The Problem with Models of Color as Cover Girls

Models of color on the covers of major fashion magazines. It’s a good thing, right? Well, yes and no.

Seeing such diversity and actual models (as opposed to movie/TV stars) on covers of major fashion magazines is refreshing. The loss of that exposure has had a grave impact on the career paths of professional models. A cover can make a career.

However…

…it seems there is an unwritten, rarely spoken about rule that models of color have to share this pivotal moment in their career.

More often than not these days, when a Black/Model of Color (MOC) lands a cover, she is not alone; she shares it with other models. Sometimes they are other models of color; sometimes they are not. A quick review of some of 2017’s covers illustrates my point:

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And quite often, the cover story is about diversity, basically highlighting the fact that the editorial team has decided to put women of color on the cover. It almost makes it feel like a gimmick. Instead of just putting a woman of color on the cover and letting THAT be its own powerful image, it becomes a “thing”, a “look at what we did” moment.

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To be clear, I fully appreciate and want diverse beauty represented in fashion, advertising, and art. But if you have to draw attention to the fact that you are doing something, perhaps that is a clue that you don’t do it enough.

Maybe it’s the former model in me, but I am sort of selfish minded for these girls. To get a cover of a top fashion magazine is one of the apexes of any model’s career. It’s even more coveted now that models rarely get that honor: for the past fifteen or so years, cover girls aren’t professional models; they are Hollywood starlets. So when a model gets a cover, it’s a big damn deal for her career. And yet a shared cover happens primarily – I’d argue it ONLY happens – when the cover includes a Black model/MOC.

Further, when there is more than one model of color on the cover, they are usually in a range of skin tones, from light to dark. Again, the message is a seemingly positive one: “Yea! Diversity! Look at all the pretty colors”. It would be MORE powerful…and genuine to the message of diversity…if just ONE model was on the cover…especially if she were a dark complexioned model.

Our culture puts a higher premium on lighter complexioned women of color. I say this as a woman who falls on the lighter hue chart herself. The privileges I experience in life, based on that reality, were not only restricted to my modeling career; they extend to my life, day to day, every day, as a woman of color in America. I am afforded more opportunities, acceptance and accolades because my skin skews lighter. My lighter skin makes me more palatable to those who might hold biases towards people of color. People never know WHAT my identity is. Makes it a bit harder for them to figure out how to discriminate against me too.

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The first time, in its 32 year history, that Sports Illustrated put a Black model on the cover of its career making swimsuit issue, she was not alone. Tyra Banks shared the cover with Valerie Mazza in 1996.

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It’s almost as if they were testing the waters. Once they saw the positive reaction her appearance received – and that the world did not come to an end – the next cover was hers and hers alone. Tyra’s cover turned out to be one the most popular and iconic covers in the magazine’s swimsuit issue history.

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It was the first…and last time that a Black model was on the cover alone…until this year’s 2018 cover model, Danielle Herrington (I’m assuming she is Black TBH). That’s 21 years between the two. And only two in 64 years.

There HAVE been a few Latina models on the cover. When Chrissy Teigen was on the over in 2014, (she’s part Thai) she shared the cover with two other girls.

In May 2017, American Elle issued six covers, with six different models, each solo on their respective covers. Two of them were MOC: the stunning Jasmine Tookes and the radiant Maria Borges. Instead of just giving one model a cover, they dilute…for lack of a better word…the power of that one image. Why not just give one cover to Maria? And then maybe another cover later in the year to Jasmine? Why must they be a package deal, folded in with stunners – but super safe choices – like Hailey Baldwin and Bella Hadid?

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This isn’t to say that it happens all the time. There ARE times when black models grace covers alone.

In 2015, Jourdan Dunn was on the cover of British Vogue alone. However, that was the first time in ELEVEN years a Black model had graced the cover alone. The last time was 2004 with Naomi Campbell.

Thankfully we didn’t have to wait another 11 years for it to happen again.

In 2017, with Edward Enninful at the helm as the magazines new EIC, his premiere cover in December featured Adwoa Aboah. By herself. Progress.  This is a reminder that diversity BEHIND the scenes, among key decision makers, in ANY industry, is vital to ensuring that a wide range of sensibilities, truths and experiences are reflected.

