A lot of crucial conversations regarding race and racism have been prevalent in most of our minds in recent months, and examining diversity in the modeling industry is no exception. For as long as people of color have been in the modeling industry, they have faced micro-aggressions and flat out racism that no white models have ever faced. But with the current social climate the way it is, now is just as good a time as any to have brutally honest conversations and demand change throughout the fashion industry, including in the modeling industry.
Their Take: Hearing from the Models and their Experiences with Diversity in the Modeling Industry
After four years of experience as a model, Iliana Ayala has seen and experienced her fair share of microaggressions. Ayala, who is a successful plus sized model, has been featured in in Plus Model Magazine, El Diario NY Newspaper, Harlem World Magazine, and People StyleWatch Magazine, and has made it her mission is to make brands aware that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and hair types. In fact, she kick-started her modeling career largely thanks to the large following she gained on Instagram with her natural hair tutorials. After winning an Instagram contest sponsored by TRUE Model Management, Ayala signed with the agency. “I never thought I could be a plus size model because growing up I didn’t see that representation,” said Ayala. “So, when I won that contest and started getting more opportunities, I realized that representation within the plus sized community is needed.”
But of course, Ayala is not only representing the plus sized community, but also the black community. “Being a woman of a color and a plus size model has been a journey. I have experienced many micro-aggressions, and that really needs to change.” One of the most prevalent issues Ayala has faced has to do with hair and makeup; despite working in a professional capacity, and despite designers and creative directors having access to makeup artists’ and hairstylists’ resumes, Ayala has faced countless situations in which the beauty teams present are unable to do her hair and/or makeup. The makeup artists often don’t have the correct shade for her skin tone, and the hairstylists often just flat out don’t know how to work with her natural hair. “It’s not fair,” she said. “If a white model can go on set feeling beautiful, why can’t I?”
Ayala has faced this issue so often, she now shows up to set with the understanding that the beauty team probably won’t be able to help her. “I kind of just learned how to come to set makeup ready, hair ready, and have all of my own makeup just in case.” And Ayala is not the only black model to face this on a regular basis.
While playing division I volleyball in college, model Morgan Freeman decided to get back into the industry, which she left when still a small child. However, right off the bat Freeman was told that she needed to lose 20 pounds and straighten her hair. “Getting back into the industry, I felt like they were saying to me ‘yeah you can do it, but you can’t be yourself,’” said Freeman. “So, I just kind of put that dream behind me.”
It wasn’t until a few years in 2018 that Freeman decided to get back into modeling after being laid off from a corporate job. She, like Ayala, signed with TRUE Model Management, and has done campaigns for Tiffany’s, Equinox, SKIMS, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Target. While she hasn’t quite hit her two-year mark as a model, Freeman has seen some of the same issues in terms of hair and makeup that Ayala has. “I see a lot of problems with stylists being unable to do hair and makeup for black models,” she said. “It’s mind blowing to me that someone was hired and they can’t do their job. In any other fields, that would never happen.”
And this seems blatantly obvious: why would you hire a hairstylist who can’t do hair? Unfortunately, though, this has been an ongoing issue for years. Fashion industry veteran MSDENISHIA has been in the modeling industry for over 30 years. She currently focuses primarily on being a top model coach in Minneapolis, and running The Model Boutique, which represents a diverse array of models, actors, dancers, and singers. During her modeling years, MSDENISHIA did campaigns for Aveda, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Mac Cosmetics, and Macy’s, and has done shows for Bob Mackie, St John, and Tommy Hilfiger.
When she made the move from New York City to Minneapolis early in her career, MSDENISHIA immediately noticed just how different the modeling industry looked in terms of diversity. Again, none of the hair stylists and makeup artists were able to work with her, so MSDENISHIA became self-taught. “I had to change so much. I learned how to become a makeup artist, I started purchasing wigs, and that became my signature,” she said. “The people who hired me loved me because I’d show up with my hair always ready. That’s how I started getting my name out there. It was sad, but I had to up my game so that I could continue working. I took those opportunities and showed them I was worth it.”
Fortunately, MSDENISHIA has been able to make a positive impact in terms of diversity in the modeling industry, but it certainly has not come easy. After making a name for herself, MSDENISHIA was contacted by a top agency in Minneapolis to work as a runway modeling coach for some of their clients. “All of the models I coached were booked for shows after I worked with them,” she said. “But I really started to notice that I wasn’t getting any girls of color to train, so I started my own coaching business.” While growing her coaching business, MSDENISHIA asked the agency if she could put up fliers for her company, and the agency agreed…at least at first.
“I kid you not, the owner of the agency called me into her office one day and said to me, ‘we definitely don’t mind sending you people, but your flier is too urban,’” said MSDENISHIA. “They did not like the fact that I had myself on there, models of color on there, that I was trying to gain clients of color. They didn’t like that my flier had too many black people on it, including myself.” The comments were a harsh wake up call to say the least. Today, MSDENISHIA proudly coaches and represents models of all races, including many models of color.
