Recently, African model Nykhor Paul posted a rant on Instagram about her frustration with MUAs not knowing how to do her make up. This caused a lot of controversy mostly due to the fact that her complaint began with, “Dear white people,” contained profanity, and was very direct (read: truth with no sugar-coating). Comments found in response to this ranged from people understanding and being frustrated for her to people suggesting that as a model she should trust the vision of the designer and if make up is done on her a certain way it is because it is what was desired.
The first problem here is that the people making those comments (at least those I saw) were neither black, models, designers, or involved in the fashion world in any way. They were speculating. Their views about the issue, made apparent with subsequent comments involving negative and racially-driven verbiage, were very narrow. While I definitely would have expressed myself in a more diplomatic way, I agree with what Nykhor said and will explain why.
Having modeled for over a decade I have had plenty of experience with make up artists being dumbfounded when they see me walk through the door, realizing they were in for a challenge. At least half the time I have gone to a booking, be it a fashion show, photo shoot, or event, the make up artist(s) assigned to me clearly did not know how to tend to my dark skin and to top it off, they didn’t even have my color on their palette!
When the mixing of colors has been needed, about six out of ten times the end result has not matched my face so I either ended up looking like a drag queen or a ghost. I often have had to discreetly find a mirror and do extensive damage control, using the make up that I always brought with me in preparation for this very type of situation. On one occasion a designer actually complained about the horrible job the make up artist did seeing that she obviously did not follow the vision described to her. The MUA in question actually covered my neck and forehead with red coloring to deflect from the fact that she had no dark foundation or powder with her at all.
But most of the modeling I’ve done has taken place in the predominately “white” Southern California. I use to think that, surely, this was why this happened so much and it must be different in other markets, especially in the fashion capitals of the World. So young. So naive…
The more I have learned about the fashion industry the more I realize just how much racism, even subtle, plays a huge role in its execution. Just last year I was booked to be a model on an episode in the comeback season of a popular TV show only to find out the day before the shoot that I was taken off of the booking. The reason? The booking manager said the network told her she had, “booked too many ethnic models.” I’m not exaggerating. This is what she told me, verbatim.
She apologized and said it wasn’t up to her but that certainly didn’t make a difference to me. I was more annoyed than anything else, mainly because she had previously mixed things up and booked me for the wrong date of another popular show. I was excited about being “chosen” but couldn’t go because I was already booked for a photo shoot, that day. It wasn’t until I told my aunt (pictured on the right), a former model and actress, about the incident that I realized why I should have actually been disappointed. She was appalled and suggested I could have easily made a justifiably big deal about it (you know, laws and all of that), especially since I had all of the evidence in a chain of emails. This hadn’t even occurred to me. I had become so use to discrimination, having grown up being the only black girl in the class, show, fill-in-the-blank… that I didn’t even see it for what it was.
My aunt went on to tell me about things like that happening back when she was modeling in the 70s. She was told she should be grateful to have the opportunities she was being given because it wasn’t usual for a black model to have success (I’m paraphrasing but you get the idea).
As awful as that sounds, I expect to hear things like that having happened not so long after segregation was officially abolished in America. But now? What I don’t expect is for people to be so complacent about the fact that in the fashion industry, a certain level of segregation still exists. And when black models are present they are often there because they are deemed exotic (i.e. nice to have around as a token).
When I say that there is show after show with full lineups of only, or mostly, Caucasian models, this also means there are few, or no, dark-skinned Latinos, Indians, Brazilians, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians… the list really goes on to include any person of color. So I was initially quite pleased when I stumbled upon a runway show displaying not only beautiful Indian-inspired clothing but model after model who appeared to be of Indian decent. It wasn’t until the show was almost over when I realized that every model in that show was lighter than a brown paper bag, and none of them were African. What other races were represented in this show? Asians and Caucasians.
I am well aware of this seemingly global fixation with light skin and an overwhelming disdain for dark skin. Skin bleaching is a common practice in many different places including Jamaica, India, China, and Africa. In certain cultures and parts of the world, having light skin (at least in ancient history -16th century China, for example) meant that you weren’t out working in the fields, suggesting a certain level of affluence and nobility. Being of this aristocratic social cast was desirable for many reasons, and understandably so. But we all know that the closer you get to the equator, the darker the skin of the inhabitants of the land. And the darker the skin the more melanin, which means a higher SPF in the skin. Yes, folks, I have natural sunscreen built into my body. Jealous?
So if skin pigmentation is directly related to the parts of the world where our ancestors thrived and is not an indicator of true worth, intelligence, or beauty, why do people still look down on dark skin? And why is this stigma and all of its nasty side effects still prevalent in the fashion world? Why is it that we are still stuck in the 70s? Why is it that often when a magazine issue is filled with models of African decent the cover also says something like the “all black” issue or contains articles about the history of black models (you know, because we can’t just fill a magazine with black people and not have a specific reason for it)?
Why are white models still being bronzed to represent African beauties when there are plenty of actual working African models who are breathtakingly beautiful? And why do I still, after 14 years of modeling, have to bring my own make up to a set not because it’s something most models should do anyway but because I know there is a 98% chance that the make up artist(s) won’t know what to do with me? Or why is it that I feel the need to relax, blow dry, and flat iron my naturally curly (read: African) hair in order to be “show ready”? I don’t know… perhaps it’s because I am often instructed to come to set with straight hair?
A few years ago I was being professionally courted by two men from a company that wanted to manage my modeling career. Upon our first sit-down meeting I was actually told that my look was really marketable because I did not have “typical black features” and that was considered to be really good for the industry. This is where my years of training on how to not realize when someone is being racist to your face came into play. But if I were to write about all of my ridiculous encounters revolving around racial biases in the industry, we could be here forever.
What’s probably the most frustrating thing about the issue of race in fashion is that when we, those being affected by the very nonsensical racism that still exists in an industry that is meant to be fun and progressive… when we actually speak up about the lack of color in the modeling and fashion worlds, there are still many people who label us confrontational. There were quite a few people who not only accused Nykhor of acting like a victim, with her rant mentioned at the beginning of this post, but went on to say that black people, in general, often do the same. My response to the first ignorant comment I saw, because I just couldn’t help myself, was the following:
“I see good points on both sides of the argument, here. There does come a point when enough is enough. The fashion industry, as a whole, is very lopsided when it comes to giving dark-skinned models the opportunity to work. It is very frustrating and extremely unnecessary. It forces a lot of people to either deal with it and hope for the best, start their own business in the fashion world so they can help steer things in a different direction, or find another profession. Racism has been highly prevalent in the industry for decades. It’s amazing that we are still dealing with it, in 2015. Agencies say designers want Caucasian models. Designers say agencies aren’t bringing them models of color so they aren’t being given a choice to book them. Some even say black people don’t patronize so they don’t feel the need to market to them. Something just doesn’t add up, here. People need to start taking ownership for their real reasons behind not being inclusive to all people of color. Please, tell us how we can change things because many efforts have been made yet here we are still being told, “We don’t need any ethnic models for this show. “”
Have we humans reached a plateau in our evolution, when it comes to race and skin color? Is there no hope for us to ever have racial equality? Are we doomed to live in a world where people forget (or are never taught) that we all come from the same place and from the same first humans to ever exist? Or will humans the world over realize that race is a social construct, making racial prejudices extremely illogical?
I hope one day I will be able to say to younger generations, “You wouldn’t believe the things black models use to experience in the industry. You guys are lucky!”
A girl can dream, can’t she?
Photo Credit: Lucid Eyes Photography, Mark V Photography, Ivan S. Harris Photography, unknown – Kimberly Lola in the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week