In July of 2004, I had just returned to the U.S. from a year of living and loving in London. I had enrolled in the political studies program at University College London and although I spent much of that year making friends, narrowly avoiding alcohol poisoning and learning a thing or two about Hegel, I was restless. I missed modeling. Going to university was mostly to appease my family while I pined for a glitzier future. I loved being part of the creative process and watching a garment or an entire collection come together in the hands of an artist. I knew my window of opportunity was small. That summer I wanted back in and I wanted it bad. I didn’t think for a second that I might be denied entry altogether.

“I loved being part of the creative process and watching a garment or an entire collection come together in the hands of an artist.”

On the long bus ride from Lee, Massachusetts, to New York City, I remembered my favorite booker’s encouragement, “No, no, school comes first. We’ll be here when you get back. Go to London!” doled out with a hug and a smile. That was the previous September, when I had chosen to attend U.C.L. instead of commit to New York fashion week. I was sad when I returned to the U.S. to find he had abruptly ended his relationship with the agency.

With this knowledge, I slowly walked up the stairs to the office and lingered on the landing. Nerves had taken hold of me. I questioned my weight, my skin, my hair, and finally, my confidence. It’s the gut check most models do all day long for castings, and it’s brutal if you’re not feeling your absolute best. But I reminded myself of all the workouts, the vitamins, the pep talks, and my immense potential. With my book in hand, I waited alone in the perfectly manicured lobby. It wasn’t long before I was summoned by the receptionist. I stepped into the doorway of a cramped office and got the once-over from the owner of the agency himself. I had never officially met him but I had read extensively about him, his revolutionary ideas and the many supermodels he had represented.

“‘We’re not doing black girls right now,’ he said slowly and quietly while peering at me over the rims of his reading glasses.” 

“We’re not doing black girls right now,” he said slowly and quietly while peering at me over the rims of his reading glasses. With a furrowed brow, I smirked and stifled a laugh. But he was not joking. A mixture of shock and stoicism swept over me. Like so many times when I’m confronted with racism, I felt first a searing, almost physical pain — and then that other, more familiar feeling. I’ve always had this overwhelming need to appear unfazed, as if acting like I hadn’t been slighted would take power away from the perpetrator and cancel out the pain. This time I just wanted to get the hell out of there and quickly.

He had already turned his back to me to pour over the Spring Summer ’05 show package, and I was beckoned into another office by one of the bookers. He did his best to hide his pained expression, but his discomfort only confirmed that the decision was final, and that I was in fact being dropped because I was not white. I asked if I needed a release from my contract, which had been worldwide, and was told that it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t have time to argue, as I knew it would only take a few more seconds for the tears welling in my eyes to start flowing uncontrollably. I smiled weakly, and I even mumbled some sort of thank you as I turned on my heels and made my way to the door.

“The possibility of being dropped from an agency for not being white had never entered into my mind.”

Like the deafening silence after a bomb blast, I couldn’t hear anything happening around me on the street below and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I had no clue what to do with myself because I hadn’t prepared for this outcome. I was ready for a lecture about my hip measurement being too big for shows or that I needed hair extensions or some other physical attribute that needed tinkering with before I could be accepted back into the ranks. But the possibility of being dropped from an agency for not being white had never entered into my mind.

I had only just begun working as a model in New York City when I got accepted to U.C.L., so it was all still fresh and exciting. I had moved to Brooklyn with only a few informal fashion shows at Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston and some local magazine editorial under my belt. I stayed with family and took a twenty minute bus ride followed by an hour long train ride into the city every day for castings and appointments; I was just happy to be in the game. Everything changed after that day.

“As other non-white models began to disappear from the website over the next few weeks and months, I realized they had no ethnic diversity represented on their board anymore; no Asians, no non-white Latinas and no “other.””

After inspecting my now former agency’s website I found that indeed, they were not “doing” black girls this season or for the foreseeable future. I kept an eye on the agency for a long time after that encounter. As other non-white models began to disappear from the website over the next few weeks and months, I realized they had no ethnic diversity represented on their board anymore; no Asians, no non-white Latinas and no “other.” It remained that way for about two seasons. They eventually signed one black girl who has gone on to enjoy moderate success.

I can’t hold a grudge against people who reject me. I can’t even hold a grudge against those who discriminate against me. I wouldn’t get very far, nor would I have any of the things in my life that are really worth anything to me. Being one of those people who hears “no” and only works harder is an asset in this business, and I don’t intend to change that for anyone. So, after the “Great Agency Reshuffling” last March when Ford and Supreme simultaneously switched management teams, I was finally able to reposition myself with a wonderful group of people who believe in me and my potential. They strive to keep every single girl on the board working regardless of race, age or experience level. It is true that modeling agencies are essentially staffing agencies, not unlike temp agencies really, that have the power to represent or reject anyone based on certain standards and criteria as the job market requires. Race should never be one of these criteria.

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7 Responses to Agencies Are Discriminating, But Race Shouldn’t Be The Basis For Rejection

  1. deborah sanders says:

    Frankly, employment discrimination based on race is against the law. Instead of waiting for the fashion industry to be nice, there needs to be a lawsuit filed against companies that deny people jobs that they are capable of doing merely because of their skin color. I don’t buy the artistic license argument. Art is in a museum, fashion is a business..one they needs to find its way into modern society.

  2. If you notice, Claudia, I do not solely blame agencies as the only perpetrators of race discrimination in the fashion industry. I agree with you that the fashion community has a shared problem that requires a shared solution.

  3. Claudia says:

    Stop blaming agencies and start calling out the designers and stylist who are the ones that are truly making the decision of “what’s hot right now”.

  4. Brandi says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. The fact that these practices continue are appalling, however I wonder what unwritten (or perhaps unspoken) rules continue to dominate in the fashion industry that make it common sense to use mostly ‘white’ models and only use women of colour as exceptions. Is this something that occurs mostly at agencies or does this also occur with designers, photographers and editors? In an industry that already sets stringent rules around height, weight, and other dimensions of the body supposedly for the purpose of displaying the garment optimally, I wonder how these fashion professionals can explain how ‘colour’ is policed.

  5. Dominique says:

    Marcia, this is so well written. I am astonished by the blatant racism in so many industries and hope that us girls of color will be able to erase the racial lines in the foreseeable future. It’ll be a slow process for sure, but it’s been done. God Bless Tyra, Naomi (and in my industry, Whitney, Beyonce, etc.)

  6. rachel gilman says:

    I think the choices of the agencies sadly are a reflection of who the photographers and stylists are booking. All of us behind the scenes need to book not just for the sake of diversity, but for the sake of beauty, period. We all need to take more responsibility for our choices and what we are portraying in our shoots as we book these gals. Myself included.

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