Where Are All the Black Models on Our Catwalks?

Jane Mulkerrin, London Evening Standard, September 16, 2013

Beneath an arresting Annie Leibovitz image, Iman—the Somali-born supermodel and wife of David Bowie—is growing increasingly incensed. “There were more black models on the catwalk when I started in the 1970s than there are today,” she exclaims. She waves an elegant hand, bearing a huge diamond, at the Leibovitz group shot, featuring 16 celebrated black models from various eras, including Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Cynthia Bailey and herself. “So when people say that there just aren’t that many black models, yes there are!” she cries. But, she says, to look at the runway of late is to witness a virtual white-out.

And Iman, along with Campbell, isn’t taking it lying down. The high-profile pair have joined forces with Bethann Hardison, former model-turned-agent-turned activist, to highlight the lack of models of colour currently taking to the catwalk.

On September 5, the opening of New York Fashion Week and the first stop on the fash pack’s glitzy four-city autumn tour, the three women sent an open letter to the heads of the fashion governing bodies in New York, London, Paris and Madrid, under the banner of Hardison’s Diversity Coalition. “Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of colour,” the letter reads. “No matter the intention, the result is racism.” The coalition then lists the designers and fashion houses it says are “guilty of this racist act”, among them Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Chanel, Armani, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Victoria Beckham, Roberto Cavalli and Marc by Marc Jacobs.

“People have said we are shaming the designers,” Iman tells me, her voice still infused with a rich African inflection after almost 40 years in the United States. “But that’s not what we’re doing. Nobody is calling anybody racist; the action is racist,” she explains. “I have a 12-year-old daughter [Alexandria, who carries Bowie’s legal surname, Jones; she also has a 35 year-old daughter, Zulekha Haywood, from her previous marriage to the American basketball player, Spencer Haywood] and when she does something wrong, she says, ‘I was very bad’. I say, ‘No, you did something bad. You are not bad’. The action is different from the person who is doing it.”

And, she points out, this is not simply a case of pitying the poor models struggling in the rarefied, well-paid world of high-fashion. “The absence of models of colour sends a message to our young girls that they are not good enough, they are not beautiful enough,” she says. “Photography and the runways are such powerful tools, and say such a lot about our society. It is so much bigger than the catwalk.”

It is a steamy September morning in Manhattan, a week after the politely explosive letter was sent, when I meet the feisty, formidable icons at the midtown offices of Iman Cosmetics—now a $25 million-a-year business, based on foundation formulations for non-Caucasian women, and one of the best-selling lines at giant nationwide pharmacy chain Walgreen’s. Her line grew from personal experience; on her first job for American Vogue in 1975, the make-up artist asked Iman if she had brought her own foundation, as he had nothing suitable for her skin tone. Out of necessity, she began mixing her own batches, which other black models would then ask to borrow.

As she crosses the lobby to greet me, it is clear that the 24 years since her retirement from modelling have had no impact whatsoever upon her walk, a graceful, runway-ready leonine lollop. And even in jeans, a simple green silk blouse and hounds-tooth blazer, she could cause serious traffic issues outside on 7th Avenue. She is now 58 years old.I scan her face for any conspicuous signs of ageing but find precisely none, only radiant skin and impossibly hewn bone structure. But, I’m thrilled to find, her wit is as sharp as her cheekbones. “They used to tell me that I was exotic,” she sighs, rolling her exquisite almond-shaped eyes. “What am I? A mango?”

She and Bowie, her husband of 21 years, officially split their time between London and New York, but these days live largely in the latter, where Alexandria is at school, and I ask whether she’d be happy for her daughter to follow in her footsteps.

“She is too young, she needs to finish her education,” she says, firmly. But what if she (as is highly likely) is scouted at 15? “She’ll be somewhere the scouts won’t find her: school,” she replies.

Hardison arrives moments later, an effervescent ball of energy, with close-cropped bleached-blonde hair. The New York native (who is in her sixties, but refuses to reveal her exact age) had sold her agency and stepped back from fashion entirely, when Campbell — the third wheel in the Coalition — persuaded her to come out of retirement to challenge the disappearance of diversity in the industry. “Every couple of months she’d ring me and say, ‘There are no black girls out there. You’ve got to do something,’” recalls Hardison. Campbell herself is across town today, keeping a sizeable army of stylists on their toes, filming a new series of the search-for-a-star modelling show, The Face.

This month’s call to arms came after Hardison employed a researcher to spend six weeks examining every catwalk image from the Autumn/Winter 13 shows and compiling the evidence. Their results were shocking: only six per cent of the models who appeared in the shows were black.

