Olivia Burgess, a Wilhelmina model, was born in Paris, France, moved to Washington, DC at the age of four with her mom and sister. She traveled to New York in 2010 to pursue a BFA with the Ailey School and Fordham University.   Having been based in New York she’s currently back in Paris and will be making rounds to Los Angeles later this fall. Her favorite outdoor activity is horse-back riding. For her it feels like she is flying. She got into modeling after an injury sidelined her for over a year. After recovering from knee surgery she returned to dancing but it didn’t seem likely she would be able to dance full time beyond graduation. She explored other options. On a whim, she walked into a modeling agency to see if they were interested and to her luck and ours as well they were. Year past she studied at the Academy of Healing Nutrition in New York. Her favorite model is her mother, Gloria Burgess.

Kofi Forson: Thanks Olivia for taking time out to talk with us. You’re currently in Paris. What brings you to Paris, this time? How often do you go to Paris?

Olivia Burgess: I’m originally from Paris but I haven’t lived there since I was a toddler. But as my dad has always lived here I would come for a visit at least once or twice a year to spend time with him. I always wanted an excuse to move back and modeling has given me that chance. I will be here until late November modeling and working on some independent dance projects.

Forson: I noticed earlier in the year you were part of Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2017, Couture Fashion Show. Was it your first time working with Gaultier? If so, what was the experience like? How often do you do runway? What was your impression of Jean Paul Gaultier?

Burgess: Funny story. This past winter I had come to Paris to spend the holidays with my dad. We were at dinner one night and Gaultier was sitting just a table over. As I was getting ready to leave he stopped me to ask if I would like to pass by his studio sometime before returning to New York. Naturally I accepted! And to my utter disbelief, he then flew me out the following month to be a part of his SS17 (Spring/Summer 2017) show. I don’t think I would have ever gotten the opportunity to walk in an haute couture show otherwise. In modeling you often get boxed into categories and runway (let alone high fashion runway) just wasn’t something my agency pushed me for. I always knew that I could do more than I was given the opportunity to do and this was the ultimate confirmation! Working with Gaultier was a dream. I thought I would be like an outsider being a part of his show but he and his team were very warm and welcoming throughout the whole process. I’m forever grateful!

Forson: I’ve noticed on your Instagram account you’ve been featured in ads for Bloomingdale’s and THE GAP. First, I want to congratulate you.

Burgess: Thank you! Out of everything I do I really enjoy video. I think it’s the dancer in me. Photos can also be a lot of fun but at the end of the day you are capturing a static image. I love being able to move freely in videos. It feels more natural.

Forson: It’s quite hot, the commercial, watching you in the leather skirt and golden metallic boots, snapping your fingers, dancing towards the camera. It’s very Olivia Newton-John in Grease, in a way.

Burgess: As far as I know I don’t believe the Bloomies video was Grease inspired but I can see why you would think so!

Forson: And for THE GAP commercial you are featured with another model with flowing, curly hair much like yours, not as blonde though. (Laughter) The both of you could pass for twins, actually. Who was the other model? Tell me about the shoot, where you were on location, how it felt to wear the clothes, the general mood on set.

Burgess: The other model in the GAP commercial, Maeva, was actually a fellow dancer that I trained with at Alvin Ailey. The director wanted to work with models that knew how to move. We shot the video in the Far Rockaways back in March so the beaches were deserted. It was a really fun and relaxed day, much like the mood of the video. Almost forgot that I was working except for the fact that we were freezing in our summer cotton dresses!

Forson: I love your presence in all your shots, in the videos, editorials, everything. You’re like a blonde flower, a rose. A blonde rose… And in the prints, especially the sports and fitness ones, you jump off the page.

Burgess: A “blonde rose”….  How poetic! I love it.

Forson: How are you able to control the mindset of elegance, gentle, almost shy and vulnerable and yet give off this feeling of power and the alpha when it calls for it?

Burgess: I credit dance. With dance you’re always trying to make everything, even the most difficult steps, look effortless. To do this you have to be powerful and in control to mask the fact that “No! Dancing is not easy!” I think that I’ve also been able to bring this strength and elegance into my modeling. But there’s always room for improvement! I continue to learn through experience.

