Skip to content

Strike a Pose: The Manipulation of Black Models

  • Opinion

By Aiesha Akenzua, Opinions Section Editor

Opportunity for Black models within the modelling industry has been a persistent topic in the media for decades. In an industry seemingly built for the Kate Mosses and Cindy Crawfords of the world, representation of those whose appearances were antithetical to that of the industry has been scarce. When considering the pioneers of progress in this white-dominated industry, Naomi Sims would stand front and centre, recognised as the ‘first ever supermodel’, and trailblazer of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement. In 1968, Naomi Sims became the first African-American model to feature on the cover of Ladies Home Journal, a publication that had been in print for 80 years at the time.

Because, despite the performance of Blackness disrupting the status quo in the industry, it is apparent that Black models were and still are simply props in a game of progress in which the position they hold is tenuous.

The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show of 1973 saw an embrace of progress as eleven Black models, namely Pat Cleaveland, Norma Jean Darden, and Alva Chinn, graced the runway. Having Back models walk for such a high-profile show was unusual at the time and what started as a campaign to fundraise for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, swiftly revolutionised how the fashion industry viewed Blackness in high beauty. With Vogue Italia printing an issue made up of only Black models in 2008, it was becoming understood that despite prevalent issues of representation on the runway; a space for Black models was slowly being carved out in the industry. Whilst acknowledging the feats of these Black models, we should ask how genuine these ventures of progress were. How far did this new space extend? And for whom? Are fashion houses and agents really engaging with the casting and treatment of their Black models? Because, despite the performance of Blackness disrupting the status quo in the industry, it is apparent that Black models were and still are simply props in a game of progress in which the position they hold is tenuous.

Despite this, it is apparent that any ‘progress’ in the treatment of western Black models has not translated to the Global South. The spotlight of justice seems to not have extended towards models scouted from African countries.

In 2023 The New York Times wrote that modelling is no longer a silent profession, that models are now as heard as they are seen, despite the fact that this is clearly not the case for Achol Malual Jau. Achol is a 23-year-old South Sudanese refugee who was scouted in 2023 for Select Model Management to walk in that year’s London Fashion Week show. Select Model Management represents the likes of Devon Aoki and Sofia Richie. Achol turned heads on the runway and became a fixture on the social media fashion circuit. So how was it that six months later she found herself back where she started? Back in Kakuma refugee camp, with not a penny to her name and no break in the modelling world.

The sad truth is that Achol’s case is not unique, and even if the name of the agency changes the stories of exploitation stay the same. Nyabalang Gatwech Pur Yien is another South Sudanese refugee who was scouted from the Kakuma refugee camp. She was sent back 17 days later and was left with €2,769 in debt to the agency that flew her to Europe. It’s a tale as old as time, a predominantly white industry benefiting off of black bodies; just like the Battle of Versailles Fashion Show and Vogue Italia’s 2008 issue.

Agencies all over the Global North recruit specifically from refugee camps all in the name of diversifying the runway, setting aside the humanity of these individuals. What makes these stories even more upsetting is the aspect of hope Achol, Nyabalang and others like them hold. Being sold the dream of finally being able to earn money and provide for their displaced family members, after playing the role of the exotic on the runway, they end up carelessly tossed to the side, their pre-existing trauma ignored. The objectification of Black people plays a crucial role in this practice and is a reflection of the discriminatory climate we exist in.

All of this is to say that just like many of the existing industries in the West, the decolonisation of the fashion and modelling industries is greatly needed. It is essential that the existing barriers to entry into the industry for Black women, particularly Black women from the Global South, are broken down, so that hopeful Black models like Achol Malual Jau and Nyabalang Gatwech Pur Yien can truly become a part of the show.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *