I was sitting in a perfectly appointed room all in tones of white, high above the bustling New York streets, surrounded by executives of a Top International Cosmetics Company. These executives were considering me for the new “face” of their brand — among the holy grails of fashion modeling contracts — and I was pitching them the story of my ethnic heritage and my life.

Working as a fashion model has taught me that everything is a story. I pose in editorial stories for magazines: that sequence of images that sells you Romanticism, or Color-Blocking, or the New Bob Haircut.  I create chemistry through eye contact and body language with other models to convince you of a feeling: the sensation of all-consuming true love, or insatiable lust, or irrepressible femininity, all to sell you a perfume. And I allow the “story” of my life to be told in interviews, in press releases, in magazines and on blogs.

In becoming a model, it’s a reality that I chose, or was at the very least complicit in, the commodification of my self. Obviously I commodify my physicality; my body, my hair, my smile. Those I proffered relatively willingly. Even as a young teenager I knew that was part of the deal, and I thought it would be possible to quarantine my feelings about my appearance from the industry’s assessments of my body. Do I still believe that? Well, that’s debatable. Honestly, I’m not sure I could tell you, because I have been immersed in it all for too long. This industry has been my reality for almost half my life, although I will say that the absurdities have become clearer. I have to actively work not to despise myself for still responding to other people’s judgments, since presumably the more awareness one has, the less one would allow them to have any power over oneself. Be it weight, shape, the presence of wrinkles (imaginary or otherwise) or a myriad of other insecurities that models subject themselves to, I want to keep them at an appropriate distance from my sense of self.

“Even as a young teenager I knew that was part of the deal, and I thought it would be possible to quarantine my feelings about my appearance from the industry’s assessments of my body.”

It is the commodification of my life stories that has proven more complex over time. I am thoroughly multi-ethnic, with an appearance that belies easy categorization.

Virtually every day of my life I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” and, “What are you?”

People say, “I can’t place you.” Or, “You look just like….”

Throughout my career, my agents and I have used my ambiguous ethic heritage to our advantage and profit. Fashion is about change: our industry loves stories that are “new,” “fresh,” and “exciting.” And ethnicity has been incorporated into that systematic evolution, particularly in the high-fashion modeling scene in Europe. When I first entered the international scene, the “Brazilian Wave” was in full swing. And so I, with my dark hair and eyes, light brown skin and somewhat curvy figure, was slotted neatly into that mold. This categorization wasn’t even slightly true, much to the disappointment of the many Brazilian models who, excited to meet another person from their homeland, would speak to me in a flood of Portuguese, only for me to shake my head, unable to comprehend. But it did result in many runway bookings in Paris and Milan. Then there was the “Belgian Wave” of pale-skinned girls with sharp cheekbones, ice-blue eyes, and other qualities that I couldn’t hope to imitate. (That proved a period of low interest in my career.)

After I moved to New York City, my ethnicity as a model became even more useful as a selling point since many mainstream advertising companies now felt it was necessary to include a token non-white face in their campaigns. And it was rare that there’d be more than one of us at a time, so it fell on us to appeal to most, if not all, of the vast range of non-Caucasian Americans. That meant that an “ethnic” model shouldn’t be too ethnically identifiable, and also shouldn’t alienate the traditional Caucasian consumer by being too dark-skinned, and therefore not “relatable.” This was when I first remember hearing the term “Ethnic-light” being applied to me.

I remember thinking that I should probably be offended, but I wasn’t. Had I become desensitized? I felt that it was pragmatic — necessary even — in order to try to thrive as a visual product in an industry that offered one quarter or less of all bookings for those of us who were non-Caucasian. I stayed out of the sun and covered myself in SPF to prevent my skin becoming “too dark” and lessening my ethnic chameleonic abilities. I learned to find out in advance which ethnicity the client most desired, and when asked the inevitable, “So, tell us where you’re from?” I would lead with my most suitable ethnic component, so that it would be the client’s first and most favorable recollection of my multi-ethnicity. I also learned to always straighten my hair before going to a casting. Worn curly it would frequently be described as “difficult,” “unsophisticated,” or “too time-consuming.” I obviously eventually absorbed the message, and now always wear my hair straight when out in public, or keep it tied back under a hat. I only chemically straightened my hair once, however, which I attribute to a desire to allow it its natural kink, even if I’m the only one who ever really knows it’s there anymore.

