Leonie Sherif

Leonie Sherif

Women of colour are not a trend, that's the bottom line

Would this comment (stated by world renowned supermodel Naomi Campbell) just happen to simply set the record straight on the age old issue of racism within our often fickle industry of fashion and modelling? A harsh reality and insight spoken by one who has seen it, experienced it and battled it, as the most recognised and successful model of colour. She continues 'it's a pity that people don't always appreciate black beauty.'
Is this attitude something that should be accepted and tolerated in this ever competitive industry? The modelling world is discriminative enough with restrictions on height and age from leading agencies, and the oh-so-important requirement of an appearance, which suggests the ideal image of beauty to be that of a human with malnutrition (hence the ever popular size zero craze!)

On top of all of this, it is simply laughable that a model who possesses a skin tone of colour can often be segregated from the mainstream of the industry and will have a tougher job at breaking through based on the colour of their skin because they are seen to have a look which is not of a 'trend'.

Some may think that this is an over exaggeration, as recently more coloured models are emerging. Rising stars such as Jourdan Dunn, and Chanel Iman are in the process of becoming household names, which is a positive development and the emergence of Asian/oriental models such as Tao Okamoto is uplifting. But what would everyone say if Lily Cole and Rosie Huntington along with a couple of others were the only names of white models that most people could remember? It would seem alien, unheard of, wouldn't it?

It strikes me that a general view seems to be that we are supposed to be grateful that we can name a handful of Black or Asian models, but if it were the other way around, there would be outrage! It would seem to not make sense! Is modelling not an international industry? Is the world not made up of a multitude of nationalities and not just white/European faces? So why is there a persistence to favour this appearance over a face of colour? Shouldn't we all have equal opportunities and shouldn't the industry want to embrace the entire spectrum and not just one part of it?

It's a pity that ignorance leads to unwillingness in many corners to change the clichés of the representation of beauty because fundamentally a model is used to represent/promote a positive idea (a brand, a product, a garment/fragrance or accessory) which will appear attractive to its consumer. So in the realms of Fashion, Commercials, Lifestyle or in Glamour, why is there such a lack of colourful faces, from Asian to bi/multiracial, to Afro-Caribbean and African faces. It is evident from the 'faces' of most fashion houses, to those of commercial and beauty/hair brands, to the 3rd page of your tabloid newspaper that there is a reluctance to use a coloured representative!

As a model of colour myself, possessing quite a unique mix in heritage of half Caribbean a quarter Arab and two eighth's comprising of Chinese and Seychellois, I am speaking based on experience when I say that prejudice against race is most certainly a reality in the industry and is an issue which needs to be addressed, if the industry is to ever evolve past its clichés.

I can recall so many moments where I have had to question the normality and audacity in certain incidences during modelling work I have undergone. One very memorable moment was when I did a fashion show featuring about fifteen models, three of which were black (including myself) and two of which were of Asian heritage, there were three hair and make-up artists (MUA) present. As I watched them begin on the makeup and hairstyling I was extremely impressed with the time and effort they were spending on the models - a minimum of two hours each - and the creativity of the hair styles they were formulating were stunning; from tight bouncing ringlet curls to back combed quiff's and chunky plaits (did I mention that they were styling the Caucasian models…?). I was the first of the coloured models for them to work on. Upon sitting down I can specifically remember the head MUA commenting 'Fifteen minutes max on her!' As the MUA began to apply my base, I couldn't believe what I was hearing: fifteen minutes in comparison to two hours! 'What was going on?' I thought. Then the MUA nervously said to me, 'I'm really sorry, I've never done "coloured" skin before,' - as if coloured skin was some rarity found only on an unknown land from an unknown time. Still I appreciated that she had informed me of this and tried to do the best with the fifteen minutes that she had been instructed she had but I was deeply insulted and hurt by the situation and wasn't at all pleased with the end result! She didn't touch my hair, and it was in a very manageable state just clean and straightened - what was she so afraid of?

I then realised that there was to be no attempt whatsoever to style any of black models' hair and so we had to do this ourselves and the makeup was kept to the bare minimum, in great contrast to the beautiful, bold statements in colour that was used on the faces of the white models. Once again I can appreciate that hair might be something that would seem difficult to someone who was unfamiliar and didn't usually deal with this texture of hair, but would it not make more sense to have had a more versatile stylist who could cater to all hair types? The irony was that the black models were wearing weaves which were in fact European human hair, so in actual fact, there was no excuse for the lack of effort when it came to styling the black models' hair. Even the Asian girls had very simplistic hair styling, with not much effort in my opinion and there was no excuse for that because the texture was similar if not pretty much the same as that of the white models.

If it weren't for the stylist of the show insisting that the make up/hair stylists fix me up and give me 'more' (as she belted out in frustration after already sending me back to them twice, before she was even half pleased with my look) then I would have had to make an impression on the catwalk feeling extremely uncomfortable and unconfident and not because I had a complex about the way that I looked but because I wouldn't have been given the chance to be able to deliver on an equal footing to the majority of the models, thus setting me as a 'model of colour' at a disadvantage!

So why are incidents like this taking place?