There are some straightforward theories as to why this regression has occurred, including the huge influx of Eastern European models in recent years, and the fact that designers have so many shows in their calendars that most no longer cast their own models, but instead employ stylists and casting agents to select them on their behalf. It’s no excuse, says Hardison. “It means they are not paying attention to what is happening to their brands.”

And they say guilty parties include some iconic brands. “YSL, Versace, Calvin Klein … these are brands that mean a lot to all of us,” says Hardison. “But they don’t see it as racism; they probably voted for Obama, because they are liberals.

“Phoebe Philo [London-born former creative director at Chloë, now at Céline] — she’s a cool girl. But Céline has never had a coloured person showing in their collection. Ever,” claims Hardison. “And yet they have the best accessories; every black woman who has money buys her accessories.” “Not me,” shoots back Iman. “I walk the walk. I can get another It bag. I have my wallet,” she says firmly. “I make a conscious decision not to buy that stuff.”

The two women’s own early experiences as black models differ quite dramatically. While Hardison grew up in Brooklyn, became the first black saleswoman in the nearby garment district in the Seventies and a runway model in the Sixties, she didn’t fit the mould, she says. “I wasn’t a pretty little girl, I had large eyes, no make-up, very short hair. I didn’t look like a model, or like anything they had ever seen. The buyers wouldn’t even look at me when I first walked out on the runway.”

Iman Abdulmajid, meanwhile, was born in Somalia to political activist parents who sought refugee status in Kenya in the early 1970s. At 16, she was spotted en route to a political science lecture at the University of Nairobi by photographer Peter Beard, and was soon on her way to the US.

“I had never worn heels in my life, never worn make-up in my life, never seen fashion magazines, so I had no concept of what I was doing. And I started big,” she says. “My third day in New York City, I was working for Vogue; my first fashion show was Halston, my second was Calvin Klein.” Yves Saint Laurent called her his “dream woman”. Nonetheless, she, too, faced a racism deeply entrenched in the industry. “Many companies had a different price rate for black models and white models,” she explains. “So I refused to take jobs—if I wasn’t going to be paid the same as them, I wasn’t going to do it. I just sat it out.”

While much has improved, the pair agree that there is a perhaps a parallel with the current state of feminism, an assumption that the hard work has been done, the battle is won, and we can put our feet up now, when, in reality, there is so much left to do. ‘I do think that colour on the catwalk needs to be constantly talked about, that people need to be constantly reminded,’ says Hardison. ‘Activism needs to be active. See what happens if you stop?’

“This is not the end of it,” she promises. “This conversation will continue.”

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  • D.B. Cooper

    Deja Vu?

  • White Mom in WDC

    Who cares? Who gives a damn? Regular White America just needs to boycott every form of media out there, including the elitist fashion industry. Naomi has no class as she is always beating her maids. Iman and Bowie are freaks. Amurkistan is a freak show circus

    • D.B. Cooper

      The ultimate irony is that both of these black women are with white guys.

      • Bossman

        They’re more Mulatto than Black. Naomi even have some Chinese in her background.

        • OlderWoman

          Iman isn’t mulatto. She is black as the ace of spades.

          • Bossman

            She is from Somalia. Somalia is in East Africa, a place that has been visited by Arabs for centuries. Many Somalians have straight noses, no doubt from the many crossings with Arabs.

          • D.B. Cooper

            Somalia is on the Red Sea, just a few days sail from various other races even from thousands of years ago. Iman does have that not quite African look, and she certainly has no problem shedding those clothes.

          • sbuffalonative

            Maybe she’s lightening.

          • D.B. Cooper

            She has one 100% black daughter that definitely did not inherit any of Iman’s looks, especially the metabolism. Iman, however, doesn’t have to worry about her genetic destiny. She apparently corrected her mistake by having a daughter that carries a blond gene from Bowie. The question is exactly what eye color she got. Bowie’s eyes are two different colors.

        • borogirl54

          Naomi’s biological father was part Chinese.

      • Funruffian

        White guys who are closet bisexuals.

    • Sick of it

      The biblical term is Babylon.

    • M&S

      ‘Scouting’ women at 15 for supermodel jobs does indeed say a lot about American tastes for the innocent.

      There is a definite ‘thing’ for the neotenic youth that is far worse than any implied ‘racism’ inherent to whites wanting to associate with and be dazzled by the beauty of their own.

      If blacks want such role models for their women as indeed black men have been whored out to sports for decades, go for it!

      What Mrs.(?) Iman is fraudulently failing to name is the nature of the -audiences- who sit before those runways.

