Racism Pushed Me Out of the Fashion World: A Black Model's Experience

by Bee Quammie

“Do you think you can, you know, stay out of the sun this summer? Then we might be able to do something with you.”

I was dumbfounded. All my nervous excitement about sitting with one of Toronto’s top-rated modeling agencies slid out of my body and pooled at my feet.

I asked my potential agent for clarification on her request.

“Well, we already have a Black girl on the roster,” she said matter-of-factly. “She’s darker than you, so if you stay lighter and we make your look a bit more exotic, we might be able to get you booked. We just don’t need two Black Black girls.” She continued to flip through my carefully curated portfolio of photos while I sat in disbelief.

I was young. I had recently moved to Toronto and thought my big break was just around the corner. During my childhood, I was obsessed with modeling—the glamour, beauty, and transformation of it all. I tore out magazine pages to practice poses and watched a Canadian program called Fashion Television each week to watch clips from runway shows and perfect my walk. While my friends joined gymnastics and Brownies, I begged my parents to sign me up for acting and modeling classes and to take me to agencies to get signed, which I soon did as my pre-teen years. Eventually, the combination of an awkward puberty phase plus parents who wanted me to focus on school plus a lost opportunity to move to New York City (mom wasn’t enthused about her baby living in a house abroad with tutors and “watchers”) plus lagging booking opportunities in my hometown meant my modeling career slowed to a stop.

When I later moved to Toronto, my dreams got a new shot in the arm. Here I was in the country’s fashion hub with top agencies a subway ride away. I submitted pictures. I attended auditions. Nearly every time, I was met with some reminder that I was too Black or not acceptably exotic enough to “make it.” Agency meetings lost their spark and constantly left me feeling overly frustrated, so eventually I stopped. Agency rosters overflowed with cookie-cutter white models with a smattering of Asian girls mixed in, but one Black girl was more than enough. Not much in this industry ever shocked me, but I was always caught off guard by how self-assured these gatekeepers would be while defending their banal ideas around the value (or lack thereof) of Black models.

It’s funny how things find you when you stop chasing them.

After leaving my last offensive agency meeting and last shifty, opportunistic “photo shoot,” I stopped actively pursuing any kind of modeling career. Later, I was tapped to audition for Toronto Fashion Week and booked the show. Following that, I visited a casting agency when a friend was convinced I fit the look they were seeking for a campaign. I didn’t get it, but they kept my info on file and I’ve been finding myself called regularly for auditions, booking more gigs than not. It seemed that the tide had turned. Or had it?

My concern now isn’t necessarily about getting my foot in the door but the issues around being a Black model navigating the industry that remain ever present.

Casting agents and booking clients trick themselves into believing they’re actually in support of showcasing the diversity that reflects the world we live in. They pride themselves on booking Black models, but the industry shows how weak its house of cards is when we show up on set. That Toronto Fashion Week runway show I booked? The start of the show was delayed because there was no hairstylist around who could confidently brush my pre-blown out natural hair into a bun. I had to wait for the lone Black hairstylist to tend to my hair while the rest of the team stood by and watched as if I was an experiment. I suppose in that moment, I was.

Models Nykhor Paul and Mulan Itoje spoke recently on the discrepancies on set between Black and white models—the unpreparedness of makeup artists and hairstylists when working with Black models and the sloppy quick fixes given to Black models while white models have their looks carefully crafted. When I get calls for shoots, I instinctively pack my own foundations lest the makeup artist wrinkle her nose at my brown skin while wondering which concoction of pale makeup will be suitable. I’m more successful at booking gigs when I audition with my hair coaxed into smooth curls versus when my hair is fluffy like cotton candy. However, even when I’m booked with the requested curly-haired look, the complaints of it being “too much” or that “it just looks like a big fuzz ball on camera” abound. Booking more commercial gigs than high fashion ones, I see that the industry’s preferred Black beauty is the one that fits into boxes that have only widened slightly to let us in.

Colourism rears its ugly head throughout the modeling industry, and I’ve noted a new take on it through the ways I’ve seen Black children get booked. My own brown baby booked for her first ad at three months old—a campaign for a charity working with girls in impoverished countries around the world. She gets invited to castings for the role of poor, charity-dependent children but never books the fun, cute diaper and toy ads that I push for—these end up going solely to white babies or lighter Black/mixed race children. Now, could I just be a sensitive mom? Sure but it wasn’t too long ago that I was asked by an agency to stay out of the sun. Whenever I’m booked as part of a family-themed shoot, my “children” are always mixed. One mother, a Black woman married to a white man whose son was my pretend progeny for the day, whispered to me on set, “I’m so glad he finally has a Black mom for a shoot.” She saw her own erasure through the ways her son was viewed, and it was a poignant moment.

Luckily, I’ve had a number of positive experiences with production teams who get it: makeup artists who are stocked to the brim with foundations that blend and makeup that pops on brown skin, people behind the camera who understand the importance of lighting when it comes to best showcasing Black models’ varied skin tones and capturing the definition in natural hair, and hairstylists who see me and immediately pull out the tools and products designed for my locks. If the modeling agency truly wants to embrace diversity, trotting Black models out without a system behind the camera to support them isn’t the way.

Diversity in front of the camera relies on diversity behind it—in the designers and clients, casting agencies, styling, and mechanics of capturing beautiful images. The modeling industry is slowly, painfully slowly, realizing that beauty comes in forms other than tall, thin, and white. What needs to happen next is an understanding of the variances of Black beauty, a respect for Black beauty, and a conscious effort to court Black beauty and fashion dollars because they’re out there for the taking. When these things happen, we may begin to see true movement in the industry, hopefully making it better for the next group of models to pass through—those like me who love the glamour and transformation of it all, and who see themselves worthy of partaking in the art of beauty, just as they are.

Photo: Shutterstock

Bee Quammie is a Toronto-based healthcare professional, writer, and founder of ‘83 To Infinity and The Brown Suga Mama. Recognized by Black Enterprise & the Black Canadians Awards for her digital work, Bee aims to live '83 To Infinity's motto: "It's never too late to learn something new, do something new, or be someone new." Follow her on Twitter at @BeeSince83.

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