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I recently saw the May 2018 British Vogue cover and it is exquisite. It also has nine models on it; most of them WOC (as best as I can tell). I will add, however, that this cover does represent an even bolder diversity with a model who is not a size two and another model wearing a hijab. I actually contemplated not including it as an example to make my point of this essay because it is SUCH a powerful cover. But how powerful it would have been if each of these models were given a cover all to herself? I can’t help thinking about that.

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Taking Mr. Enninful out of the equation, why do fashion editors at these magazines make these art direction decisions? Is it flat out racism? I don’t think so. I think it’s more innocuous and subtle form of bias. The type that seeps into our everyday lives. People often ask “why does everything have to be about race”. It doesn’t. Except when it is.

I don’t have any empirical evidence on this, so I can only speak to my own interpretation of why Black models/MOC are often required to share a cover, but in broad stroke terms I think it represents a lack of awareness and ingrained biases implicit within the fashion industry, advertising and marketing. I’ve worked as both a professional model, and then, later, in advertising, at both the creative and account management ends. In both realms, I saw how the lack of representation in decision making roles created a limited view of the world they were trying to serve.

It’s important that decision makers understand the decisions they make have serious implications for many young (in particular) women who look at these images and make a direct correlation between them and their own self-worth, beauty and value in society.

At the end of the day, every decision comes down to money and advertisers. If they put one Black model on the cover…especially a dark complexioned model…there may be an unconscious fear of “offending” some of their readers and advertisers. But they want to “address” diversity, so they put a few models on a cover, ideally a white model to distract as needed, call it the “diversity issue” and pat themselves in the back for their bold artistic decisions.

I consider that a cop out.  Put a dark skinned beauty on the cover. Don’t explain it or justify it. Just put her beautiful face on the cover. And while we’re at it, where are all of the Asian models? That’s another story for another day. Representation for them is woefully lacking in this realm (the aforementioned May British Vogue cover is a refreshing exception).

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It didn’t always used to be this way. In the mid to late 80’s and into the early 90’s, Black models graced the covers of top magazines solo, with no “diversity” fanfare. A lot. Each of these supermodels, Karen Alexander, Kara Young and Louise Vyent had at least 10 that I counted during a quick google search. There was no fuss about diversity. They were just there, in all of their Black Girl Magic glory. I’m really not sure why it seems that progress regressed over the years. But it did.

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When I’ve mentioned this new phenomenon with covers to folks in my circle, many of whom are people of color, many who are not, but most who follow fashion and style and beauty trends and all who are, as the kids today say: “woke”…they are shocked. Shocked that this is actually a thing, but even more so, shocked because they sheepishly admitted they never noticed the thing. They were so busy celebrating the fact that models of color were actually getting covers that they missed the problematic pattern of these covers.

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I want to make it clear that I am so very proud of these cover girls. As a former professional model myself, I fully understand and appreciate what it means to get a cover – any cover – in this highly competitive industry. I celebrate in their success and nothing I’ve written should be interpreted as negating their professional accomplishments. I simply would like to see each of them given the chance to shine in their own light, on their own covers. It is a good, positive, powerful thing…for them professionally…and for us collectively…to see the rich diversity of our humanity reflected in these images. I’d rather have them on these covers, than not at all. I just hope there comes a day when this diversity is presented, not as “otherness”, but rather as just part of the expected landscape of our collective beauty, with each woman given her moment in the spotlight. ~ Lulu

Inked by Sade

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I still can’t believe I got a tattoo! It’s not something I ever really thought about but in the past few years I felt like I wanted one & I knew that it would be music related & it was gonna be Sade related because if music is my religion, then Sade is my God.

“By Your Side” is the name of one of her songs. It might surprise you to know that it’s not necessarily my favorite song of hers but it DOES represent my connection to her music in a powerful way.

(Before we start, can we just acknowledge how weird a wrist looks out of context? SO weird!)

It was the fall of 2000. I had just come home after a bumpy day at work. I even remember what I was wearing (green cargo pants, a pink tank top, jeans jacket, green striped tote bag). Normally when I come home I immediately kick off my shoes, drop my keys & sunglasses in their proper little spot (because I am uber Type-A & organized that way), put down my purse & turn on the TV (terrible habit, I know).

But this day, for some reason, I went into the kitchen & turned on the radio. I NEVER do that. I still had my sunglasses on, purse still on my shoulder. The station was set to KBLX, The Quiet Storm. The DJ was saying, “Sade’s first release in 8 years” & then a song started to play.