      Did black men come in hordes to these cat-struts, you would /still/ see a preference for white women. But as the market is not (yet) pointed at blacks, the truth then becomes that white men _still_ prefer their own race and it is black men who need to be lectured to for their lack of racial loyalty.
      Or market-controlling wealth.
      Or both.

  • mgs166

    “Where Are All the Black Models on Our Catwalks.”
    They’re not on OUR catwalks since they (black models) exist only in the land of make believe.

    • Bossman

      Most of the so-called black models of the past were really of Mulatto origin.

    • sbuffalonative

      Where are all the innovative, creative, world-renowned designers? Why do I never see any evidence of how creative blacks are supposed to be?

      They’ve got an entire continent. Let them develop their own fashion industry, catering to their own people and culture. Then they can hire the models they want.

  • MekongDelta69

    Non-existent catwalk ‘racism’ – as opposed to reality, which is black women do not look as good as white women.

    Ya know – THIS is the kind of deep and penetrating problem I worry about ALL THE TIME.

    Do I really need to put /sarc here?!

  • IstvanIN

    Why don’t black designers hire black models to walk the catwalk at a fashion show in Nairobi? Why do they need us if they are so great?

  • CoweringCoward

    Soooo much ink soooo little that matters.

  • Spartacus

    “The absence of models of colour sends a message to our young girls that
    they are not good enough, they are not beautiful enough,”


    No, they’re not. It’s really that simple .

    • Sick of it

      Would it behoove them to at least choose good looking women of color for models when they decide to go that route as well? I’ve gone to school with girls from various ethnic backgrounds who looked way better than the guttersnipes they push into modeling, movies, etc.

  • Luca

    Whining about what Whites aren’t doing for them is written into their DNA.

    Go cry to Oprah and RuPaul, maybe they can scrounge up a few skinny crack ho’s who might be able to walk a straight line. Then they can have their own black fashion week and TV show. I can see the sponsors lining up for that one.

    • Diversity Awareness Brigade

      Help from Above.

  • libertarian1234

    “There were more black models on the catwalk when I started in the 1970s than there are today,” she exclaims. ”

    With blacks everything begins and ends with race. It consumes them entirely to the exclusion of all else.

    Have you ever heard of a black voicing an opinion on nuclear arms? Or the situation in the Middle East? Or the global economy, offering his opinion how to improve it? Or anything but race and those who persecute them?

    In short, blacks talk about nothing but race and other blacks and imagined injustices all of which they have honed into a fine tenor of hate that permeates their entire population.

    They’ve contributed EXACTLY nothing to mankind, yet they demand that they be treated as privileged subjects in this slowly deteriorating empire.

    • borogirl54

      That is true. The 1970’s and 80’s were considered the heyday of the black model. Black models were working both in the US and in Europe. Now the bulk of fashion shows consist of white and maybe a couple of Asian models.

    • exlib93

      I used to work with quite a few of them. They never picked up a mainstream book or movie, only black media. Hopefully their narrow thinking will contribute to their downfall, if only the libs would mind their own business.

  • Pelagian

    “No matter the intention, the result is racism.”

    That takes the cake as far as definitions of racism go. From being defined as an obscure 19th century scientific sub-specialty to being defined as a condition like “mold” or “frost”. “Look, out the window, honey, it is October! The racism is on the pumpkin.”

  • Sick of it

    This is a situation where it depends upon one’s definition of BLACK. There are quite a few Brazilian models around today who are clearly descended from black people.

  • Romulus

    I can see all the blacks on display at the local menagerie, popeyes chicken, and
    And street corner. Seeing as how I don’t find darkies attractive this bores me. From a greater perspective, this is yet another forced integration takeover using the “racism ” accusation as leverage to push whites out of every corner of our own country.

  • Funruffian

    “The absence of models of colour sends a message to our young girls that they are not good enough, they are not beautiful enough,” she says. “Photography and the runways are such powerful tools, and say such a lot about our society.”
    Of course, it’s all about making Blacks feel good about themselves, but in reality nobody cares to look at them. I can’t picture exactly what Iman looks like, but I remember years ago thinking she was strange looking. Not pretty at all. She is extremely arrogant and demanding in the realm of the modeling industry that brims with beautiful women who are largely anonymous in the world. And she, being very fortunate and lucky to have been discovered by some guy with an African fetish, has the gall to demand that the industry suits her liking and that it also resembles equality regardless of how the viewer or consumers feel about it.
    Sorry, Mrs. Bowie, you are not that popular and you are a has-been who rode the funky 1970’s gravy train of pop culture.

  • Black models don’t “Catwalk”, they “Street Walk”.

