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  • Writer's pictureKamla-Kay McKenzie

Racism & inequality towards Black models: fashion industry trend

As a Black, Jamaican model who has booked over 40 national TV commercials and countless print jobs where roles ranged from swimming with sharks in the Bahamas, snuggled with a faux model husband in a hammock for a luxury hotel or playing the role of a new mom for a car commercial, it seems I have accomplished a great feat in my years as a model.

In some regards I have.

But within an industry that values White/fair-skinned models and models who are considered mixed race or ethnically ambiguous with European features, the inequality and lack of inclusivity is so vast that we tend to book substantially less work as a Black model.

Many think that because I have green eyes that I must be one of the Black models who has it easier.

Not so.

I have 4C coily kinky hair texture and a skin-tone that is still too dark for many clients and agencies.

While I have the eyes, "all" that I am now missing is softer hair, lighter skin and more European features.

Which often causes me to wear a wig to fit their preferences.

black model sitting down looking at camera
Model Kamla-Kay straight hair wig

The daily experiences of a Black model at work on set has a clear disparity than that of White models.

As a Black model, you often wish to speak up on sets but are afraid you will be labeled as "difficult" to work with if you question the team as a result of a potential cultural appropriation decision being made or the way your make-up or hair turned out.

Will the client call your agency and complain about your "behavior" on set for asking questions and voicing concerns?

Will that client ever book you again?

Will your agency stop trying to book you for paying jobs in fear THEY will lose their partnerships if you create "friction" with clients?

On most days, you arrive to set wearing a perfectly curled wig because you've been asked before by some clients if you could make your natural hair not as "messy" - so you go with what seems to be the safest choice.

Or in other circumstances based on the client, you stress all night before a job wondering what to do with your natural hair because the client stated on the call sheet that models are to arrive to set with clean, dry hair that has no product.

But because you have afro kinky natural hair, YOU KNOW that if you omit the products after washing your hair that it will be dry, brittle and nearly impossible to comb the next day.

Showing up as they requested is definitely bound to cause a "crisis" moment with your hair type for a team who is on a tight schedule to get the models prepped and ready to shoot.

But they don't know this since they don't understand your hair type.

After all the ponder of trying to follow directions but knowing the reality of the situation, you opt to do a twist out on your hair WITH PRODUCT and disregard the no product in the hair message because you already know what time it is.

--- Black girl natural kinky hair typically needs product or we are guaranteed to have a "what to do" questions and comments situation on set --

Your instincts were right!

You show up to work the next day and the stylist is thrilled that you decided to do your own hair -- one less awkward moment where they don't have to pretend they were going to nail your hair had they needed to style it.

black model with natural hair posing in all black outfit
Kamla-Kay's natural 4C hair

You are less stressed since you avoided any potential tension.

But you can't help but be amazed that the other model, the White model, showed up to set with wet hair and no one seemed to care that they had extra work to do to prep her hair for the day.

That could have never been your testimony.

It's now time to get in the make-up chair and you are fretting. Will this make-up artist know how to match your skin tone or will you be in this print ad so disappointed in your foundation to where you hide from showing everyone the amazing job that you booked?

One day you look up and you are thrilled. This make-up artist killed it. Your heartbeat can slow to a normal pace.

But in other bookings, you gingerly tell the make-up artist that your foundation doesn't match your skin tone only to get told that it's only the "weird" lighting in the room that is causing you to look ashy.

But we all know what no one is saying -- they didn't have your correct foundation color.

Over and over you speak your concerns about a fashion industry that favors White models and of the inept ability of many make-up artists and hair stylists who have little to no experience working with Black models.

But no one takes heart to your concerns enough to do anything about it.

No one does because these are all concerns that you only think of in your head and never voice.

You never speak them publicly because you are scared of the backlash and fear of losing work.

Except you voice it to the other Black models who run the same laundry list of questions and thoughts like a broken record in their heads in order to prepare for a job - or to try to prove themselves each time they go to a casting.

It's only between us because clearly no one has cared enough to make a change even when prominent Black supermodels such as Tyra Banks, Winnie Harlow and Duckie Thot have spoken out about the inequalities and lack of preparedness as it relates to valuing Black models.