“The common explanation for the limited number of us non-Caucasian models is that the market simply doesn’t provide enough bookings to support us all.”

And so I have been Hispanic, Brazilian, Mixed race, Light-skinned African-American, Puerto Rican, Indian, Moroccan, Arabic, Egyptian, South and Central American, Italian, Spanish and probably several other definitions that escape my recollection*. Yet all this mutability was still primarily just to tell a visual story to the public. I thought of it as acting (and to a certain extent I still do), in that if a visual representation resonates with you, the consumer, then I’ve done my job. The common explanation for the limited number of us non-Caucasian models is that the market simply doesn’t provide enough bookings to support us all. Sadly, that’s often true, but the limited number of available bookings also serves to limit agencies’ interest in taking on non-Caucasian models. I still see entire runway shows with one or perhaps two non-Caucasians out of the 20 or 30 models booked. And while our numbers have increased in commercial advertising, these numbers still do not reflect the percentages of ethnicities either in the USA or worldwide.

Change is always afoot though, however slow it often feels. The rapidly emerging economies of India and China have provided companies with new markets to promote and sell their products. There has been an evolution in modeling, accompanied and shimmied along by social media, by the incursion of actresses into what was traditionally a top model’s domain: beauty and fragrance contracts. And by the sprawl of reality TV personalities who have leveraged their exposure and consumer identification with their own stories into multi-million-dollar brands. To have a great product no longer seems to be enough; it must be sold and packaged with a “true story” that the consumer can and will relate to on a level deep enough to warrant their purchase of the product, and to create or increase brand loyalty. The interaction of the public, through social media, with those of us who used to be silent images, upon whom you could project anything you wished, is a complex thing to me.

“It’s important for me not to personalize rejection, not to allow it to distort or overly influence my internal personal narrative, the story that is mine and mine alone.”

As with any great consumerist power, it behooves marketers to create campaigns featuring models with whom new consumers will relate. So much the better! However, there is an aspect to this trend that feels different and uncomfortable to an ethnic chameleon like me. Now “authenticity” is a buzz word, now clients want to know if the story you have to tell — which will be press-released and tweeted and blogged about — is suitably ethnic. Now it’s not just a question of whether you can look the part, but whether you are truly enough of the part. Which is how I found myself on that couch in the headquarters of that Top International Cosmetics Company, telling the story that I could only hope they wanted to hear. In the words of a PR, it’s how you tell the truth that is important. And as much as I understand this on one level, it makes me very uncomfortable. If you are blue-eyed and blond, your presumed ability to accurately represent, or sell yourself to, the people of Germany is not a topic of debate — no matter whether you are English, or from New Zealand, or Hawaiian. So in my mind, if the people of India, or Indonesia, Greece, or South America can look at an image of a non-Caucasian model and see some reflection of themselves, then the same rule should apply.

As it happened this particular story did not have a fairytale ending. The Cosmetics Company chose, as they carefully put it, not to “move forward” with me “at this time.” Now, for any model, no matter the level of success we attain, rejection is an intrinsic and inescapable part of our job. I am, for the most part, professionally inured to rejection. To be otherwise is a recipe for unhappiness and unmanageable insecurity. Still, there are some near misses that sting far more than others and this would rank as one of, if not the most painful of my career to date.

