Open Letter in the Sunday Times Style:I have been working as a model for more than three years. I’ve been photographed for Italian Vogue, Dazed & Confused and ID. I’ve modelled at Paris, New York and London Fashion Weeks, but I haven’t done Milan Fashion Week. I’ve heard from other black models that it’s much harder to get work in Milan. The successful black girls don’t even bother travelling there for castings, because they know they won’t do as well, even if they’ve walked for great designers in all the other cities. Even people from Milan will say that the fashion market there is very behind. They’d rather stick with what they know.
I’ve only had one racist comment made directly at me. I’d gone to a casting for a London fashion designer, I can’t say who. They just said: “We only want pale-skinned girls to be in our show.” To be honest, I didn’t feel emotional about it. I just thought: “Well, it’s not my fault. That’s their opinion. They are out of date, and in time, they’ll have to change; they can’t continue with that perspective.”
When I started at Premier Models, Carole [White, the founder] warned me that some designers would have outdated views, and that it’s not personal. Annie [Wil*shaw, her booker at Premier] is bored with it: she says black girls have to work twice as hard to get picked up. Actually, it made me feel better that they raised the issue with me, that they weren’t awkward about it. And Annie is right: it is a lot harder for us. If a show uses 20 girls, there’ll only be space for two ethnic minorities — if that. There’s nothing to stop a fashion designer using only white girls in a show. There’s no union representation for models, and a designer can do whatever works for them.
Even though it may not be right, fashion portrays what people want to be; it reflects society, it’s the world we live in The preference for white skin seems to happen especially if a designer has been in the industry for a long time. But it’s a generalised mentality among fashion houses — they used to have mostly white customers, so it made sense to have white models, but now there are many more eastern Europeans, Asians and women from the Middle East buying fashion. The houses are struggling to adjust to the new market. It’s also possibly recession-related. In any time of rapid social change, people stick to what they know, and in fashion that’s the white girl.
“Shadeism” definitely exists: there are different attitudes to different shades of black. Lighter-skinned models are used more than darker-skinned ones, and if darker models are used, it tends to be for a traditional African look.
When designers create an African or tribal print, they’ll get a black girl to model it. I’d say I was in the middle of the spectrum — I’m dark-skinned, but I don’t have traditional African features, so I tend not to be stereotyped. There can also be problems with hair and make-up. Hair stylists never pack black hair products, because they don’t expect to see black girls. They can be scared to work with our hair. I wouldn’t call it racism; it’s just that finding real black hair is rare. Make-up is improving — girls such as Jourdan Dunn and Ajak doing well has helped — but sometimes, when my make-up is finished, it doesn’t look as nice as it does on white skin. They don’t know how to adjust to our skin tone.
You’ll find bitchy models, but it’s not because of race, it’s just their personality. I’ve never had any comments that have made me feel uncomfortable. Once you’ve got the job, everyone just behaves normally. I read about James Brown’s comments. [He repeatedly called the black presenter Ben Douglas a N%%% and his female companion a N%%%’s bitch, following the Baftas ceremony.] Maybe he was trying to be funny, but using that word is not cool, and it’s pretty out of date to find it funny. I’ve actually met James Brown — he was nice and asked me about my mother. He didn’t seem racist to me. When people are drunk, they say things they don’t mean. Things always go wrong when people aren’t in their right mind. Especially if you’re in the public eye, you’ll always get caught out. And if you’re in the public eye, you have a responsibility not to offend.
Even though it may not be right, fashion portrays what people want to be; it reflects society, it’s the world we live in. The idea of fashion looking better on white skin is associated with an old sense of elitism, yet society has become much more diverse. In time, I think fashion will change.
Fashion is always outrageous, though, and famously politically incorrect. The bitchiness is part of that outrageousness. If fashion stuck to the rules, it wouldn’t be such a big industry. Even if racism went away completely, they would find something else to be outrageous about. I would like to see fashion be more open and less prejudiced to different ethnicities, but it is the way it is because it’s such an exclusive world. Its exclusivity is why people want to be in it. If fashion had a broader perspective of beauty, would there be such a thing as a supermodel?
As it is now, if a black girl does well, it’s seen as more of an achievement. That’s what drives me to succeed. I don’t think talking about racism in fashion will change anything. Even if fashion changes, it’s not going to change the world. I’d rather just have a positive attitude. If I were feeling discriminated against, I might go into a casting thinking I’m not going to get this job. It’s negativity that will disadvantage me.