Sabrina Elba: ‘Sample Sizes Are A Form Of Discrimination’

The model is photographed at her country home by husband Idris.

Sabrina Elba

by grazia |
Updated on

When the coronavirus pandemic first began to take hold of this country, it proved that anyone could be struck down. Luther actor Idris Elba and his model wife Sabrina were two of the most high-profile faces to test positive in the UK in the first few weeks. And while the public railed against celebrities claiming that we were all in the same boat, today the couple recall how they were truly terrified.

‘At the time that we got sick, the media was pushing hard on how dangerous it was,’ Sabrina recalls via video call. ‘At one point, Idris really thought that this could be the end. He has asthma. He is older. It was really scary.’ The pair have made a full recovery, but the experience has left its mark. ‘That kind of unsureness about what's coming next leaves you with a bit of anxiety,’ she says. ‘But having been sick and being okay also now gives you this new lease of life: I want to be super appreciative of everything.’

Sabrina is talking to Grazia after taking centre stage for a shoot at the country home she shares with Idris, who she met at a 2016 at a party in Canada and married in a beautiful ceremony in Morocco last year. Idris, a keen photographer, took each shot. She’s wearing pieces from her own wardrobe and she did her own hair. (Luckily, the couple have been isolating with Sabrina’s best friend, make-up artist Jessica DeBruyne, who was therefore on hand for this shoot). Being captured by the man she loves was, she says, a wholly empowering experience.

‘At first, I didn’t know if I was going to like him taking pictures’, she explains. ‘You never really ask the boyfriend or husband to take the picture, right? You never get the angle. But once, when we were just looking at random iPhone pictures that he had taken, he showed me one and said, “I think you look really beautiful in this picture.” And the way he said it, I just knew he really meant it.’ She says the experience had a positive impact on how she sees herself today. ‘Why am I nit-picking pictures to such a point when he thinks I’m beautiful. It almost changed my life.’

Sabrina Elba
©Idris Elba

Sabrina, who is of Somalian descent, has been a model since 2013, working with the likes of Roland Mouret and Charlotte Tilbury. But today, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement attracting global attention, she reflects on how it hasn’t always been an easy career to be part of, with disproportionately few black faces found on catwalks. She has also found herself feeling set apart by her curves, and she always struggled to find women who looked like her in the pages of magazines.

‘When I was growing up, you had Naomi, Tyra and Iman,’ she recalls. ‘So you’d think “okay, maybe I could be one of three.’ That was it! Even now, while there has obviously been a massive improvement, there's 100% way more work to do. But also, people talk about Ashley Graham and what she’s done for plus-size models, but I would love to see that movement work for women of colour. Not only am I looking at these models and thinking “they don't look like me in terms of my skin colour”, but they also don't look like me in terms of my body shape, either. I'm an African woman. I've got curves, sorry! People need to start looking at sample sizes as a as a form of discrimination, not only in terms of weight, but in terms of skin colour. You’re ruling out certain women from certain places who just don’t have that body type. What is that doing for the industry?’

Sabrina has always cared about justice and social change – she credits her mother, who emigrated to Canada, for instilling this in her - but a heightened focus on race thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement has hit her hard. She has no time for any suggestion that the reaction was anything but proportionate.

‘George Floyd was killed on the street with a knee on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, and you're going to complain that there's a riot?’ she says. ‘What is the value of a black man's life in America? The conversation is not if we need to riot: it’s how do we stop this injustice? What changes do we need to implement to make sure this doesn't happen again? I obviously don't agree with looting and violence, but there has to be this big moment for things to change. America was formed on rioting.’

Sabrina Elba shot by Idris Elba
©Idris Elba

Does she see the UK as any less racist than the US? ‘It’s just more subtle’, she says. ‘You see the aftermath of all of the systematic racial issues that are in place, through the gentrification of certain areas, or when you're the only person of colour in a restaurant. But I’m a black woman: I have never been to a country outside the African continent where I don’t feel out of place. I’ve never personally experienced an outburst of racial prejudice in London, but I’ve seen it, and you know it exists. Look at Shukri Abdi.’ Shukri, a Somalian refugee, was found drowned in a river in Bury in 2019. She was 12, and her mother claims that she had been bullied before the incident, which was witnessed by a group of children. ‘She has received no justice to this day’, Sabrina continues. ‘It's been over a year. It's unreal. I have not seen anyone on the political spectrum rise up for this young girl and it just breaks my heart. So you know racism is there.’

Sabrina met Idris in Canada whilst he was filming 2017 drama The Mountain Between Us with Kate Winslet. She was about to begin a law qualification after years of modelling and success in 2014’s Miss Vancouver pageant. But their romance saw her drop everything. ‘I had my life so planned out, and then I met this tornado of a man and fell crazy in love in just six months’, she says. ‘After that, he went back to the UK, we did a few months away from each other and it was awful. We couldn’t be apart. So I said I’d come. My mother thought I was crazy, but he’s my soulmate.’

Idris has said that it was love at first sight on meeting Sabrina. ‘Marriage has taught me so much about myself, about patience and compassion,’ she explains. ‘Especially when you're locked down together. Every couple argues, but even the arguments feel more right: we’re arguing about things of substance.’

Now, their love is inspiration for a lifestyle brand. Sable, which started as an Instagram project and will next move into podcasting, hopes to explore all aspects of relationships, from romantic to platonic to the bonds we have with brands or the way we treat our planet. She is an admirer of Goop, but it is her ‘idol’ Rihanna whose Fenty brand provides her with the most inspiration.

2020 has been a rollercoaster for both Sabrina and Idris, but she is optimistic. ‘I hope that everything we've learned this year leads to massive changes next year’, she says. ‘I think 2021 should be the year of change. Change in the justice system. Change in women’s rights. Education for children. Change politically would be nice too. We've shown ourselves we can get through anything, right?’

For more pictures from the shoot, pick up your copy of Grazia

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us