I literally dropped to my knees in the middle of my kitchen & started to cry. The instrumental intro to the song started to play. I started to cry because I knew that soon, when this album was released, I would have 12-13 new songs from an artist whose art affects me so deeply; songs that would give me everything I need when I need it. I don’t really know how to explain it. There are actually singers whose voices I would rather have if I could sing, than hers. But her music moves me like no other.

I actually said out loud to the empty room, “Sade, WHY do you make us wait so long for your music? We need you by our side”

And then she started to sing the song:

“You think I’d leave your side baby
You know me better than that
You think I’d leave you down when you’re down on your knees
I wouldn’t do that”

I sobbed. As usual it was as if she knew my heart; knew exactly what I was going through. There I was, on my knees, questioning her, begging for her.

She continued to sing. The last line was “I’ll be there by your side baby”

The DJ came on the radio & said, “There it is. “By Your Side” by Sade.

Well, I just about passed out. I mean, she was LITERALLY reading my mind, my heart, my emotions. She was reading my heart & as always, knew exactly what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. There she was, being my favorite artist in all the ways that move me.

When the cd was released, I had preordered it & picked it up at the record store (remember those??). I had a whole ritual planned: I was going to start listening the CD on my Discman (lol) the minute I walked out of the store & walk home & just enjoy the music with the backdrop of San Francisco all round me. The walk home was not a short one (From the Embarcadero to Cow Hollow for your SF peeps). It was not a walk that one takes just on a whim. It was a long walk, but walking up & down the hills of my hometown on a brisk clear night, with Sade serenading, is pretty much my idea of heaven.

So I walked & I listened. I few times I stopped to take in the view. And because I am super Type A & like clarity & order & finite beginnings and ends, I started to wonder if the CD would play all the way till I got home or if it would stop sooner. Btu I didn’t really think too much about it. I just walked & listened. And as I put the key in my front door, at that very moment as I opened the front door, the very last note of the very last song faded away. I don’t know what you call that, but I call it a sign…yet again…that Sade knows. She just knows.

“By Your Side” has become a little mantra I say to myself when I need encouragement or a reminder that everything is going to be ok.

Cause here is the thing:

The thing is, there is ALWAYS something or someone by your side…to get you through, to give you encouragement or tough love or a pat on the back. It might be your faith, or your bestie, or your lover. It might be your favorite spot in nature or your much loved piece of prose or a warm cuddle from a fur baby. And it might even be a song…or the title of a song. And it might even by YOU, by your side. In most cases, it’s a combination of all of the above.

So when I started to think about getting a tattoo, something inspired by Sade was the only option & this was the obvious choice. On the inside of my wrist (where is can be easily covered by my watch for those times when a tattoo might not be appropriate) where I can see it, glance at it, stare at it, enjoy it. And I HAVE! I have really looked at it & focused on it & allowed it to do what I hoped it would do: give me strength & courage & faith. Sometimes I wake up in the morning & my arm is up on the pillow & the tattoo is the first thing I see & it comforts me.

It’s been almost two months now. And I have no regrets…which is a good thing…cause it’s gonna be by my side forever! xo lulu

That One Time I Met My Daddy

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My father. I didn’t grow up with him in my life. He was out of the picture before my second birthday. The reasons why are not important. It was not his fault. I never blamed him. I just accepted that he was not able to be around. I knew, somehow, that the reasons WHY had nothing to do with me. I just accepted that he was not able to be around. You sort of don’t miss what you’ve never had so I didn’t really dwell on it or pine for him to be in my life.

About ten years ago, out of the blue, I got a letter from a woman…his wife…saying that if I wanted time with him, the time was now because he was ill. I had never even THOUGHT about this possibility…but when faced with it, there was no question that I would go to him.

We spent one day together. This is what happened:

It turned out my father lived about ten blocks from where I grew up. The excitement of that day, the day we arranged to meet was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s too hard to put into words. I won’t even try. All I know is I wanted to hug him and to let him know that somehow, all along, I knew that the fact that he was not in my life was not his fault. And more than anything, I wanted him to be proud of me.

When the moment came & I walked into the room to see him for the first time in more than three decades, I saw a man, frail but proud, sitting on the side of the bed, struggling to stand up with the use of a walker. The first words I spoke to him ever (save for maybe some baby babble when I was a toddler) were: “It’s ok Daddy. You don’t need to stand up”.

