Ngo Okafor’s latest project, “Triumph of the… (Handout photo )
Ngo Okafor has posed with supermodels like Gisele Bündchen. His face has been plastered all over New York City in an Under Armour ad campaign. But it wasn't until this fall when actor and talk-show host Mo'Nique gushed on-air about his calendar that the 35-year-old got a real taste of stardom.
"After that appearance, I got a lot of double takes," he said this week from his parent's Salisbury home. "People in my building would stop me. When I went to auditions, the security guards who ignored me before said, 'Oh, I now know who you are.'"
For the past decade, Okafor has gradually become a force in the modeling world.
In March, he appeared alongside five Olympians in the March issue of The Wall Street Journal Magazine. Okafor, the only non-Olympian in the bunch, was singled out and featured in a story about philanthropic work, and his dual rise in modeling and amateur boxing. This summer, he starred in a slew of Under Armour ads for the company's New York City campaign.
"It's great," he said. "It's all been positive."
It was by happenstance that Okafor got involved in modeling in 1998. Just six months after moving to New York City to work at a computer company, he was laid off. The layoff coincided with a photographer approaching him in a gym and encouraging him to pursue modeling. He began booking jobs with frequency. Soon he was appearing in Men's Health Magazine, Vogue, V, Fortune and ESPN The Magazine.
"His look is unique," said Topher DesPres, Okafor's representative at modeling agency Wilhelmina. "He's an actor, model and athlete. He's very athletic and has a great body. Couple that with being a model, and that is dynamic. That is what makes him stand out."
Images of Okafor seem to be everywhere, yet many are unaware of his Maryland ties or charity work to support his native Nigeria.
Okafor's family moved to Salisbury in the late 1990s, after his father struggled to make ends meet working as a professor in Nigeria.
"They just wanted to get out and make a better life for themselves," Okafor said. "We went through a lot of nonsense over there. My father decided he had enough."
Shortly after moving to Salisbury, Okafor enrolled at the University of Connecticut, where he majored in computer science. He left the university in 1997 to work for the state Department of Transportation, where he stayed until he took his short-lived job in New York City.
Surprisingly, Okafor's computer savvy has been an asset to his modeling popularity.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Okafor feared a negative backlash in the booking of minority models, so he decided to brand himself as more of a personality, as opposed to a blank canvas. He used his computer background to launch a website featuring images of himself. The site attracted a loyal following and eventually spawned three calendars. Okafor is now more downloaded than household names such as Tyson Beckford and Boris Kodjoe.
"He doesn't have a website," Okafor said with a laugh about Beckford.
Okafor's latest calendar, a 2011 limited edition "Best Of," will benefit young boxers in Nigeria. Okafor plans to use proceeds from the calendar to purchase new equipment for kids in his native country.
"I want to show people that you can be successful," he said. "I want to give back."
A two-time Golden Gloves winner in his own right, Okafor regularly promotes the benefits of the sport, which he picked up only in 2005. Okafor's latest project, "Triumph of the Will", a feature-length documentary, chronicles his journey from Nigeria to the top of the boxing world. The project is slated to be finished in April.
DesPres, who has worked as Okafor's agent for close to a decade, has seen his client evolve from an eager model working from job to job to a man with long-term plans.
"His vision is much longer and much bigger," DésPrés said. "It's not just about Ngo. It's about a bigger message and doing something with what he's put together."