Where have all the Black models gone? - a supermodel analyzes racist factors in several industries that impact jobs in the fashion modeling industry - Industry Overview - Cover Story

Where have all the Black models gone? - a supermodel analyzes racist factors in several industries that impact jobs in the fashion modeling industry - Industry Overview - Cover StorySupermodel Veronica Webb speaks out on

In the fall of 1994, I shared the cover of YSB with Black male model Clayton Hunter and with Roshumba, who had been featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue three years in a row. I, like more than a few other Black models, would consider the middle of the decade a prime time for us. Our popularity may have had much to do with a flood of media stories indicating that racial and ethnic groups would outnumber Whites by the middle of the twenty-first century.

The fashion, publishing and advertising worlds--the institutions where our desires and dreams are synthesized and sold back to us--were clearly taking notice and action.

More Black models began to grace the pages of fashion magazines, both in advertisement and editorial layouts, and Naomi Campbell's star was shooting into the stratosphere as she clocked a stunning number of covers. In Milan, where runway-show trends begin (because the first international showings are held there each season), Riccardo Gay Model Management had 12 to 16 Black women on the roster for fashion shows. In fact, every show I worked from 1992 to the first season of 1995 had at least seven or eight Black models. Considering that a show usually features 20 or so models, we had an impressive 35- to 40-percent representation. Things really got exciting in 1995, when Tyson Beckford snagged an exclusive contract as the face for top designer Ralph Lauren. Tyson went on last year to be named Male Model of the Year by VH1.

Fast forward to 1996... When the year came in, we went out. Today there is only one Black female model I know of with a major cosmetics contract: Tyra Banks for Cover Girl. As of this writing, Riccardo Gay in Milan has only six Black models in working rotation. And from the Italian runways to the French fashion scene to the catwalks in New York City, there has been a worldwide trend to exclude Black models from fashion shows. Only a few shows for the fall 1996 season included a Black face, and even then in several cases that face could have been mistaken for White. The result: Magazines and newspapers--many of which use pictures from runway shows throughout the year--will have few chances to include us in their pages. And, as it is, we are seldom the focal point of the main fashion layouts in general-market publications. Clearly the Black model is the subject of a damaging and demeaning "disappearing act."

I don't necessarily cry foul because my livelihood and that of my colleagues are at stake. Some of us have had a pretty lush life because of this profession, and we've gone on to do other meaningful and lucrative things as well, like writing, acting or running our own cosmetics companies. The real crime of our being excluded is that it leaves Black people with far too few self-affirming images in television commercials and other mainstream media.

This is not the first drought for Black models, and though it pains me to say it, it probably won't be the last. Fashion, by its very nature, is fickle. What's in one year is often out the next. I'm outraged, though, that race would be subjected to fashion's whims. I could handle short hair versus long hair, skinny waiflike bodies versus more voluptuous ones, or sassy attitudes versus fresh playfulness, because there would always be a place for some of us. But when what's in is pasty pale and bland blonde, well, enough said.

"Yes, I agree completely that this is a totally blonde season," says Katie Ford, CEO of Ford Models, Inc. "It's a trend started by the minimalist designers like Prada and Gucci. By using models who all have the same coloring, they took the identity out of the model. Their goal was to take the attention off the models and put it back on the clothes. If you were a brunette, it was hard to get on the runway." Think about where that left us as Black models. At least White brunettes could turn to a bottle of peroxide.

Model bookers do the daily work of calling clients and pitching models for jobs. I asked my booker at Ford, Neal Hamil, what the general response to Black women was at the agency last show season. "Clients were saying that they were `going in a different direction." It's the industry's standard brush-off," he says, adding that the look being requested was a "very, very pale, skinny, glassy-eyed look, like a junkie, really." When I asked Neal if he thought the lack of interest in Black models was racially based, he paused and then said, "The discrimination is so subtle that I don't realize it until the season's over."

Ford says she has consistently found it difficult to start and maintain models of color. "I continue to take Blacks, Asians and Latinas in hopes that things will change. But I know it's always going to be twice the work for half the reward."

Even Naomi--who in many fall 1996 shows from Europe to New York was the only Black model on the runway--concedes that any model of color has to work that much harder. "But I love rising to the challenge," she says. Much controversy surrounded Naomi's appearance in the May 1996 issue of Vogue. According to reports in the press, Campbell had been promised the front cover of the issue. But for the first time in the magazine's history, Vogue printed a double cover, with White supermodel Niki Taylor on the cover facing the newsstand and the world, while our Naomi was tucked away on the inside fold. Campbell took the high road concerning the incident. "Personally, I was a bit disappointed, but I hope the magazine will [regularly] regard Black models as cover subjects the way they do Whites," she says.

Currently in vogue at Vogue is Kiara. While she hasn't made the cover yet, she's the sister we all pin our hopes on for the next generation. In the business, Kiara's what's described as "special." That means she's a new girl with a unique look that breaks some of the "accepted" standards of beauty. Kiara is a fresh-faced chocolate beauty with short brown hair and hypnotic brown eyes. The Women Model Management agency has had great success getting her booked for European magazines and runway shows both here and abroad, and the spirited sister was recently selected as one of six icons to promote the new Tommy sportswear from designer Tommy Hilfiger.

Saying you want to be a supermodel is like saying you want to be a movie star: Many are called and few are chosen. The hiring and firing are based mostly on subjective standards; there is no regulation within the industry, no union or review board for standards and practices. Pretty much anything goes.

Fern Mallis, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America--the prestigious trade group whose members include top designers--says she has noticed the lack of Black models in shows. But when Mallis is asked if the issue has come up in their meetings, she says no. "It would be against the laws of the Federal Trade Commission for us to try to influence their commerce." Well, maybe. But a few years ago FTC issues didn't stop the group from having closed-door discussions about ways to make showings more affordable. Those meetings were in large part successful in driving model rates down. Mallis contends that who does a show "is decided purely at the designer level. It's their show, their vision and how their image is perceived out there."

Kevin Krier and Associates is one of the premier companies producing fashion shows. Krier's duties entail everything from finding the venue to recruiting models. "I don't work with any designer who openly expresses bigotry. Last season the shows became more intimate, and the number of models in a show dropped from 35 to 18. It's rare that we take risks on new talent. We look to the magazines to see who they're using, and unfortunately there are not a lot of Black women getting editorial support right now."

Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, throws the ball back into Krier's court by saying her "staff learns about new girls from who's on the runways." Both Krier and Wells agree the ultimate decision lies with the designers. Leading fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi gives credit to the power of the press by saying he's heavily influenced by which models are placed in the magazines. What a catch-22. What a mess.