The main issue here is that there seems to be conformity when dealing with models of colour to segregate them, rather than to integrate them within the mainstream and grand scheme of things. Black and mixed raced models are often scouted, for use in the 'urban scene' so to speak. Not that there is anything wrong with this at all - I've featured in my share of underground projects, music videos and I see nothing wrong with involvement in any project that you feel will benefit you as a model and help you to grow in experience or that you are happy to be a part of. But it does raise an issue: when these beauties are required mainly/only for use in this one context, it is disempowering to think that they may only be considered for this one type of assignment, which is generally not very well paid and this becomes a cause of segregation.

There are a number of attractive, sexy and professional models of colour who should be considered for lead roles in the likes of music videos in the mainstream Pop/RnB culture, for big name artists, but you find that they often only get a look in on the underground scene, as if they are cheap labour and are then often portrayed in a particular light, which may make them unappealing to the mainstream. They are pigeonholed into a type of cliché. In the same way that you'll mainly see 6ft tall, size four female's dominating a high fashion (Haute Couture) runway you'll mainly see curvaceous skimpily clad ethnic models stuck in grime videos been dominated by alpha males or simply with the purpose of ennobling male egos.
I am by no means talking of all urban/grime videos of course, I'm talking of the type where a female model is expected only to pose and be portrayed in the stance of what Tyra Banks refers to as 'Hoochie Mama' on her successful show (America's next top model) when she is attempting to correct the body language or position perpetuated by a model who is not conveying a standard of class.

Even the ethnic glamour scene isn't popular in the mainstream, yet you'll always see busty blondes and brunettes represented. For a model of colour whose forte or preference is in this area there is very little opportunity there. When was the last time you picked up a tabloid newspaper and saw a black girl on page three or in a popular lads' mag? Are women of colour not viewed in the context of male fantasies? I highly doubt it, as all types of men are attracted to all types of women and women of colour naturally possess curves which are of course viewed as womanly and sexy. How many times have the likes of Halle Berry and Beyoncé featured in FHM's sexiest women polls? The last FHM 100 sexiest women featured slum dog millionaire Asian beauty Freida Pinto in the Top Ten, so why the reluctance to portray ethnic women in mainstream glamour or lingerie if there is a gap in the market to cater to all tastes? Obviously there are ethnic glamour models but particularly in the UK there is little opportunity for them and they are pigeonholed and categorised as urban glamour models, why not just glamour/lingerie models? Once again it is an issue of segregation and not integration!

There is an emergence of agencies attempting to promote models of colour by focusing only on models of ethnic origin, and only taking ethnic models onto their books. This has opened positive doorways for some models and has helped them to break into the industry but once again there is the question of whether this approach is integrating models into the mainstream or, once again, unintentionally segregating them. J. Alexander, runway coach on TV's 'America's Next Top Model' comments 'the standard for using black models is "two girls, three maximum" per show' so evidently there is still a persistence to keep ethnicity on the runway to the BARE minimum.

I have heard complaints from girls within 'ethnic' agencies saying that the darker models are always favoured when it comes to high fashion and the lighter girls for commercials, which in itself is segregation amongst ethnic models. There tends to be a certain look when it comes to high fashion which is favoured, dare I say, when bookers and casters are looking for an ethnic model and an agency will always adhere to that, putting forward the ethnic model they think best represents this look, as shown when J. Alexander continues 'And you normally get one to make it clear that she is obviously dark too so they don't get any lip from journalists or any backlash for being racist.' Is this the best way to integrate coloured models into the mainstream of the fashion world?

It's a great achievement for an ethnic model to get a job for the likes of make up brand Sleek or for Dark and Lovely. It's a success within the ethnic market but does it balance the issues raised by events with a very well known French hair brand with the slogan 'your worth it'? The highest court of France found them guilty of racial discrimination after a revelation that they had sought an all white team of sales staff to promote their shampoos. It was also revealed that their beauty products division tried to keep Black, Asian and Arab women from selling their products in French supermarkets.

Was there some sordid agenda behind this? Are we to assume that they felt that Black, Asian and Arab women wouldn't represent the customs of their company? Why then is Beyoncé formally used as one of their cover girls and why do they have Hollywood actress Kerry Washington and successful model Noemi Lenoir as spokesmodels for the brand? Is this an attempt to integrate and encourage universal appeal after the outrage? Encouraging words from the stunning Noemi Lenoir suggest so: 'We live in a more and more diverse world and the notion of beauty is evolving.' If it is, then 'hooray!' for this positive advancement, 'can we keep it up please?'

The barriers need to be broken down. Sometimes I wonder if we're going backwards rather than moving forwards. When I hear the comments of Vietnamese designer Thuy Diep saying 'my clothes transcend ethnicity,' it at first sounds positive. But she then continues, 'My samples are a certain size and they have to fit right … and that's more important than having one black person and one Asian person.' Surely a designer should have the willingness to cater to a broader range of shape and not just a 'certain size'. That is why I admire the likes of cutting edge designer, the late and remarkable Alexander McQueen whose designs transcended a certain size as well as colour. I applaud the efforts of Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) who was the first designer to use black models in his runway shows, and one of the first to use Asian and Pacific Islander models.

I can only hope that the industry of modelling and fashion can develop a willingness to evolve past its unyielding clichés by opening its eyes to the diversity of beauty and the beauty of diversity! An attempt to represent an unbiased and realistic view of success, trend and beauty, should come from creative concepts and innovation, not deriving from a one dimensional type but with a solid universal appeal!

With this attitude models of colour can start to move away from segregated clichés and be successfully integrated into the mainstream.

Models of colour, it's time for integration!