Color Blocked

I was interviewed recently, by filmmaker, Elizabeth St. Phillip, for her documentary – The Beauty of Colour – about the absence of black models on the international fashion scene. This is a subject that has been passionately championed by many including Naomi Campbell. Models of color in Canada, who pursue careers in the fashion industry know full well, or come to grips very quickly, that the road to success is tough. The thick glass wall many meet, assert that their image may be fine for urban centres where approximately 80% of Canadians of color live but not nationally. Many faces continue to be relegated to background or are granted minimal roles in Canadian advertising and media imagery. We’re still not being positioned as spokespeople for consumer products, even though we part of the ‘mosaic’.

Beyond the limited diversity presented on America’s and Canada’s Next Top Model, the reality of the fashion industry in recent years is frightening. Truth be known, the reality for most models of color is bleak. They continue to be a rarity on the runways of most top designers or on the pages, never mind the covers of fashion magazines. And those who spring from Canadian roots are an even more rare species. Why is this, particularly in a country that boasts pride in diversity?

As a former model/dancer/actor in the 80’s come producer/director in the 90’s I have always, and regrettably 25 years later, continue to grapple with the challenges faced by some talent.

I remember auditioning in the 80’s for a principal role as a high school football player in a TV ad for a major Canadian Bank. My agent called the day after to tell me I had given an ‘amazing’ audition, that both the casting agent and the director wanted me for the job, but the bank’s representatives were meeting to decide whether or not they’d be comfortable with me as the lead. I didn’t get the part. I got instead, an SOC (silent on camera) as one of the teammates.

I was the Black boy next-door but ‘too Black’ said one fashion editor of Toronto Life Magazine. I soon decided not to sit around waiting for modeling jobs I’d never get. I chose to go behind the scenes to create the shows. After all, behind the scenes, no one would care what I look like.

For the next 20 years I created incredible shows and events, locally and internationally for top designers and retailers. Over this time I took note of how many Black models appeared and disappeared. Some went on to moderate international fame. But those who stayed on in Toronto, the greater percentage of hopefuls, fell by the wayside. They quit the business out of sheer frustration and recurring disappointment.

Today, there is still just a handful of Black Canadian models, like Yasmine Warsame, who find big success. Most Canadian agents, clients, advertisers still shun non-white talent. This phenomenon is a trickle down effect from the international scene.