On the Black Modeling Industry

Laila HaidaraliWhile I was drafting A Thousand Never Evers, my character Delilah told me that she wanted to be a fashion model when she grew up. But when I mentioned this to some real-life writer friends of mine, they told me, “There were no black models back then.” To find out for sure, I did a little research. I was lucky enough to find an article called “Polishing Brown Diamonds” by Dr. Laila Haidarali. The article is about the black modeling industry in the 1940s and 1950s. It was so interesting that I read it again and again. Then I contacted Laila and asked her all kinds of questions about her life and her research. Here is a bit of our conversation:

Q: How did growing up in Trinidad influence your thoughts about beauty as a girl?

As a young girl of color being surrounded in all environments by beautiful women of different backgrounds, I couldn’t understand why most images portrayed only white women as beautiful. It was an historic moment for Trinidad and Tobago when, in 1977,Janelle ‘Penny’ Commissiong became the world’s first Black Miss Universe. I was still a child, but I remember the magnitude of our islands’ pride and still witness the legacy of her winning that crown.

Q: When did the first African American modeling agency open and why did it?

Brandford Models opened in July 1946 in New York City. Its creation was largely in response to advertisers’ needs to help reach the new marketing target of the African American consumer.

Q: What is Ebony Magazine and how did it alter the perception of African American women?

Ebony magazine is a Chicago-based publication that first appeared in November 1945. It was the first popular magazine geared at a specifically African American audience. Editor John Johnson, who died not too long ago, honed the magazine’s editorial focus on African American success. During the 1940s and early 1950s, photographs of female models depicted African American women as feminine and well dressed, poised yet sexual, domestic yet glamorous. These were new associations in the public area of mass-circulated images and worked to challenge the common representation of African American women as physically unattractive, rural, unkempt and disorderly.

Q: In “Polishing Brown Diamonds” you write about brownskin models. What was a “brownskin” model? And why were these “brownskin” models preferable in the 1940s and 1950s?

Marketing studies of the time found African American consumers tired of the clichéd and racist representations of African American women as mammies and Aunt Jemimas. Complexion proved a central point to these antiquated images and marketing experts found what they defined as ‘brown’ complexions-as opposed to very dark or very light-as the happy medium in representations of womanhood. I use the term “brownskin” to denote a particular ideal of African American womanhood and the type of model who was most often featured in print magazines and other visual spaces.

Q: In addition to posing for photographs, African American models posed for illustrators. You describe how illustrators whited out the blackness of these models. What exactly happened?

While photographic depictions of models were certainly taking over hand-drawn illustrations, the latter still existed. In my research, I found cases where African American models would pose for illustrators, yet when the final ad came out, the model did not appear African American, but rather was made to appear white. Some ad agencies and corporations were endorsing African American women as beautiful, yet by whitening them out in the final image, they reinforced ideas that beauty, sexual attractiveness and sophistication were the sole possessions of white women.

Q: How many African American models were there in the 1950s, where did they work, and how much did they make?

Well, I haven’t undertaken that type of research to tell you how exactly many women worked as models during the 1950s, but in 1954,Ebony magazine determined that two hundred or more women worked as models in New York City. And since New York City was the base for the modeling industry during this period, two hundred African American models probably represents the greatest number, as compared to other cities like Los Angeles and Chicago where the modeling industry was also established. Most models only worked part-time and often had other jobs or pursuits. And modeling jobs were very diverse: they could range from print magazine layouts to fashion shows to demonstration jobs in five-and-dime stores. Depending on the job and the status of the model herself, a model, in 1954, could make anywhere between ten dollars an hour to twenty-five dollars an hour.

Q: In your article, you quote the head of a charm school as saying, “Most girls come to me.because they are ‘ugly ducklings’ in search of charm and grace to utilize in their respective professions.” What is a charm school and how was it different than a modeling school?

Well, the most essential difference is between the modeling agency and the modeling and charm school. The modeling agency acted as an intermediary between model and client-it booked her jobs, handled her contracts and promoted her professional status as a model. Modeling and charm schools, on the other hand, taught and trained average women in the skills of modeling, etiquette, and what was generally defined as ‘charm’ during the 1940s and 1950s. Women who attended these schools did not always continue to become professional models, and many enrolled in these schools to develop skills deemed to be essential for social success.

Q: What is the most interesting thing you learned while doing your research on the history of black modeling?

What was surprising was how many average women would enroll in schools to learn about charm, etiquette, and how to walk and dress like a model. I was surprised by how many of the women, during the 1950s, considered these skills as integral to their success.

Q: What do you wish young women today knew about the modeling industry?

I like what Tyra Banks is doing on her show by portraying how beauty is such a constructed fantasy. I really like how she exposes young girls and women to the work that goes into creating that perfect shot we see in magazines. I wish young women would look into mirrors and find the only judgment of appearance that matters is their own. For individual beauty, we should always be thankful

Laila Haidarali is a feminist historian who teaches, researches and writes on the histories of marginalized people including women, immigrants, and African Americans. She teaches at York University in Canada. Her new article “Is It True What They Say about Models?’: Modelling African American Womanhood on the Eve of the Civil Rights Era” appears in Atlantis: A Women Studies Journal.


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