It’s a grey and drizzly afternoon on London’s Brick Lane, but in the colorful Cereal Killer Café, the Berhane twins snap, crackle and pop with a fizzy brand of good-natured irritation.
They’re telling stories in British Sign Language about the challenges that led them to create Being Her, their vibrant, globally-popular fashion blog, an internet and Instagram sensation that has propelled them to celebrity status in their native Eritrea.
“In the fashion world, we still feel a bit invisible and side-lined,” says Hermi (whose sign name is Curly Hair, a gesture like a flowing river).
“But it’s funny, because slowly their attitude has changed… They look at our story and the work that we’re doing, and it’s starting to inspire them.”
The twins fell suddenly and profoundly deaf at seven years old, on the same day, because of an undiagnosed illness, and their mother rushed them to the USA and UK in search of an answer.
It was in Brighton, on the English south coast, that their worlds eventually opened up through sign language.
“We found our identity at boarding school,” says Heroda (sign name: Long Eyelashes, the panache of an elegantly scooped finger).
“Sign language was so beautiful, and the deaf community just became our family. Within the hearing world, it can be very lonely. As soon as we were in that deaf world, we fitted in – it was where we belonged.”
Both studied fashion design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, but often felt isolated and misunderstood.
“We were determined to get through the course, we really wanted to stick at it, so we focused on the work,” says Heroda. “But it really affected our confidence. We were viewed as ‘less than’; they doubted we could achieve the same as them.”
After a series of knock-backs after graduation, when the twins experienced rejection at the job interview stage or being passed up for promotion, they had had enough. Their blog was born, the success of which still fazes some members of the hearing community.
“They email us telling us they can help us to hear and be more successful,” Hermi says. “And we’re like, ‘Hello? We’re successful bloggers! Can you not read?’ Just because we are deaf, they think we’re dumb.”
The blog (and its Instagram account) is a giddy celebration of joyful vibrancy and individuality; while they insist their photographs and style selections are not meticulously planned, their fashion shoots pulse with a focused understanding of contrast and color. There’s even a hilariously spooky Halloween photo story, with the undead twins accessorized with matching zombie-babies.
With representation by The Presley Group in Los Angeles recently secured, the future for the twins looks as bright as their outfits (they’re as effortlessly stunning in jeans and sparkly motorcycle jackets as in heels and flowing geometric tribal prints).
“Our aim is to have a brand, we want to have collaborations and sponsorship,” says Heroda. “And we want to do some motivational speaking for people with disabilities, just to show them that they don’t need to have low self-esteem, they can be confident in themselves.”
It is touching that almost by way of illustration, the twins turn and address each other with their signing when they respond to these questions – a sisterly feedback loop of affirmation and reinforcement.
“Within the deaf community there are so few role models that other deaf people can look up to,” Heroda says. “So we really want to be there, to be able to support people, so that they can look up to somebody and think, ‘oh yeah, in the future, I can do that, I can achieve my dreams’.”
In tandem, they also hope for more understanding of deaf awareness in the hearing world.
“Signing is physical, it’s visual, it relies quite a lot on facial expressions and a positive vibe,” says Hermi. “So that’s one of the aims of our blog – we want to educate people on what sign language means, and give them a sense of deaf awareness. People need to be more open-minded. That’s been a problem for so long and it just still seems to be there. Not just in the fashion industry but within the work culture in offices, and all sorts of places.”
“A while ago, we met someone who told us they had seen us on Instagram, and started to learn sign language because of us,” Heroda says. “And that’s really so important. I used to be so shy. I would always hide and put my hair over my ears. Now I feel so optimistic.”
Their escalating popularity in Eritrea, and its neighbor Ethiopia, is also having a constructive impact.
“They are very supportive of us,” says Hermi. “Because in Eritrea, there isn’t much awareness about disabilities, and sometimes they think deafness is associated with evil. We’ve been able to show them deafness in a new light, and now they’re like, ‘oh wow! Those two twin girls!”
They are terrific company; there is an infectious air of mischief about them, and it flourishes in their blog as an essential ingredient in their charismatic energy.
“If you’re feeling a bit down, and you see somebody whose lives look happy, it draws you to them,” says Hermi. “And we hope that’s what our followers see in us every day.”
It’s time for the shoot (in which they will giggle and tease each other throughout), but they say they want to wrap up with a resolute message, a provocative takeaway for a new audience.
“Being deaf isn’t a barrier,” they say, shifting in their chairs, outwards towards the world. “And neither is being scared.”