“DADDY”. That was a salutation I had NEVER said in my life. And why did I call him “Daddy”? Why not “Dad” or “Papa” or “Father”? Ok, “Father” was probably not very likely, but I thought it was interesting that, in that moment, “Daddy” was what felt right & natural…as if I’d been saying the word forever and a day. As it turns out I think I just might be a Daddy’s Girl after all…and that is fine by me.

I went over to him. We hugged…and spent the next six hours catching up. There was no awkwardness.  It was natural and easy. He felt like HOME.

On that day I learned things about him that I never knew. My mum never spoke much about him and when she did it was when pointing out my perceived faults and how they were inherited from him…according to her.

Getting to know him for myself, on our terms, as an adult, was a blessing.

Turns out he was a special Ed-teacher. That was what I thought I wanted to be from about age 5 until college…when I discovered that I wasn’t nearly as noble as I once thought. I inherited his fierce stubbornness & his unwillingness to compromise on issues big (Liberal Democrat for life!) & small (we-no-likey pineapple on our pizza, no way, no how!), his inability to master the use of chopsticks & having never owned a car.

One thing I didn’t inherit from him was his talent for art & music, though my appreciation for both is deep. He played 5 instruments (self-taught) & was a talented artist who painted & made very delicate multi-media collages; my stick figures are round. Sigh. He was a professionally trained chef; I manage to burn boiling water!

Even the fact that we both were wearing red (a color I never wear for whatever reason) seemed to be a sign…but one tends to read maybe too much into things in emotionally charged situations such as seeing your father for the first time in over 30+ years. But I clung onto every nuanced genetic link I could on that day. I was desperate to make connections, to draw a line from his heart, his brain, his soul to mine, to be my father’s daughter.

When I was a little girl I thought my father was Marvin Gaye & my mother was Jackie Kennedy. Ok, I KNEW they weren’t REALLY my parents but to my child’s eyes that’s who they looked like to me in the peak of their youthful beauty. Throughout my life whenever I’d see or hear Marvin Gaye I would think of my father. In truth those were the only times I did think about him.

While Daddy & I were taking…about everything…I suddenly had an urge to ask him a preposterous question. Knowing this might be my only chance to do so, I went for it. “Daddy, do you know what today is?” Most people would have answered, “It’s April 1st (which it was) or “It’s April Fool’s Day” (which it was). But that was not the answer I was looking for; the answer I was looking for was so random and obscure…and yet somehow I felt like he would know.  My Daddy said, without a hint of implying that his answer would seem most random to anyone, “It’s the anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s death”.

There is no way I can explain that to you.  First of all, how many people would even KNOW that (another thing Daddy & I had in common – massive amounts of useless trivia, usually entertainment related, rattling around in our heads). And how would he know that THAT was the answer I was hoping for…all the while knowing that it was literally insane to think that he would give the “right” answer. But he did. My Daddy didn’t let me down. He knew.

The similarities between us were instantly apparent & magical. We shared the same passion for politics & music & football (though differed in team allegiance – his 49ers vs. my Raiders) & pizza & our favorite cookies: Oreos!! The same quirky habit of bouncing one leg up & down when eating a particularly scrumptious morsel of food was evidenced over a shared meal of…you guessed it: Pizza & Oreos. A love of writing long handwritten letters to friends, whipping out a well-worn dog-eared book in the midst of a passionate debate to find the perfect quote to prove our point & an affinity for all things PBS, CSPAN & jazz music radio stations, were another part of our shared tapestry in life.

The question of nature vs. nurture is a complicated one. I am more like him in every way than I am like my mother who raised me. Of course I am my mother’s daughter but more in the ways that were pounded (literally) into my head or forced on me through fear. But that’s another story for another day.

There was a lot that I didn’t know about my father before that day. But it turned out, he knew a lot about me. He pulled out a box full of many of my modeling clippings from the many times I was in the local paper. He knew where I went to college and that I had graduated president of my class. He knew that I was smart, brave and funny.

He told me that he was proud of me. Proud of the woman I had become. And that is really all I needed to hear. I still remember that on days when I don’t feel so smart or so brave or so funny…but I AM…cause my daddy said so.

At one point, he said, so very wistfully, “I think you turned out so well because I wasn’t around to mess you up”. “Nooo, Daddy”, I pleaded. “You get to take credit for who I am. At least half of it. I am YOUR daughter”. His eyes welled with tears. It was important for him to know that. I got the sense that it was something he had thought a lot about. I’m glad I was able to put his mind at ease. It was the most poignant moment of the day…of which there were many.

