Fashion

10 Models Tell Us What It’s Like To Be Black In The Fashion Industry

What Would Naomi Campbell Do?

In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.

Diversity is a big word in fashion right now, but it can be hard to tell sometimes just how committed the industry is to making changes. (See: the Karlie Kloss geisha editorial in Vogue's Diversity Issue.) And when it comes to modeling, while there's no doubt we've seen increased representation of a variety of races and ethnicities, there's still a long way to go before achieving anything resembling an accurate reflection of the myriad people out there. And let's not forget that breaking into the modeling industry is hard no matter what—and it's long been much more challenging to do so as a person of color. To see what the state of the industry is really like, we spoke to 10 black models at different stages in their careers to learn more about their experiences. Here's what they had to say in the gallery, below.

Jordun Love, 20

When did you first begin your modeling career?

I started modeling randomly actually. I was waiting for a friend [who was visiting a modeling agency] and the president of the agency came out of nowhere and was like, "Hey, you look like you could be a model." I'm a dancer originally. I've danced in Disney World and the Sixers halftime shows. My first job was with Beyoncé for the "Pretty Hurts" video.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

Definitely. I believe there have been a lot of setbacks simply because a lot of designers aren't too open to being too diverse yet. When I first started, I was actually described as a black boy with long hair—that's all. I didn't have a name. I was just "black boy with long hair." 

Do you think that you would go further in your career if you were any other race?

Honestly, no. I never thought if I was white, I would have it easier or whatever. We have our own lane, we have our own path, and we are all succeeding in that way.

Do you have any advice for any black models? 

It's hard to start and get that first "yes," but once you get that, you'll be on the go. You have to keep going, keep pushing, be very patient, and just know that it'll take time, but the time that it takes is so worth it.

Shaun Ross, 25

When did you first begin your modeling career?

When I was 15 back in 2007. I started modeling because I wanted to dance, and I was introduced to the voguing scene through my cousin, and he used to show up in all these videos, so I started voguing, and then I put up YouTube videos, and I got discovered that way.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

For me, it's even worse because when I came on the scene, it was hard to even fathom the fact that I was black but I also wasn't black at the same time. I think that that was something that people weren't sure how they felt about it. I think that being a black male in general inside of the fashion community is a struggle. You always have to be one or the other. It's either you have to be this big, buff, masculine guy like almighty or you just have to be this African alien. It's very hard for you to be feminine. It's not accepted; it's less than. It's hard for black men to express themselves, but especially in the fashion industry where there's only one style. 

Do you think you would go further in your career if you were another race? 

It's hard to say 'cause all I've ever known is this. I'm a different person to ask because I've never just had the black aspect of life. It's the taboo of being black, albino, and gay. It's all three of them at once. I think that for me, it's hard in general. I'm doing a good job, fortunately, but it's still hard; you have to consistently prove yourself every day. 

Are they any models that have inspired you along the way?

Not really. I never wanted to work in fashion, so I was never inspired by fashion. I got inspired by movements. I was inspired by a person like Bayard Rustin who was [Martin Luther King's] right-hand man, who never got a chance to have his story get told, who was even more grand than MLK. I'm inspired by people like that. I'm inspired by weird shit. I'm inspired by the amount of respect that Nelson Mandela gets or the way that Morgan Freeman's voice makes you feel. 

Do you have any advice for any black models?

I would say don't fall into the false story of you because you have to consistently fight. You're in a role that wasn't made for you so you have to create another one. How many times have we had a black coalition this or a black fight against this, or a Black Lives Matter in fashion? It's been happening forever; it's forever been the same. It'll never be a black woman's world, it'll never be a black man's world, it'll never be a Chinese woman's world. It will never be that. It's a white woman's world. Entertainment is a woman's world, period. If I was to tell a black model advice, it would be, "Don't try to fit inside this world, try to create another one."

Shamari Maurice, 19

When did you first begin your modeling career?

