Art Matters. How an Afternoon at the Movies Healed my Heart

Art matters. This is why.

I went to the movies recently. By myself, which is how I prefer it. I sat in the very last row, which is also how I like it at this particular theater. I saw Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”. I knew it would be emotional. I knew I had to mentally steel myself for it. I knew it would be a lot. And it was. Especially those last few minutes. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that. The entire audience sat in stunned silence. Barely breathing.

Speaking of the audience, when I walked in the theater, I looked around & it appeared to me that the audience was entirely composed of retired age white folks. Going to midday matinees, it’s usually like that. The over 65 part, that is.

As the credits rolled, and Prince sang (don’t ever leave a movie before all the credits roll; that’s a pet peeve of mine & you sometimes miss really significant moments – hint hint), a young woman was trying to exit my row.

“Excuse me”, she whispered, as I was sitting there, holding my face in my hands, my heart in my stomach. I looked up. She was young. Barely 23, if I had to guess. If I had a younger sister, which I don’t, I imagine this young lady is what she might look like. The similarities in our appearance were notable. I guess I didn’t see her when I made my initial once over of the audience earlier. So, make that two people of color in the audience. Two black women.

I smiled weakly, shifted my legs so she could get by & then continued to sit there for another few moments.

I knew that I would need to go to the restroom to compose myself. I might even have to lock myself in a stall & have a good cry. I had errands to run & didn’t think my flood of emotions would wait until I got home.

When I entered the restroom, there she was. The young woman from my row. Looking in the mirror, dabbing tears from her eyes. She looked at me. I looked at her. And then I promptly I burst out into tears.

“I’m sorry”, I blubbered. “I’m so sorry. I just…can’t…”

“I know”, she said. “I know”.

And then this young woman, this total stranger, barely half my age, reached out her arms to me. And we hugged. And not one of those demure “respect my space” hugs. It was a real hug. The heart to heart kind. The holding on for dear life kind. The sharing an understanding, a feeling, an awareness of a human experience kind. The best kind.

There we were, two strangers in a public restroom. Bonding over a movie.

I apologized again. “I’m so sorry”. I’m not sure why that was all that I could say. Maybe I felt embarrassed by my own vulnerability.

“It’s ok”, she said, warmly. “It’s a lot. I’m going to sit outside (referring to the little lounging area in the theater) & try to process it. I’ll be there”. The implication, it seemed, was, she’d be there, if I wanted to join her.

I nodded my head as I dried my tears. She left the restroom & I splashed some water on my face, reapplied my lipstick, put my purse on my shoulder & started to walk out of the restroom.

Then I paused. I looked at my watch. I had errands to run. Places to be. Things to do. I was torn. Was I just going to leave & never see her again? Would our moment begin & end in a public restroom? Or would I walk outside, sit next to her & connect?

I made my decision.

I found her sitting on the couch, looking down at her phone. I sat across from her, not wanting to interrupt. Not wanting to seem needy. Maybe she was just being polite when she told me she’d be sitting there. Maybe I had misinterpreted her words.

So, I just sort of sat there. Staring off into space. And then I sighed a little bit too loudly.

She looked up.

And then we started talking. Like old friends.

We talked about the movie & how there were moments where we thought, “My god, this could be today. The words they are saying.” And then how we realized that this IS today. The words they were saying, WORD FOR WORD. The exact same words uttered by the KKK & David Duke in the 70’s are now being uttered by the current occupant of the Oval Office.

We talked about Trump.

We talked about race.

We talked about politics.

We talked about our lives.

She told me she just moved here, several weeks ago. From the same town where my father was born in Minnesota.

She told me that she now lives in the neighborhood where I grew up. Just six blocks away from my childhood home.

She told that she’d been her for just a few weeks and that I was the first native San Franciscan she’d met. She was very excited about that.

She told me she was a nurse & she was looking for a job.

She was young & excited about her life; the way energetic 20-somethings often are. But she was also weary & worried about the state & future of our country.

I told her that I understood. That I was worried too. And that in the end we would all be ok; a life lesson we older dolls, who’ve been through life’s ups & downs, have come to understand.

There was just something so familiar to me about this young woman. Maybe she reminded me of myself. I don’t know. But something made me want to keep her in my tribe.

“I know this might seem weird. We just met but…”

“Yes!” she exclaimed, “Let’s exchange numbers”.

My girl. Didn’t leave me hanging.

I told her that if she had any questions, any questions about San Francisco or needed any advice on her job search or just anything in general, to please call me. “Anything. Anytime. I’m serious”, I said.

We exchanged numbers. We hugged. We were healed.

This is the power of art. It brings people together. It changes people. For the better.

The movie had left me feeling so sad, almost broken, realizing how far we, as a nation, as Black Americans, still have to go to reach full equality. But the kindness of a stranger, with an invitation to connect, the power of a hug, soul to soul, sister to sister, brought me back to hope, happiness & humanity.

It was art that healed us. That matters.

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