My father was a handsome, talented, funny, caring, charming, witty, gifted, creative, passionate, complicated man (5 kids by 4 different women will do that to a you). What a man, what a man, what a mighty good man. I was BEYOND grateful to meet him & remain prouder still to be his daughter. It’s funny: tho I never thought about the possibility of meeting him up to that day, now I can’t imagine what life would feel like NOT having had that experience.

He wrote me several sweet notes after our reunion before he died soon thereafter. To say I cherish them all of my heart is an understatement. He called me “Sweetheart” in those notes. To this day, when I look at them & see that tender greeting, I dissolve into tears.

My father passed away soon after that special reunion.

I miss him every day.

Dear sweet man. My daddy. He had a gentle spirit of a soul, a devilish twinkle in his eyes, and a deep kindness in his heart.

Happy Father’s Day, dear Daddy. I love you & I miss you.

Love,

Your sweetheart

Mourning the Reign of Prince

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A week has gone by & I still find myself reeling from Prince’s death. But why? If you’d asked me a week ago to name my top five fav singers or songs, he wouldn’t have been on the list. I loved his art of course but he was just not on that list for me. But he was just always there…in my life. And in that existence, people get taken for granted.

I’ve been sort of surprised by the depth of my sorrow. I cried for three days straight. I watched “Purple Rain” several times over the weekend. His music was on repeat. I’m a bit better now. But if I hear “Purple Rain” anywhere, anytime, the tears flow. In truth, the shock of this musical genius’ death has not worn off. If anything, the pain has deepened, the ache has widened, the grief has amplified.

The irony that Vanity died this year at 57 as well. I knew Vanity’s sister back in my modeling days & had the chance to meet her a few times when she attended fashion shows her sister & I were in. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Fragile. Feminine. Shy.

Every time a news reporter on the news said, “Prince has died”, I held my head in my hands & say, “How can this be? I just don’t understand” I mean, I know that people die & maybe that reaction seems odd but I just can’t wrap my head around it. I just can’t. It seems impossible. It just doesn’t seem real. Still. A week later.

I feel this even more deeply than I did Michael Jackson’s death; not to imply that grief can be measured but I just feel this one deep in my soul. Maybe it’s because Prince’s music was more intertwined with my high school & college days, whereas MJ was more my younger years.

Prince was the soundtrack to dance parties with high school besties & head banging sing alongs in college & snuggle fests under the Eiffel Tower with dreamy boys & wild nights dancing in fountains in Milan with supermodels & California road tripping & that one love who insisted that “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” was written for me.

And then there was that time over 20 years ago, in the back of a darkened nightclub, in the haze & blur of what those kind of late nights bring, where I found myself among a small group of people welcomed into an after party of sorts & there he was, holding court, literally nodding his approval as we sashayed past, lingering for a few moments as he spoke soft words of praise

 

I got to see him in concert a few years ago. He was sassy, sexy & dynamic. He never stopped moving & grooving & singing & playing. It was exhausting to just watch. But also exhilarating.

Wherever I was, there was Prince. And yet, he was never over exposed so when he appeared on TV it always felt like a distinct surprise.

His presence was so grand, so evocative, so powerful, so impactful. There was no on like him. He was Jimi & James & Michael & Elton & Madonna & Elvis & Gaga all rolled into one little 5’2” package.

One of my first inclinations when I heard the news was to text my boss & co-workers to let them know that I was going to need a little bit of time to pull myself together before I dealt with work issues.

And then it dawned on me that I am losing the lesson in this tragedy. I stress about work. I stress about life. I wake up in the middle of the night to update my To Do list. I am always worrying about meeting deadlines. I am always in GO GO GO mode. And while that type of conscientiousness makes me a great employee, what does it mean beyond that? Not much.

Time is precious. Life is fragile. There are no guarantees. Our time on this planet is fleeting. Responding to emails can wait. Setting up meetings can wait. Life can’t wait. Life is right now. In this moment. And if life calls upon you to grieve & cry & feel your emotions, you have to allow space for that to happen.

This is it. This is all we have. This minute. It can all be snatched away in a second. And while you can’t live your life in fear, you can be mindful that NOW is all we have. And so the question becomes: HOW will you spend NOW?

I often say that music is my religion & that music heals all. But right now those musical prayers are failing me.  Goodnight, sweet Prince. xo lulu