01 October 2017
I was first scouted as a model at fourteen. It happened at least five times before I gave it a chance. Growing up in Edinburgh, it just wasn’t something I thought of as a credible career path. I was a total geek and was wrapped up in academia and athletics. Modelling is a highly rewarding industry but it takes a huge amount of resilience to become established.
I grew up in the Wester Hailes area of Edinburgh, more synonymous with Trainspotting than the modern tourist trail. Many of the people I grew up with have unfortunately passed away, or have serious social issues that they are still trying to overcome. I did not take up the opportunity to move to London initially because I was so young and my mother wouldn’t give me permission to move. We discussed it and we both felt it was imperative that I had a good education. Attending university and finishing my education gave me a certain strength of character and grounded me. Since I had neither two parents, nor monetary support, education helped to make me feel like I was capable of achieving my goals and taught me how to cope in a foreign environment.
Pretty much my entire career I never admitted to being a model. People have so little understanding of how the industry works, and since there are so many different types of modelling eg, glamour, lifestyle, fashion etc, it disturbed me that the greater public knew so little of what it meant to be a fashion model. I recoiled at the thought of anyone thinking I was some sort of glam queen with an easy life. In reality, you are only as good as your last job and the work pace is gruelling no matter how much fun or how well paid the job is. Over the years I have taken a step back from modelling largely because of agents with unsympathetic attitudes. Bookers just couldn’t understand that I didn’t want to advertise certain products that I deemed harmful.
I adore the late Coco Chanel. She was unorthodox and unashamed in everything she did. This is what I love about fashion. I just love the revolutionary and inspirational aspects of it, not following the mundane. I left the industry but started working again a few years ago, joining Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution as well as modelling the T shirt she designed, alongside Peter Capaldi, to support the junior doctors campaign. I’ve realised that as I am established, I could now work with brands that I believed in, such as the Illamasqua campaign I shot wearing the Sex Pistols original clothing, Toms or for The Body Shop. The industry has many downfalls but let us not forget that it’s one of the only industries in the West where women consistently get paid more than men to do the same job. Also, there are very few jobs where you wake up every day and work with a completely different set of people, in a different location. It becomes a lifestyle, a way of living.
There has been a shift in the modelling industry over the past two to four years. It has become more inclusive in terms of skin colour and for alternative looks in general, such as albino or people with skin conditions, which is brilliant to see. Also, large companies such as Condé Nast are at the forefront of hiring African Diaspora publishers such as Vanessa Kingori or Edward Enninful. This is completely miraculous and a necessity in terms of changing attitudes towards people of colour, which is more than just a few hundred years out of date.
It is essential for models to unionise because we are often exploited. In our industry you are not dealing with an inanimate object; the product is a human being. Agents and photographers really do in many ways have far too much control over your image and you have little protection if you arrive at a job and they want things from you which go against your core beliefs or were not explained to you in advance to accepting the job. Agents also often give advice in their own interest and not yours. For example, an agent told me I was fired but then backtracked and moved me off the mainboard because I chose to go for an acting role.
I was devastated as it was clear to me that I was being punished for not taking the job they wanted me to do.
It broke my trust and highlighted how unprofessional and unregulated some top agents can be.
I got so tired of being made to feel like my skin was too dark or my hair was too curly. Wearing my hair natural was always really important to me and was practically unheard of ten years ago. As a direct result of my education, I was very familiar with the complexities of colonialism and how they have impacted the psyche of particularly Africans and African diaspora scattered across the world. I knew from a young age that having straight hair was considered ‘good’ and having Afro hair was considered ‘bad’. Had I accepted this I would have had to grow to hate who I really was and I had great difficulty doing that. Refusing to relax my hair meant I was dropped and unsigned over the years for again being ‘difficult to work with’. I never had a problem with my hair being styled for a job but I hated having to ‘Europeanise’ myself to be booked. I also hated turning up to shoots where hairdressers from the length and breadth or the UK and Europe tried to smooth your hair with water spray, not understanding that that made it even more curly. I had to accept that bread and butter jobs such as hair and bridal or hair dressing jobs were simply not obtainable. I mean, can you remember ever seeing a model of African descent on the cover of any bridal magazine, never mind reputable commercial fashion magazines? In my lifetime all of the Afro representations in the UK were of women wearing weaves or wigs, which I found very difficult to digest and fought hard against. This can lead to people booking you less as they feel you have an attitude, reinforcing the typical stereotype of women of colour.
Equity is the union for models
If you work as a professional model, Equity is the trade union for you.
The union’s Models Network is fighting to improve standards in the industry, so if you have a friend or colleague working as a professional model, encourage them to join. The union is currently fighting to recover thousands of pounds for models following the collapse of the high-profile agency FM Models. If you are owed money by this agency, or want further information about the Models Network, please contact Emmanuel de Lange at email@example.com
Photography by Martin Hunter