However, it’s not just the models that face a lack of diversity in the modeling industry. Oftentimes, the entire set team and crew involved in a shoot or a campaign are white or primarily white. With around 13% of the United States population being black, Ayala argues that that representation should be present in any workplace, including the modeling industry. “Brands are profiting off of us [the black community], but in house it looks completely different,” said Ayala. Adding on this, Freeman stated, “It’s so off putting when you walk onto set and don’t see anyone who looks like you. I feel like I walk onto set and know that I am just there to check a box. They just want me to be the token black girl for this campaign and that’s it.”
Making Change: Industry Professionals Demanding and Creating Diversity in the Modeling Industry
So, how can change be made? It starts with people like Tiffany Tate, publisher of Linger Magazine. Tate, who is an award-winning creative media professional, has made diversity a priority in her publication from the very beginning. This includes her work with models and the modeling industry. “I always request to sit in on the model castings for any fashion event that we’re covering, because I want to know that they are diverse, that they are seeking talent that may be untapped.”
And Tate’s advice on how to handle racism in the modeling industry? Speak up. “I know that everybody wants to save their position, but there’s always a professional way to talk about a race issue,” she said. “I have people reach out to me after they’ve had a conversation or a confrontation and ask me if they handled the situation correctly. I always tell them, ‘the fact that you spoke up, that was the right thing to do.’”
Change also comes from designers like Kenya Smith, founder of Planet Zero Motorsports, an “innovative motorsports equipment and apparel company blending the lines between safety and Haute Couture.” Smith’s work has appeared on the runways of New York Fashion Week many times, as well in Fashion Ave News, the Village Voice, Billie Blunt Magazine, and FOX Business News.
Despite any racism Smith may have faced, he has never let it impact his work. “I set myself apart by being the best I can be. I am remembered for my work and what I did despite being black or whatever color.” He encourages others to do the same. “If you’re given an opportunity, take the opportunity. Even if you know you’re just the black token to make them feel good, take the opportunity and blow them away, change their mind, and show them that you were worth any ounce of risk.”
Fellow designer Runa Ray is no stranger to jumping at opportunities, and making her work represent something more than just herself. Ray is also a New York Fashion Week veteran, and her self-titled brand is known for its commitments to fair trade garments, organic fabrics, and zero waste initiatives. Ray is an environmentalist, writer, and activist for the United Nations on issues of climate change, nuclear war, and colorism.
What is colorism, you may ask? “Colorism is basically a term used for racial prejudice or color prejudice that exists within your own ethnicity,” said Ray. “So, someone in your own race being prejudiced against someone from the same ethnicity, but with a different skin tone.” Ray, who is originally from India, has seen instances of colorism in many races, including within her own country. However, it wasn’t always like that. “Colorism was never an issue in India until we were colonized by the British. But now, even today, you see the remnants of those prejudices.”
Ray has been working actively with the United Nations to draw attention to colorism, and hopefully eradicate it. Models of color have not only had to face racism within their profession, but have also been subject to colorism. But with people like Ray demanding change for all races, perhaps colorism is one more issue we will be able to tackle.
And while designers are demanding and creating change within their power, some of the most important voices in the modeling industry comes from the agencies. Arkeah Jacobs is the New Faces Director of HOP Models and Talent Agency, who represent models, actors, athletes, and celebrities around the world. While her agency is proud to represent diversity in any way, Jacobs admits that modern technology has helped to create some additional positive change. “Because of the internet and social media, we are starting to see more opportunities for models of color because of how agencies are booking talent,” said Jacobs. “If brands seem unwilling to give opportunities, you can create your own thanks to things like social media.”
Dale Noelle, founder and CEO of TRUE Model Management (who both Ayala and Freeman are signed with), would agree with this. “I think technology has been a positive help. We have more data and we can hear from models and brands through social media.” Noelle, who is a model herself and has been featured in Bloomberg, Forbes, Fox Business News, Worldwide Business with Kathy Ireland, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times, has made inclusivity and diversity a priority since the beginning of TRUE Model Management, which was somewhat rare when they first started. “The industry is starting to take steps in the right direction, we just need to accelerate a little more.”
So, what can you do to join the conversation and demand change? According to government affairs consultant Hilary Jochmans, getting involved in politics is a great step. Jochmans, is the founder of Politically in Fashion, a community focused on legislative issues of importance for all people interested in fashion. “Things that start at the federal government level often trickle down into the private sector,” said Jochmans. For example, there is currently a bill in congress called the “Diversity in Corporate Leadership Act of 2019,” which has been receiving a lot of support. By reaching out to your local congressman or congresswoman and expressing support for this bill, you really are getting your voice heard and are impacting positive change in not just the model industry, but every business in corporate America.
And of course, the road to change will be long, and more conversations will have to happen, but demanding diversity in the modeling industry is not going away, not as far as these panelists are concerned. “You don’t have to clean house and get rid of everyone, but brands and businesses should really start looking at who their next intern class is going to be or who their next hires are going to be. There are so many ways to get people of color involved in the industry,” said Freeman. “This issue has been ongoing for hundreds of years. We’re naïve to think that one incident is going to set us all straight. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take endurance, and you have to keep the fight going.”
And so, the fight goes on.
For more information on the Diversity in Corporate Leadership Act of 2019, click here.
And to find out who your local representative is and how to contact them, click here.
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