Posted on February 24, 2011

‘Fashion Probably Is a Bit Racist’

Hannah Pool, Guardian (London), February 22, 2011

Rising model Leomie Anderson will have to work twice as hard as her white peers to succeed. Hannah Pool reports on an industry that is stuck in a time warp

Leomie Anderson is being compared to Naomi Campbell. Photograph: Premier Model Management

At 5ft 10.5in, with feline features and legs like a gazelle, Leomie Anderson makes quite an impression when she enters a room. With her hair tied back and wearing no makeup, the 18-year-old has the kind of beauty that is both knockout and approachable.

Anderson, who was spotted when she was 14 by a scout from Premier Model Management, is one of the stars of The Model Agency, Channel 4’s new seven-part series following Premier’s bookers, scouts and models, which starts tonight.

In her first season, last September, Anderson walked for Marc by Marc Jacobs, Giles, Topshop Unique, Ungaro and Loewe (for whom she opened the show). She also caught the eye of uber-stylist (and editor of biannual fashion magazine Love) Katie Grand. Inevitably, comparisons are being made with Naomi Campbell, whose career was also launched by Premier.

“I’m flattered people compare me to Naomi Campbell, because she’s done so much in the modelling industry, but I don’t want people to think I’m going to be ‘the next Naomi’. I want to be my own person. I want to be known for my writing, not just modelling,” says Anderson, who blogs for US magazine Essence.

Of course, there is room for more than one successful black model, but it does seem that popular culture can only deal with one at a time.

“It’s a lot harder to start a black girl than a white girl, for a number of reasons,” says Carole White, Premier’s founder. “There’s not so much work for them, and sometimes photographers and makeup artists are scared. They don’t know how to light or make them up properly so it takes a lot longer. . . . It’s a slower process.”

White first called for greater diversity in the fashion industry in 2008. “In the last couple of years there’s been a movement of trying to get more black girls into the business, but it’s an attitude. Right now everyone is scared–they think, if I take that risk, will she sell my products? So they go with the tried-and-tested white girls.

Is the fashion industry racist? “I don’t think the industry is any more racist than anywhere else,” says White. “It’s driven by what sells and, in general, white blonde girls sell, that’s the mindset. In actual fact, black girls do sell but they’re not given as many openings. It is safer to go with a white girl, and in a recession people are very conservative.”

Booker Annie Wilshaw puts it more strongly: “Yes, I’d say the industry is racist. In Milan black girls never work. In Paris it’s still the same. It’s 2011 and that’s quite disgusting, really.”

Wilshaw continues: “When the client sends you a brief you know straight away they’re not talking about a black girl. They say they want ‘a girl with long hair, who looks like a fairy’ or something. When they want a black girl, they will say ‘looking for mixed-race girl, tribal-prints location, desert scene’.

“It really bores me when photographers shoot black girls the same way, with a tribal print and some bright eye-shadow going on. Come on, that was Alek Wek in the 1990s, do something different.”

Despite the success of some prominent black models, such as Puerto Rican Joan Smalls (who has just signed for L’Oréal), Chanel Iman and Jeneil Williams, Premier still warns its black girls that things will be harder for them.

“I explained to Leomie when we took her on that she won’t get the options as easily as the white girls, because it’s true, it’s so much harder to develop the black girls. She has to work twice as hard to get picked up on,” says Wilshaw.

Does Anderson think the industry is racist? “How can you expect fashion not to be slightly racist when the world is still racist? There’s racism and prejudice in every aspect of life, so yes, fashion probably is a bit racist,” she says.

Does she get disheartened? “There are a lot of girls, white, black, Chinese, Asian or whatever, who have got a lot stronger walk than me, or a unique look, and if a designer is looking for that particular look, and I haven’t got it, maybe it’s not because of my colour.”