It's really weird because you can look on social media and you would think that I've been doing it for a very long time, but I honestly started in October; that's when I signed with One management and my agency in L.A., Photogenics. But just growing up in L.A., I've been around designers, just around that circle.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

Obviously, as a black male or female, there are setbacks. It's ignorance, people have, their ignorant thoughts. As far as me, I am glad that I started in a time where it really is diverse and you see more people. I've been working with brands I've never thought I would work with. Obviously, I've had certain little things that are annoying setbacks, but I came in at a time that is very diverse, so it's really good. 

Do you think that you could go further in your career if you were another race?

I don't know anything else but being black! I grew up in L.A. and people would say, "You aren't really black," just by the way I talk and stuff like that, but that's horrible. We all go through the same thing. I wouldn't want to be anything other than black.

If there were one issue you could change in the modeling industry, what would it be?

I don't like when the client tries to gentrify your look. You guys are casting me from my photo where I am natural, so why are you straightening my hair? I also hate when it's the opposite. 

Do you have any advice for any black models?

Just keep going, you have to already know and understand that people are ignorant. No matter how diverse we are getting, there is going to be that one person who makes that comment and that joke that isn't funny, but stand your ground, Also, be yourself.

Gabby Richardson, 20

When did you first begin your modeling career?

About a year ago, I was asked to model for some of my photography friends who were photography students at Pratt/NYU. They were like, “Gabby, why don't you start modeling and model for us?” I would then take those pictures, and I would post them online, and they would get such positive feedback. People [began to] approach me asking if they could take photos of me and this time get paid for it and make it a job. I didn't even think of that really as an opinion until those doors opened for me.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

Yes, I definitely think that black beauty, in general, isn't really appreciated as much as it should be just because everyone has to deal with other beauty standards being put in place on top of them. In certain places, I feel like I have been snubbed because of my facial features, in general. But I think there's been such a large overwhelming rejection of blackness, and I think I can change that in my own way. 

Do you think you could go further in your career if you were another race?

Oh, definitely. I think that I would have gone further in my career if I were thinner, if I were lighter. I definitely would have gotten more work, but also at the same time, I think, my career isn't solely based on my looks, it's also based on who I am and my ability to stand up to what I think is right, [so] me being black and speaking up about it has helped me and pushed me further. Never stay silent! 

If there were one issue you could change in the modeling industry, what would it be?

I would love for some really really dark models to come out. I'm dark, but I'm not that rich dark tone and I barely rarely even see super-dark models in shows or even out in the streets; also if people were positive about different body types. I feel like colorist issues and body issues go hand in hand because those are black features at the end of the day. 

Do you have any advice for any black models?

Don't let anybody tell you anything about yourself is wrong.

Minzly Johnson, 23

When did you first begin your modeling career?

I would say a good three years ago. I was doing photography first—weddings, portraits, and everything. Most of the time the models couldn't execute the vision that I wanted for the shoot. One day I said to myself, This ain't working; the models just couldn't figure it out, so I said, Fuck it, I can just do it myself. 

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

Yes, and this past NYFW had definitely put the icing on the cake! I received emails saying "your natural hair is too natural." It made me think, Damn, the fashion industry is brutal. It's brutal for an African-American woman. I wouldn't even say men, because I've seen men flourish a lot more than women have. There is definitely racism. And I'm not going to sugarcoat it because I experience it a lot. 

If there were one issue you could change in the modeling industry, what would it be?

I would say keeping streetwear and urban wear a black thing; they should be casting black models because that's the look you are trying to execute. It's not always the brand's fault—sometimes it's the casting director—but sometimes that's the aesthetic the brand wants. But why not cast a black model if you want the look? Sometimes it gets me emotional because I work so hard, and so do many other black models, just to get where we are now—which is lit, don't get me wrong! But it's just like, how come I have to work so much harder? I don't want to toot my own horn, but I work hella hard. And I am a freelancer—not because I can’t be signed, but I don't want an agency to try to lock me down, try to put me on a shelf. That's why, when I get more money, I will start my own black modeling agency for black models.We need it. 

