“Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss.”
So, let me give everyone the quick run down of what I have been up before I jump into answering the pressing questions everyone has asked after my last blog post.
In case you had not heard, my endeavors as a model recently took a detour down a path towards acting. More specifically, the road had taken me back to Africa. After my recent trip to Morocco, I returned my focus towards studies of South Sudan. In June I was asked to feature in a film titled, “Sons of War”. The film focuses on the war in South Sudan, personal values, and the importance of fighting with honor. The opening scene of the film has been completed and shown to the government of South Sudan for approval. I am honored that many of you thought I would make a great actor. But for those of you who are familiar with my understanding of the subject know that it was thoughts of Darfur that carried me through the scene.
Scene from ‘Sons of War’ directed by John Kanno
I hate to tease but I will share more details about ‘Sons of War’ later since I really want to get to answering your questions. So let’s get to it, shall we? Over the last few months, I have been confronted with the question of diversity and how it has affected my goals as a model. Now, i thought it was rather coincidental that I was interviewed by the Republic of China’s New Tang Dynasty Television on the state of diversity in television, film, and fashion only a few weeks ago. Shortly after the interview, I told you about model and actor Djimon Hounsou and how inspirational he has been in my modeling career. Apparently, you, the readers had been paying attention and want to know more about my opinions on race as it applies to the modeling industry.
Hopefully this will be the blog post that opens a discusion often ignored around the world:
How important is diversity to you?
Diversity is extremely important to me. Like I mentioned in my earlier blog post, I always find it encouraging when I see luxury brands embrace models from ethnic groups we are not used to seeing… especially when they are featured as “the face” of a brand. Buyers should be able to see themeselves reflected in advertisements, storefronts, or publications. When I see models in advertisements that reflect me, I am more likely to consider what the luxury brand is trying to sell. I also pay closer attention to the message the luxury brand is trying to promote. We learn from diversity. During my short tenure as a model, I have had opportunities to travel to different countries and see a cultures nature, their likes, and their dislikes. I have made many friends who are of races and cultures different than my own. It is through diversity my life has been enriched. Being open to diversity has increased the value of my network and has helped me grow. I have made friends all over the world and talk to them quite often. During our talks we share opinions and exchange ideas. The way I see things is not just shaped by what is going on in my immediate environment but what is happening in the world. I have a greater understanding of people and a true appreciation for what makes us different. And learning what is important to another culture can be eye-opening.
Is diversity in modeling alive and well or is it at a stand still?
I believe there is change. It is not approaching as fast as I would like to see, but there is change. I feel like diversity is treated more like a check off box. Our society is more diverse than what we now see in magazines, advertisements, and billboards. The magazines, advertisements, and billboards should reflect everyone who exist in the world. Afterall, any ethnicity could potentially be a consumer if the brand is good enough.
Do you believe your race is stereotyped?
I have to confess that my chances of being in an urban photo shoot are a lot higher than being chosen as the face of a european cologne or high end clothing brand. And if the purpose of the photo shoot is to show an active lifestyle, chances of me being chosen for the role of “basketball player” are a lot higher than being chosen as a luxurious sailor, champion golfer, or polo player. My best talents are hiking, swimming, and dancing Argentine Tango. My most frequented hobbies are traveling, touring, and camping. Are brands asserting their biases behind the scenes by automatically assuming only a certain race can portray a particular lifestyle?
I think this is largely due to an odd relationship between luxury brands and the ethnic market. A majority of luxury brands want the ethnic market money. But the luxury brands have a problem with the message of the ethnic market.
Do you have any advice for luxury brands wanting to be more diverse, but don’t know how to approach it?
In addressing diversity, have an example for your market and decide whether it has a valid place in the company. Is it only to make money? Show you’re diverse? Or promote diversity?… I hope that more luxury brands actually want to show the world that people of color are just as capable as any other race represented in market. Don’t give in to the idea that using people of color is, by default, “controversial”. In 2012 it should be thought of as “acceptable”.
