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

I cry. And then I write.

I cry every day. Not sad boo-hoo tears. Sometimes not even really actual tears. Just that lump in the throat on the verge of crying feeling you get when you feel something deeply. It happens when I’m happy or sad or moved, usually by an unexpected moment of humanity, either witnessed by or extended to me. A child trying to navigate a melting ice cream cone. Someone letting me go ahead of them in the checkout line because I only have four items and they have 846. A video of a pup welcoming home its war vet owner. The person who moves over, without me having to glare at them, to offer me a seat on the bus. That hard-knock life story kid who makes it through to the next round on “American Idol”. My emotions are always right there…on the surface. I am easily moved. So to process it, to make sense of it, to prevent myself from wading in a puddle of tears all day, every day, I write. For myself mainly. For friends and family quite often. I need to get the emotions out…somehow. I also eat lots of pizza and chocolate to deal with the emotions…but, well, ya know. It’s a slippery slope into perma-stretchy-pants land. So I cry. And then I write.

People tell me I’m good at it (the writing, not the eating, though I have mastered that quite well). I don’t really understand that. I just write. I write the way I think and the way I talk. That may not be a good thing but it’s the only way I know how. I don’t worry about, nor am I interested in, the “proper” way to write. I’m not interested in “constructive criticism” when it comes to my “process”. I don’t write for that part of the experience. For me writing is just a way to express myself and if someone starts telling me that I am not expressing myself the “right” way, well, ain’t nobody got time for that. I get grumpy and defiant and my Triple Taurus vibe comes out (yes, that’s right. I said it. Triple Taurus). Plus, I’m much too thin-skinned to accept that type of feedback with an open heart. I know my emotional limits. I can’t change the way I write, my approach, my style, nor do I have any desire to. It is what it is. I just write. Because I feel things. So I cry. And then I write.

I took a fiction writing class in college during my senior year to fulfill an art requirement. The sad irony of the child of two artist parents is that I am the least artistic person you will ever meet. My stick figures are round. So a writing class seemed a good option. I enjoyed it. But it was frustrating because there were rules and criticism and it just took the joy out of the experience. I do however, enjoy the editing process. I usually just start wring stream of consciousness style and I have a tendency to use “&” a lot instead of writing the word “and”; I am trying to change that. That is a concession I will make for this endeavor. I love to revisit what I’ve written and fine tune it. Finding the perfect word, or turn of a phrase…that is actually where the joy comes for me. Getting it just right. I think that’s why I like writing. I can take as much time as I need to say exactly what I mean to say, the way I want to say it. Total “verbal” control. There is not much in life that I can control. The realm of my written words is that rare exception. So I cry. And then I write.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a talker. Big time. But every day I have moments where I reflect upon a conversion I’ve had and think, “Ugh. Why did I say THAT? Why didn’t I say THIS?” I cringe with the memory of all the “likes” and “umms” and “omgs”. The sputtering and floundering. I wish I could take those words back. A do over. A verbal rewrite. But I can’t. So I cry. And then I write.

More and more, over the years, people from all corners of my life, people who see short snippets of my posts on Instagram, or other social media platforms, people who don’t actually know me and therefore have no real vested interest, and aren’t obligated to the polite supportiveness of friendship, tell me I’m good at it. Writing. They tell me that a lot. All the time. Everyday. And so you get to a point where you think, “Maybe you need to listen. Stop dismissing it. You love to write. It brings you joy. People tell you it brings THEM joy. The say you have a gift. Don’t waste it”. So I cry. And then I write.

It seems everyone has a blog these days. This is not a ground breaking feat I’m embarking upon. People do it every day. But for me, it’s epic. Life changing. Dare I say, it’s even bold…for a person who is, by nature and habit, not a risk taker. This blog. My blog. A place for my writing to live. A forever home for my words.

I am creating this space because people often ask me, “So, where can I find your writing?” I’ve never had a place to direct them. It is, however, hard to imagine anyone other than immediate friends and family would be interested in the things I have to say or the stories I have to share…like the time I thought Marvin Gaye and Jackie Kennedy were my parents. And that time, for two weeks, when doctors debated if they would need to amputate my leg. And that time Len Horne requested to meet me. Or how I grew up not just IN the Haight-Ashbury but actually ON Ashbury and Haight Streets, in a house where Jimi and Janis once lived. Yes. I’ve have stories to tell. But do I dare? And then there is the privacy thing. I am fiercely private. “Lulu” is my nom de plume. I won’t be posting picture of myself here. I worry that certain details I write about will out my identity. And that terrifies me. Maybe I’ll get over it. I’m not sure. So I cry. And then I write.

The emotion of what I’m doing…finally…after so many years of false starts. It’s terrifying. I even put a little bit of money towards this blog because I have creative OCD and I want the site to look a certain way. Fonts matter. I’m sort of weird that way. So it feels real. Like, am I really doing this? So I cry. And then I write.

And as I sort through the myriad of offered color palates for the blog design (OMG, why are there so many?) I am overwhelmed and afraid and excited. And as with any major shift in life, there are signs…everywhere…right this moment that I am doing this thing. My cat rolls over on the TV remote and the weight of his furry tummy presses the buttons and changes the channel. It’s a movie. The well-known character in the scene says, “I am a writer”. Is it a sign? I glance down at my Instagram account and my most recent post, a quote about writing by F. Scott Fitzgerald has just been LIKED by Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, Mariel. Is it a sign? So I cry. And then I write.

I know that signs are everywhere because my friend Lake tells me they are and Lake is all knowing and wise and intuitive and the one person, more than any other, who is not going to tell you the warm fuzzy thing that you want to hear, but the deep profound thing that you need to hear so that you will grow. It’s been this way since we were in the first grade. So if Lake says there are signs, trust me, don’t try to fight it. There are signs. So I cry. And then I write.

I am seeing the signs. I am listening to them. I am respecting their power. And I will give my words a place to live, a home, worthy of their power, instead of deserting them, scattered throughout the universe and forgotten. I will honor my skill, my talent. I will respect my voice. I will share my stories. So I cry. And then I write.

I have no idea what happens after this. I am terrified at the idea of strangers reading my words. I have no end goal here. I just want to write. And if people read my words and appreciate them, that is truly wonderful. If something I share moves even one person in a positive way, well, that will be beautiful. But I have no expectations. So I cry. And then I write.

And so now, in this very moment, I feel strong and powerful and in control. And the tears have stopped. I’m not crying. Is it a sign?

Time will tell, my beauties. Time will tell. xo lulu