Processing a professional loss of that magnitude is complex for me. It’s usually impossible to know why. It’s important for me not to personalize it, not to allow it to distort or overly influence my internal personal narrative, the story that is mine and mine alone. There are countless reasons why you as a model are not chosen by the client, and ethnicity is only one of them. Weight, hair, skin, age: these are the obvious criteria, although I was once told by a designer that the reason he chose another model over me was because my arms were too long, and that made his designs seem disproportionate. (Note that it was my arms that were the problem, not the sample of clothing in question.)

It does not serve me to dwell on why I wasn’t chosen for this job, or why, for that matter, I was chosen for hundreds of others. In truth, I am reluctant to write about the subject of my ethnicity within my industry, and my reluctance has not completely abated even as I write this now. The story I told that day, high in the clouds of Manhattan, evidently did not mesh sufficiently with the story that this International Cosmetics Company wished to tell. To make any more of it than that is damaging on a personal level, and it opens the entire discussion of ethnicity to easy attack or dismissal. I have made it a personal and professional policy to never attribute liability for success, or lack thereof, to my ethnic background.

Over the course of writing this essay, I shot the cover of an international edition of one of the most prestigious high-fashion magazines worldwide. One of my colleagues (there were several of us featured in the cover shoot) is also non-Caucasian, and I had just seen her featured in a new cosmetics campaign for a different but equally important company. I congratulated her, and was able to say how thrilling it was to see her in that campaign, particularly because it was a first for this particular company to use a non-Caucasian model in an advertising campaign. She responded that she had received such warmth, admiration and excitement from other of “us brown girls” that she was a little surprised. Professional jealousy is as rife in my industry as any other, but the very fact that one of us “other” (the box I’m most often required to check on government forms requesting ethnic identification) people was chosen for this ad is wonderful and something of its own reward. Incidentally, she also shared that the Company took a full year to decide to run her image after shooting it, which speaks to the continually shifting sands and nervousness about ethnicity in fashion and beauty advertising.

“The story I told that day, high in the clouds of Manhattan, evidently did not mesh sufficiently with the story that this International Cosmetics Company wished to tell.”

And so I hope that the International Cosmetics Company that I shared my story with doesn’t discard the intended campaign completely, whomever they hire. But ultimately, and more importantly, there are thousands upon thousands of stories. They need to be told, to be depicted, to be seen, heard and, yes, sold. Strange as it is to be a commodified entity, and as complex a relationship as I have forged with my self, my body and my ethnicity, I am part of a larger story of significance: the story of an increasingly diverse and, at some future point, equally visible representation of beauty in the modeling industry.

 

*Ethnicities or nationalities are as described by clients at time of booking, not by writer’s own definition.

6 Responses to Selling Ethnic Ambiguity

  1. shalini says:

    As an artist in my country, I know all too well of the difficulties one may face by putting yourself out there and being judged by others who try to break down your truth, to suit their own interpretation of what your truth should be..It is admirable that there are times you still hold composure when faced with those obstacles for even if you wear the strength on your face I know all too well such occasions must tear at a piece if you inside…always wear courage …

  2. Leelamma says:

    Great writing & very concise. I remember a photo shoot in NYC (2003, before brown was in). After the shoot all the girls were invited to a party, but I was told I couldn’t come because the photographer only likes blond girls. Needless to say my pics didn’t appear on the mag either. I worked hard & had some work, but not enough to give up my fulltime job..this Indian gal is back in IT. ;) You are beautiful. I just saw you on True Blood. You will go far.

  3. Teresa says:

    A very insightful article about the modeling industry. So glad u didn’t allow this image crazed society change you. Being different is a beautiful thing….

  4. Mireya says:

    Kudos jessica for having such a strong sense of self. It is no doubt that the fashion industry is brutal. You are a positive example to all those young women striving to make it in the fashion/acting industry.

  5. Tamika says:

    Well said. I hope Jessica writes a book. I admire her storytelling.

  6. Judith Farkas says:

    Thank you for this fantastic essay. Looking forward to the change that is under way.

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