  • CharlesFinley

    Bantu-groidian females are repugnant beasts, blonde “hair” or not.

  • Ella

    “Photography and the runways are such powerful tools, and say such a lot about our society.” Since when the modelling world has EVER been kind to any models with their lettuce, part-starvation diets? You have to be tall and thin so most women will never make the cut- White or Black. She has the exotic look that photographers crave for the first glance. The modelling world discriminates period, especially age and looks….duhh! No feminist can change those standards.

    • Bossman

      The models are becoming taller and thinner which is all very unreal. Most women are not like that.

  • withcaution

    She should Google “hot babe” and she’ll really are a unwelcome taste of the truth. 100 out of the FIRST 100 most clicked upon pictures ALL WHITES. The leftist militant gays and dykes and race hustlers that pull the strings on most media haven’t found a way to squash that truth. Beauty is what it is and no amount of their brain washing can change what looks good.

    • Pelagian


    • CharlesFinley

      Awwww, dat’s RACIST! But I dammmn-shaw do luuubs me some WHITE wimminz.

      Dey look so GOOT….., I’d slap my mammie!

    • sbuffalonative

      They haven’t found a way but as as evident daily in AR posts is that nothing is going to stop them from vilifying whiteness. There are too many people with too many organizations intent on demonizing whites and all we have achieved.

  • Juan Outtamany

    Black women, by & large, look like dudes.

    • CharlesFinley

      Large dudes…with huge lips, jutting jaws, cellulite and blonde weaves.

    • Whitetrashgang

      More like apes.

  • blight14

    Is this really a valid question???????

  • Sloppo

    Where are all the people who want to see black models on the catwalks?

  • sbuffalonative

    The rich inhabit their own universe so they don’t see the world outside their own circle of friends and family. Wealthy white women rarely encounter the few rich blacks such as Oprah and black performers. WWW are largely impervious to social brainwashing. When they go to a fashion show, they see and expect to see the world they inhabit which is why the ‘progressive’ left keeps pushing this issue on them. Their money and their whiteness insulates them from the broader world which infuriates the left.

  • Yale2001

    She wants to force companies and industry to use people they don’t want to use. I disagree with appearance being so important in America, but in the fashion industry, it is everything. There looking for a particular look, whatever that “look” is, its of their choosing. Using this argument in fashion/beauty is silly. What about someone overweight, cross-eyed, just plain ugly, should they use them too?

    • WR_the_realist

      Yes, in the fashion industry there is far more discrimination against ugly people than there is against blacks. The whole issue is a tempest in a teapot.

  • Ella

    Advertising already knows how to market their products toward selected audiences. If they choose more Black models, then, they could lose sales since consumers might view the trends as “ethnic wear” such as FUBU and not “high-fashion.” Blacks have much of the sports market, so Whites need to whine about this racial bias instead of claiming Blacks to have “athletic intelligence” or to be highly “talented.” More Whites purchase the clothes, and that is a loud fact that liberals cannot overcome.

  • LP&E

    Well, it may be simply the market prefers Europeans and Asian models. Considering how competitive modeling and fashion business is, a selling black model would not be turned down. Any good model that sells the fashions would not be turned down. The free market makes decisions (read all the participants- buyers and sellers, that is us) deciding what we want to buy and not buy. This applies to any product or service. Those who loose in the market place sometimes complain about something being “unfair” and seek government forced remedies. Now if you are a member of a protected group then the only reason is racism of course.


  • Bossman

    Yes, Mariah Carey could be considered more of a Quadroon than a Mulata, she is also part Hispanic. The truth of the matter is that most people who are just 1/4 black and 3/4 white are usually indistinguishable from real white people.

    • Jefferson

      I remember reading about a Quadroon cartoonist named George Herriman who was born in Louisiana during Jim Crow who decided not to live his life as a “Black” man and so he successfully “passed” as a White man and went around telling people that he is a Greek American so that he could enter Whites only establishments and not be racially discriminated against.

      A lot of Quadroons and Octoroons do look like darker Non Nordic Caucasoids like Greeks, Israelis, Italians, and Lebanese for example.

      • Bossman

        Not true at all. I once saw a Quardroon woman. She was as white as any North European except that she had better and healthier skin texture, a sexier body; everything about her was more enhanced. I then realized that Charles Darwin was right, there is indeed something called hybrid vigor. In the USA and in the Americas in general, there is a great attempt to dissimulate about this reality.

  • Alexandra1973

    Most black women I see are pushing well over 300 pounds. Maybe that explains it.

  • FransSusan

    Blacks are nothing but whiners. They are always searching for something to bitch about—something about which to blame whites. Even the super rich ones—never happy!