboards is still a rare sight, even though it’s been nearly 30 years since the first black Jews of Ethiopia arrived.
“Deep inside, I always believed that if you’re good – you’re good, regardless of your color or where you came from,” Avtau, 23, said. “I am Ethiopian, Ethiopian- Israeli, and I’m proud of it, here or in Israel.”
Growing up, Avtau, the second-highest earning Israeli model (after Bar Refaeli), wanted to become an air stewardess. She never dreamed she’d spend just as much time in airplanes as a frequent-flier glamour girl. At 20, Avtau left her family in Eilat to strike a pose in New York.
Avtau’s parents made aliya in 1984. They arrived from a small village near the mountains of Gondar and less than three decades later, their daughter, the personification of her father’s dream, is looking at the world from her 16th-floor balcony in Manhattan.
Her parents weren’t pleased, at first, when they saw their young daughter, the shy high-school student, raised in an observant Jewish home, becoming an independent, cosmopolitan model. They were even less content when she stopped hitting the books and began to book her own shoots in Tel Aviv.
“For them, I think, to come to a country like Israel must have been a shock,” said Avtau. “We’re talking about people who carried water from a well to drink or shower; they had no electricity.”
Now, she hopes her family will come visit her in New York.
Shmuel Avtau, her father, had a dream.
Like many Ethiopian Jews, he yearned to come to Israel. Three years after they made it through a long and dangerous journey, Shmuel named his first daughter Israela.
“Thanks, dad,” she laughed, “you gave me the name of a people!” Avtau is proud of her somewhat unusual name, but she is also aware of the responsibility that comes with it. “Here, it’s different,” she said. “I’m black. No one – not a single person – ever thinks I’m from Israel.”
Like many Ethiopian-Israelis in New York, Avtau often meets confused Americans and Israelis who are surprised to hear her speak Hebrew. Then, she said, they sometimes ask if her agency made her change her name to Israela. “No,” she answers patiently, “I’m Israela, from Israel.”
TODAY, FAR from home, but closer than ever to her dream, you can see Avtau’s features selling cosmetics, designer clothes and magazines. She is constantly busy, with a daily rate of some $5,000, and she takes it as a compliment when she’s referred to as the Israeli Naomi Campbell – the world’s most famous (and infamous) black model.
“Before I even got into this business, I understood that black models exist only abroad. There were Tyra [Banks], Naomi and Iman [Mohamed Abdulmajid] – and that’s all I knew. I never saw it in Israel; I never saw anything like me,” Avtau said.
That’s why she didn’t expect to win when she enrolled in the Israeli Elite Top Models contest in 2003. But she did, and thus became the first Ethiopian beauty queen in the country. That night, however, Avtau revealed something greater than her unique look. Then a 10th grade student, she delivered a speech that was both personal and political.
“People tell me that black doesn’t sell, but I believe that the beauty is what matters, and not the color. My dream is to prove this true,” the 16-year-old said.
That night, she made history, but her challenges merely began. “It’s a very small market in Israel, especially for a darkskinned girl; there’s not a lot of work, like there is here, or in London, or Cape Town,” she said.
She was running around, meeting agents and photographers, but Avtau wasn’t as busy as she had hoped to be, not as the non-Ethiopian models in her agency were.
“I heard twice, ‘We’re not looking for a black girl.’ More often it would be, ‘You’re not suitable for this project, but we’ll take you next time,’” Avtau remembered from her first years in the fashion industry.
“When I finally got the job, it was when they were looking for a black girl for a specific purpose. Here, I can lead a campaign myself, that’s the biggest difference between here and Israel.”
Avtau saw how not only black models take the lead role in America, but other – perhaps bigger – roles as well, and she wasn’t talking about the president of the United States. “You can see a black lawyer who is very successful. In Israel it’s still not like that,” she said. “Here, black and white are not so different. It’s almost the same status.”
She saw too many Ethiopians at home being treated differently or just being ignored. “If they would have given more room for Ethiopians in the foreground, in general, not only in modeling, but in acting, in television, in soccer, people would say, ‘Okay, they do everything, so I see an Ethiopian model in a magazine, it’s not a big deal.’” Avtau still follows up on her promise from that night in 2003, as she has recently started a working on a new campaign for the New York-based cosmetics giant Avon.
But as much as she loves America, the Upper West Side or traveling to scenic destinations, she is especially grateful for a recent trip back home. It wasn’t just for a family visit and a chance to eat her father’s couscous (yes, she’s a model who loves food) – it was for business, to lead a multimillion- dollar campaign.
“They took a very big chance. They asked for me, and I hadn’t worked in Israel for a while,” she said of the campaign by Factory 54, one of the country’s most prestigious fashion houses. “It was very good to be back in Israel this way.”
It wasn’t only the Dolce and Gabbana dresses, or the natural communication with the Israeli photographers that made this gig so special. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Israel,” she said. “It was an endless flow of positive affirmation.”