Do you have any advice for any black models?

Yes! I would say our skin tone makes us more powerful, sometimes it may seem that it doesn't, sometimes it may seem like we are less than, but we are [actually] better. Don't let anyone tell you differently; we can do anything and do it better!

Jorge Wright, 27

When did you first begin your modeling career?

I was taking photos when I was 21 and 22 years old with photographers, but I didn't really start believing I was a model until my first Gap campaign and that was 2007, which was a minute ago.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

I'm pretty sure that there was a time I didn't get something because I was black, but I never personally thought, I didn't get this job because I'm black. I'm sure there was a time that I was ignorant to the fact that I actually didn't get that gig because I am black because I know that happens often still. 

Do you think that you would go further in your career if you were another race?

No. It's hard for me to think outside of being black but I would say that I think that white models and black models have different opportunities and it is up to you to find the opportunity that is popping. It just so happens that a lot of the white model opportunities are much more popping, so it is up to me or any other black model to make sure the opportunities that you are finding are ones that are going to help further and advance your career. 

If there were one issue you could change in the modeling industry, what would it be?

The fact that there is an issue. We need to get rid of the issue overall. Other than that, I would say just stereotypes. Black people are stereotyped and placed into a specific category when it comes to modeling, but this is the exact opposite of modeling, where you become a blank canvas for whoever you are working with. With black models, you can't come in as a blank canvas, they already have your picture painted. So I think that if we get rid of stereotypes, black models would get more opportunities that would further them in the modeling world. 

Do you have any advice for any black models?

Go hard in the paint. That's my advice to all models, but especially black models. You always need to go to the extra inch to get somewhere being black! Go hard and keep going hard and we will be on deck!

Erin Patrice O'Brien // @erinpatriceobrien

Tash Yasmine, 22

When did you first begin your modeling career?

I've been a model since I was five years old. I did little shows, but I really started taking it seriously when I was 18. I started going to agencies and linked up with more photographers.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

I do feel like there have been some setbacks because I feel like if a brand gets that one black girl, they tend to look away from other black girls. They think that they already have this girl, so they don't need that girl. And sometimes I feel like I have to try extra hard to make myself stand out.

Do you think you would go further in your career if you were another race?

Maybe, but no matter what, my career is going to go further because I have the determination and I believe I can get to that point. And this is what I really want to do, so it's going to go further no matter what nationality or race I am. 

If there were one issue you could change in the modeling industry, what would it be?

I just want to see more of us. I want to see more black models in campaigns, in ads, and on runways. The industry is becoming more accepting, but I still don't see enough, personally. I would just love to see more black models in print and on the runway. 

Do you have any advice for any black models, whether they're up-and-coming or established?

My advice would just be to be yourself no matter what. Don't try to change yourself to what you think an agency or brand would like. Just be yourself and whoever likes you, likes you.

Joel Mignott, 21

When did you first begin your modeling career?

I started about three years ago. I got scouted on Instagram.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

My whole setback stems from [people wondering]: "What race is he?" In my opinion, sometimes, it’s the issue of where do I fall in. It feels like sometimes you can’t win. It's either you are too light or you are too dark.

Do you think that you would go further in your career if you were another race?

For me, I am glad I am how I am. I am in a unique position where I can brand myself in a unique way. I look at a lot of white boys who do high fashion and have a good season, but you won't know their name in five years. They are replaceable, but I don’t necessarily feel replaceable. 

Do you have any advice for any black models?

It's hard sometimes because I feel left out of the group of being black, but my advice would be to be yourself no matter what!

Ohwawa Owusu, 26

When did you first begin your modeling career?

