Naomi Campbell dishes about the lack of ethnic faces on the runway
By Te-Erika Patterson
There’s a calm excitement backstage as models are being prepared for their runway debut at Houston’s FashionWeekLive 2007 organized by International Management Group (IMG), the managers of top models. Hair dryers are humming as eagle-eyed hairdressers primp and tease unruly locks. Cheekbones are accentuated by Sephora’s leading make-up artists and the team of dressers are systematically organizing the wardrobe ‘looks’ for each IMG model on the board.
At each dressing table, a reflection peeks back at you from the brightly lit mirrors. These are the same faces that you see in fashion magazines; serious expressions, hollow eyes, blonde hair and pale skin. But where are the Black faces among these celebrated beauties?
As you search for a face that resembles yours, you’re hard pressed to find one. That is…until you come across a dainty figure with a coco complexion, carelessly fiddling with her cell phone. Her big brown eyes open wide as she looks up to meet your gaze.
It’s Naomi Campbell, one of the world’s most sought after supermodels. Her introduction into the modeling industry proved to the world that the exclusive fashion lords can appreciate varying degrees of beauty. Over the course of her career, Campbell, who was born in South London, is reported to have appeared on more than 500 magazine covers including Time, Elle and The British Vogue.
This particular evening Campbell’s face lights up when asked about her participation in Houston’s FashionWeekLive, which offered the general public a chance to attend the exclusive showing of 30 of the fashion industry’s hottest looks for Fall 2007.
“I think this is going to take off all over the world,” Campbell said with a grin. “I think it’s a great idea for IMG to come up with this. It’s a great initiative because I feel that we get to share with the rest of the world and not just with the VIP’s and the editors. Its great to be able to spread ourselves to the public and those are the people who put us where we are today. So I feel really happy to be a part of this.”
Campbell, who was one of only two Black faces in IMG’s line-up for the show, paused reflectively when asked if she thought the fashion industry is now more open to embrace different ethnicities.
“Yes, it still could be better,” Campbell responded. “I would like to see more Black women on covers of magazines and I would like to see Black women treated equally as white women but I don’t know if that will ever happen. Will it?”
Will it ever happen? That’s the question that’s been on Bethann Hardison’s mind since she began a career as a model in the 1960’s.
“The girl of color has become less and less visible,” Hardison said as she sat erect in her chair, adjusting her posture while waiting for the fashion show to begin. The former model and head of Bethann Management, a now defunct modeling agency based in New York City, who is also the mother of actor Kadeem Hardison and the manager of Tyson Beckford, has remained heavily immersed in the fashion industry. Hardison supports Campbell’s assertion of unequal representation on the runway.
“When you look at television, everything looks very diverse,” Hardison said. “You see everybody and everything looks Black and brown and Latin. Everything is nicely balanced…[In direct contrast to what we see] when we look at the runway and we’re talking about fashion. We’re not talking about commercial television. We’re not talking about America’s Next Top Model because that’s not really fashion. That’s like a beauty pageant. I have no problem saying this. It’s true.”
“It’s a reality show and it’s a very successful one,” Hardison continued. “We must not get confused about what’s really true and what isn’t. When it comes to fashion, the people who decide who’s going to be on [the show] are editors, photographers and stylists who really have nothing to do with [the fashion] world. If you look at what you see go down the runway, you’ll see what’s on it and what’s not on it.”
But who decides who gets to be a model? Are all hopeful models at the mercy of fashion editors? Are a pretty face and a strong desire enough to make it in the industry?
“The person who is going to decide if you’re right for them is the seeker and not the individual who wants to be,” Hardison replied matter of factly. “She’s just got to be the right girl at the right time and be the right thing. Even me. I look. I have an eye. The industry has changed a great deal. No one is going to push a girl up ahead. It’s only going to happen if the girl is dragged [because] someone notices her.”
Marie Fuema, 22, experienced the immediate pull of the modeling industry, unlike most models who face consistent rejection before finding their niche. She left Senegal for the United States to study business management, walked into the IMG offices and walked out with a contract. A year and a half later she shares the runway with widely celebrated models like Naomi Campbell.
“I was really the biggest nerd,” Fuema recalled with a smile. “I had big glasses. I’m wearing contacts. I was the ugliest baby ever. If I showed you my pictures you’d be like, ‘Damn girl!’” But ugly babies can grow up and make runways sizzle, if they have the guts to believe in themselves.
Fuema believed in herself. And Naomi Campbell did too. That’s why Campbell offered words of advice to aspiring young models who believe they have what it takes to step above the color line.
“Keep it tight. Don’t listen to too many people. Try to keep your family around you. Try to be sincere and not take any of it personally. Sometimes you go for a casting and they don’t want you. Sometimes girls can take that really to heart and they can get very upset and hurt by it. That’s what I mean by taking it personally.”
For longevity on or off the runway, Campbell suggested a dose of humility.
“When I mess up. I say it. When I’m sorry, I say it. And I think a lot of people in my industry have forgiven me and given me many chances because I am that way. I am grateful and sincerely blessed to be able to have many opportunities traveling the world, meeting amazing people. I’m now in a stage in my life where I want to be in the business that I am in. I want to do it in a way that is going to set up for many generations to come.”