Why do you think brands are slow to embrace more people of color in their advertising?
I think about the percentage of publications and luxury brands owned by people outside of color. Most luxury brands are owned by people who are non-ethnic. The way things are set up, people of color are naturally cut out.
Do you have any advice for people of color wanting to model for major brands, but don’t know how to approach it?
I do have some advice for ethnic models wanting to be embraced by major brands. The opportunity comes with finesse, appreciation, and hard work. Models of color have to be comfortable with being the face of the brand. Models of color also have to be comfortable with the lifestyle, look, and feel the brand promotes. At the end of the day, if you’re good at your craft and your working hard at it. opportunities will open. But you have be willing to work hard at it.
Magazines and billboards are invasive. It is in our personal mail and hanging in our public streets. They shape the choices we make through visuals, and therefore, influence what we buy. The luxury brands want us to buy their product. Just because the brands are owned by one single person, do we not have a right to demand that their advertisements reflect people of color? It’s fully okay that the owner of the brand has his or her own vision but if the owner of the brand is not culturally intelligent and diversity does not resonate with him or her, the diverse consumer does not feel engaged to buy the brand because they do not see themselves reflected in the brand. They can not relate to the brand.
There are not just one or two good models who are of color. My wish is for agencies to embrace and build the talent equally. I like the idea of agencies and brands embracing the specificity of the race and using models in a way where the target consumer sees an example of themself in ads and publications. In my experience, people I have met from various ethnic backgrounds do not want to be European. They want to be the ethnicity they are and see representation of who they are in their local advertisements.
I can not leave you without mentioning companies and fashion industry professionals I feel have embraced diversity and adapted on local levels. Some of the companies I feel have adapted well with advertising include:
Coca-Cola - In my opinion, a global brand that is the master of diversity in advertising. I can’t think of any other company or brand that has incorporated diversity more successfully than Coca-Cola. If you see a Coca Cola advertisement in your country, there’s a high likelihood the models used in the ads reflect the culture in the region. (http://adage.com/article/special-report-cannes-2012/cannes-coca-cola-s-pollard-praises-diversity-creative/235610/)
Oyster Magazine – “Nu Clean” spread photographed by Milos Mali. (http://www.dapperlou.com/2009/06/oyster-mag-nu-clean.html)
Yves Saint Laurent – the first designer to use black models in his catwalk shows. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yves_Saint_Laurent_(designer) )
Photographer Nick Knight – staged a multi-level film and essay project, encouraging creatives to use the medium of fashion to convey their political beliefs, agendas and thoughts. (http://showstudio.com/blog/post/untitled_by_nick_knight)
Calvin Klein - “A fashion house founded by American fashion designer Calvin Klein. The company is headquartered in Midtown Manhattan, New York City and currently owned by Phillips-Van Heusen.” Campaigns now feature models Zoe Saldana, Djimon Hounsou, Liu Wen, Eva Mendes, and David Agbodji. (http://nymag.com/daily/fashion/2009/02/lyndsey_scott_first_black_mode.html)
CoverGirl – the first major cosmetic company to sign a black model to an Exclusive contract. Canadian Lana Ogilvie became the first black woman to represent a non-ethnic cosmetics company, and opened the door for traditionally Caucasian-focused brands to embrace different cultures and ethnicities in their brand. (www.fashionmodeldirectory.com and Clarke, Caroline V. )
Photographer David LaChapelle - LaChapelle’s striking images have graced the covers and pages of Italian Vogue, French Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Rolling Stone and i-D, and he has photographed personalities as diverse as Janet Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Madonna, Shakira, Amanda Lepore, Eminem, Philip Johnson, Lance Armstrong, Pamela Anderson, Lil’ Kim, Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Taylor, David Beckham, Paris Hilton, Jeff Koons, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hillary Clinton, Muhammad Ali, and Britney Spears, to name a few. (http://www.lachapellestudio.com/)