Clients, modeling agencies and brands (most, but not all) have failed Black models continuously with the blatant disregard for the skillsets and beauty that we bring to an industry despite the profits that they make as a result of the spending power of Black people or people of color.

As what is seen in many industries and professions, our White counterparts run circles around Black models in the amount of work they book and in the rates paid to them by clients not as a result of our capabilities but as a result of an unspoken, yet actionable practice, taken by agents and clients who prefer White models and deem them as more marketable for sales.

Leading to the idea by many (based on actions) that White models are more desirable and one could conclude thus more superior to that of Black models as it relates to how the two races are viewed.

Some agencies and clients alike preach their love for diversity and inclusivity but do so with a limited acceptance.

Yet there is space for change. Space to create open dialogue on the subjects at hand.

Even if it feels uncomfortable at times to acknowledge the truth.

Still not convinced of the disparity in preference and treatments?

By visiting many modeling agency websites, you can quickly scroll to see that an agency may have over 85-90% blondes, brunettes and overall lighter-skinned models (some of whom could pass as sisters) yet will have a small handful of Black models.

And the chosen Black models are often those who are mixed race with more European features and softer textured hair.

These agencies frequently tell Black models who have entered the agency for what is called an open call "sorry we already have your look" and therefore that model is not offered a contract.

In the ears of a Black model this response typically means, "we have already met our unstated quota of Black models on our agency board" and not because ANY of the other Black models truly have their same look.

This is often why most Black models wear wigs and weaves because that is the only way to get signed to some agencies & book work unless they naturally have more mix raced features.

Without a full representation of ALL shades of Black models with varied hair types being represented by modeling agencies, in some regard, this is why make-up artists and hair stylists are inexperienced with producing quality work on Black models when White models predominantly are the ones placed in their chair.

But this is no excuse!

As proclaimed professionals, it is the job of stylists and make-up artists to execute their craft effectively regardless of who is presented to them.

When agencies only sign majority White models or lighter skinned models, clients are exposed to less of a range of looks.

This results in campaigns and ads that often don't reflect the people who are largely the ones buying their products.

Yet if clients are not keen to hire more Black models, agencies will not be as motivated to sign them.

One could then conclude that therefore, agencies and clients both must be open to more inclusion of all races within their agency and campaign ads, in all shades and hair types and not just a preference for lighter models.

It is a slap in the face to work 2x as hard developing a portfolio only to be told we are not good enough.

Knowing that some White models do not have nearly as good of a portfolio yet get more chances of a contract simply because of the color of their skin.

It is exhausting.

It is discouraging.

But change does not happen with dialogue only among the people who see the problem at hand.

An overhaul of the modeling and fashion industry begins when agencies, clients, brands, make-up artists and stylists all begin to take ownership and value the need for diversity.

The sad part of the industry is that many hear these concerns and get defensive - a little fire builds inside them as these topics are voiced.

Those reactions however are a sign that these are valid concerns that one may not be willing to admit.

So instead they are buried and dismissed.

But to the agencies, clients and professional teams who want to hear, who want to make a change not because it is trendy or to SEEM inclusive but who value TRUE reform, THANK YOU.

THANK YOU to the agencies, stylists, make-up artists whom I HAVE worked with who made me feel just as valued as my white counterparts. Thank you for the teams who matched my foundation properly.

And while wigs can be great to protect my natural hair from manipulation damage, thank you to those who loved my natural hair way more than my wigs.

On the contrary, to the agencies, stylists, make-up artists who made me feel less than because I was Black, because I wasn't ethnically ambiguous enough or because my hair wasn't soft enough to their liking, time's up.

More agencies should represent hair stylists and make-up artists of color who are familiar with all hair types and skin colors.

Knowing how to style straight hair weave on a Black model does not equate to them also being able to style a kinky afro.

Inclusivity doesn't mean a token few who meet a set and limited criteria.

We are not demanding to be treated better.

Black models just want to be treated EQUAL.

And while I am at it, Asian models also get the short end of the stick in the fashion industry.

Asian, Black, Latino, Hispanic, mixed race and White models are ALL marketable.

Truth and openness brings about change.

You can't ask for feedback and not be willing to change.

Fashion industry, you have work to do.

I remain hopeful!

beauty makeup black model


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