Forson: And then there’s the performative self, what you exhibit as actress and dancer in the music videos, combining drama, in its subtlety and tenderness with exhilaration and joy.

Burgess: I’ve always had an interest in acting even though it was never my focus. In high school, I think I auditioned for every spring musical but my dance schedule never allowed me to participate. After college I took a couple semesters of acting classes at the Barrow Group in New York. It’s been very fulfilling to finally get the opportunity to flex my acting muscles in the music videos and commercials I’ve done. I look forward to doing more!

Forson: Two videos which show your acting prowess are the video for Jase Harley, Between the Lines, featuring Chris Lee, directed by Ryan Metcalf and the one for Zachary Murdock, I’ve Looked Everywhere.

Burgess: Thank you! Two very different experiences but I learned a lot from both.

Forson: First tell me about the Between the Lines video. Has it popped up on Diddy’s channel yet?

Burgess: I can’t say for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised!

Forson: That’s such a well-made video and your performance had the soft edges and quiet charm of Jennifer Beals. I suppose it was a take-off from Flashdance.

Burgess: Yes! You are absolutely right. This was an ode to Flashdance.  

Forson: The Zachary Murdock video was more of an ensemble cast. It comes off as if there’s a subliminal drug message. I’m not sure.

Burgess: The plot for the Zachary Murdock video was very dense. I always wondered what people’s interpretation of the video was. In a nutshell, we were living in a post-apocalyptic world where everyone was forced to have chips implanted in their wrist. While these were supposed to facilitate everyday life, i.e. no more need for currency, the government was actually using these chips to keep tabs on society. My character in the video had figured out the conspiracy and was struggling to find a way out.

Forson: On a more celebratory note you were one of the dancers for Beyoncé’s performance on the VMA’s. That must have been mind-blowing.

Burgess: It absolutely was! At the casting all they told us was that we were auditioning for a live performance with a Grammy award winning artist. That could be anyone! It wasn’t until the first rehearsal that I found out that I would be performing alongside Beyoncé at the VMAs. My mind was totally blown.

Forson: You’ve worked with many different photographers. You were part of Delphine Diallo’s New Heroes Project. She seems like an enlightened person. What did you learn from her?

Burgess: Delphine Diallo was one of the first photographers I worked with. To this day the photographs from her New Heroes series are some of my all-time favorites! I’ve learned a lot from shooting with Delphine throughout the years. Mainly that the story behind the image is always more important than the image itself. I think that’s what sets her work apart from others. There’s always a strong narrative behind her photos.

Forson: I have to ask you about your cover for Psychology Today. Was it your first nude shot? What went into the planning for that shoot?

Burgess: Yes, this was my first nude shoot. I was assured that it would be done in good taste and in all modesty which is why I agreed to it. I was also standing alongside my boyfriend at the time. I would not have been able to do this with anyone else! I mainly tried not to stress leading up to the shoot but once the towels were off it actually ended up being pretty painless. We did also get the shot pretty quickly which helped!

Forson: What do you do to keep in shape? What is your exercise regimen? How do you balance weights with jogging? Do you do yoga?

Burgess: Dance, cross training at the gym, Hot Yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonics… I’ll try anything. I like to keep things interesting. But I’m pretty consistent with taking dance classes and going to the gym.

Forson: How and where do you party? Do you travel for pleasure? What do you do for fun?

Burgess: Depends. I do tend to go out more often in the spring and summer. I love outdoor day parties. They’re definitely my jam. I rarely go out to the club anymore. I feel like most people are there to be seen rather than to have a good time. I can’t relate. I’m always there to dance! And yes I love to travel. I have quite a bit of traveling on my agenda this year. I have a sister in Australia so I’m hoping to go there, as well as New Zealand this winter. I also want to do some traveling within the EU (European Union) while I’m here in Paris.  

Forson: I’ve been watching your star rise for a while now. I wish you the best in everything you do.

Burgess: Thank you so much! I believe I have a lot more to share with the world. It’s humbling for me to know that people are already taking notice of my work.