I first began my modeling career four years ago. This was when I didn’t know how to model; I bought my own clothes, my own makeup. It was a quick shoot. That’s when I first started Instagram, so when I first got the pictures back, I posted them on social media—Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. It actually went viral. And then I realized that maybe I should take this seriously.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

Yes, as a model, a lot is already hard; it's already a competitive industry. As a black model, though, we have to work 10 times harder, because with agencies, as long as they have that one token black girl, that’s all they want. If they have a model that looks like me already, dark skin with a little haircut, they don’t want me. But while the agencies want just one girl that looks like me, they also want 10 to 15 white girls that look the same. When it comes to us, it's different. The industry is very much racist, so it's really hard for us to get noticed and to show the agencies and the fashion industry that there is more to us than just being a token black girl. 

Do you think that you would go further in modeling career if you were another race?

If I was any other race, I feel like I could have gone further in my career. I probably would have already been signed, probably would have gotten a lot of ad campaigns. But with me being a black model and having dark skin, I have to show them what else makes me unique; I have to show them more, something that grabs their attention.  

If there were one issue you could change in the modeling industry, what would it be?

Diversity. When I mean diversity, I don’t mean just putting more black girls in ad campaigns; I’m saying diversity as a whole—black girls, Asian girls, Indian girls. I want to see everyone as a whole. I look at a lot of shows and still you don’t see a lot of designers showing full diversity. One person I do see using diversity with is Olivier Rousteing at Balmain. Calvin Klein is slowly doing that too, but we don’t see it as a whole. I really want designers and casting directors to push and pull for all ethnicities. 

Do you have any advice for any black models, whether they're up-and-coming or established?

Keep working very, very hard, don’t give up, and be consistent with your work. Don’t ghost—get out there, and go to these networking events. Try meeting people in person, it is more genuine.

Magne Ndiaye, 22

When did you first begin your modeling career?

My first time modeling was when I was 13 years old. I was scouted in a little mall fashion show when I was with my mom. I didn't really like it back then, so I didn't take it seriously until I was 16, when I was scouted again in L.A. by the agency I am with now. I moved to New York when I was 19 and finally signed, so I've been modeling seriously for about three years.

Have you experienced any hindrances or setbacks in your career because of your race?

I feel like being black in the modeling industry is definitely hard. You knows it's definitely a weird white-to-black ratio when you see a lot of high fashion shows—some have no black girls at all, especially black African girls. And when they do have some, they use the major ones that all the brands use. I definitely experience it when I go to casting calls. If there are like five of us in the casting, we know that probably one of us will get it picked out of that five, as opposed to the 10 to 15 blonde hair and blue-eyed models. That is something that needs to change. 

Do you think that you would go further in your career if you were another race?

I love being black, so I wouldn't even know what my career would be like if I wasn't black. I would definitely say that being black, I am going to look at it as something that will further my career. I am not only black, I'm African, so I have a very deep rich culture, and I try to affiliate that with my modeling and stay in touch with my roots. I definitely hope being black furthers my career instead of tainting it, but I can never see myself as a blonde with blue eyes—in that case, I would probably be an actress! 

If there were one issue you could change in the modeling industry, what would it be?

Definitely, the stereotype that all black models have to have a shaved head. My hair is shaved, but I just did it three months ago because I was tired of it, not because I wanted to further my career; I was modeling three years with hair. But since I have shaved my hair, everything has been happening much faster! It's crazy how they want us shaved. They don't want to have to deal with black hair. But it's like, let us worry about our hair, don't make us feel like we have to be bald so that it is easier for you. Not all women are ready for that hair; it took me some time to be ready. 

Do you have any advice for any black models? 

Don't let them pit you against each other. I see how much more competitive it is for us because we know there are only so many spots for us in each show. I feel like a lot of us compete with each other and I know when I go to castings, it's just negative energy sometimes, or like the girls are a little standoffish or stank. I definitely think we need to empower and team up with each other because black models matter. We need to stop being mean to each other and stop comparing ourselves to the other models in the room because honestly, we all look completely different. We may have some similarities, but we are all completely different.