It never feels good to be an only.
despite our inherent #BlackGirlMagic, the fashion and beauty world continues to fail minorities. Stories like the couture designer and "friend of Kanye West" Ulyana Surgeenko casually using the N-word with her fashion-adjacent friends and Italian brand Wycon’s “Thick As A N***a" nail polish troll us daily. But it’s time to take back the conversation — with "Black Like Me," where we finally get the truth about what it means to be a Black model today.
Scouted at the age of 14, Leomie was suspicious when a modeling agent approached her in South London. “I just thought he was a pedophile or something, so I just ran away,” she laughs. “The next day he came back, saying, ‘No, don’t run. I have a business card. Give it to your mom.’ But I still never went in. Three months later, someone from the same agency scouted me again, so I figured, why not?”
Fashion seemed to be in Leomie’s future. She wanted to be a fashion journalist prior to modeling. “It’s kind of funny now because I have my own platform now — a brand — and that’s exactly what I wanted to do when I was younger. Your dreams can come true, just not necessarily the way you envisioned them.”
She credits growing up in London for allowing her to be herself. “I experimented with my looks, music taste, fashion taste, everything — it’s a great city for that. [Living there] definitely made me more naive to how the world was, I didn’t know about racism until I entered the fashion industry.”
Being one of three Black children in her primary school, she knew that she was different, in a way. It wasn't until she was older that she realized how colorism also played a factor.
“I’d notice that light-skin girls were more favored than dark-skin girls. And I came about during a time where it was common for agents to say to you, ‘You’re the one Black girl that’s going to get through this season. All the other Black girls are your competition. There’s only room for one Black girl.’ That was something we were taught to accept. Looking back, I realize how bad it was that they allowed that kind of prejudice and ignorance to thrive at such a young age.”
During my first fashion week, I realized that being darker really does mean you’ll get less work.
‘Don’t go into a casting after another Black girl, because they might get you guys confused.’ It was something that was so normalized to me because I’ve been doing this since I was so young. But I started realizing, 'This doesn’t feel right.' I don’t have a problem with these girls, so why should I have to avoid her or not be photographed with another Black girl? During my first fashion week [at 17], I realized that being darker really does mean you’ll get less work.”
Leomie reveals that many of her most uncomfortable experiences happened in Milan, “a place where not a lot Black girls like to go to because of the treatment you receive there."
"Obviously now, things are a little bit better now. But, that’s probably only because they know if they say something they will get called out on social media. I don’t think the mentality is that much different [than it was].”
In one instance, Leomie waited three hours at a casting, and when she finally met with the casting director she was told, “Sorry, we don’t want any African people.” Shocked, she asked what they meant by that, considering she is of Jamaican descent. Their explanation? “Maybe if you came last season, when we were looking for African models, but this season we don’t want any Black people.” She couldn’t even figure out how to react to the blatant racism. One of her agents even told her to “toughen up and learn how to take things on the chin.”
“I thought to myself, why is it that I have to accept this? Why is it that I have to take the high road? If a white model was being insulted, they’d say, ‘No, that’s disgusting.’ But for Black models, we’re just taught to get used to it. Racism seems like something they just want us [Black girls] to tolerate. As I got older, I realized I can’t just be silent in this. My silence is me being complacent in this — I didn’t want girls younger than me to experience that, so that’s why I decided to speak out more about these instances.”
You’re the one Black girl that’s going to get through this season. All the other Black girls are your competition.
to create “The Black Model Survival Kit” to help others navigate the backstage landscape. “It can be such a stressful environment for Black models, when we sit in a hair and makeup chair we never know what we are going to receive. You might not get someone who has shades for our skin.
“The reason I created the video was because of an experience I had backstage. A makeup artist had all her foundations lined up, maybe 30 of them, but just one brown shade. She was literally trying to mix it with a white girl shade, and I said, ‘That is not going to make the melanin appear.’ Luckily, I had my makeup bag with me, so instead of me getting angry, I said, ‘OK, cool. This is what I use for my concealer, this is what I use for my color correct…’ and I basically took her through the steps of how to do my makeup.”
Hair is an equally chaotic experience. “Even though we [Black models] have things like wigs and weaves, they [white stylists] are still trying to catch up. They don’t get that putting water in Black hair will have the reverse reaction — it’s not going to slick it back.” At 17, she even confronted a stylist about using a water-based gel on her hair while in Milan, and he called her a bitch, saying, “I can end your career in two minutes.”
If anything, she’s learned how to get her point across while still being diplomatic. “I try to represent our interest as Black models and Black women, however I know that you can’t bring up designers' names or pinpoint certain individuals. Those are the things that can get you blacklisted in the industry. You don’t want brands to feel like, ‘Oh, if something goes wrong Leomie is going to go ham on Twitter.’ I do realize that people are looking at me almost as a spokeswoman for Black models and the way they are treated. Other girls will come up to me like, ‘Hey, I know you are doing this interview on Monday... make sure you talk about X, Y, Z.'
“That’s just the role I’ve taken within the industry. It’s not something that I asked for, but it’s something that I feel I can do. I am a good public speaker, and I’m passionate about these issues. I try to speak on everyone’s behalf to make it better.”
Soft spoken (and a little shy), the 21-year-old Senegalese model got her start in the industry two years ago. Although she’s best known for her Instagram handle, Melanin Goddess, and embracing her dark complexion, she admits that back home in Senegal, skin bleaching isn’t much of a taboo.
“Even though I was very young, it was traumatizing seeing someone try weird things on their skin all for the sake of being lighter. It’s as common as relaxing your hair or maybe even brushing your teeth. I had friends not wanting to do it, but their moms gave them creams to help lighten their skin. That’s how accessible it is.
“I wanted to bleach my skin so bad, but my sister always discouraged me. She’d say, ‘This is a bad thing, don’t try it.’ Some people would go to doctors but others would just make mixtures of whatever they could find to bleach their skin. It got really bad at one point. It’s very sad. I had aunts who suffered from skin complications, so I became a bit scared of the process.
“My mom was the only one who didn’t bleach her skin. She was the one who kept her natural complexion. So yes, I consider her a role model. All of her other family members would say to us, ‘Oh, your mom is so beautiful. She’s lucky she kept her skin.’ Those comments stayed with me.”
I’ve never ended up in tears [over the things people say], I’d rather just laugh.
Khoudia moved to Europe and felt “terrified” about fitting in. “I had so many things going through my mind, like, ‘Am I going to be picked on?’ Or ‘am I going to be judged?’ I was very scared, but I started fitting in little by little.” For example, she would build her own self-esteem by looking at herself in the mirror and repeating the phrase, “You’re beautiful, you’re cute,” even though it felt a bit unnatural at first.
On a family vacation to Italy, it hit the budding model that people stared at her not because she was different — but because she was stunning. “I caught my reflection and I said, ‘Wow, this is why people stare. You're outstanding.’ That’s when I recognized that I could ignore what everyone else was saying.”
Khoudia’s breakthrough moment was being part of The Colored Girls campaign, a brainchild of Victory Jones and Tori Elizabeth, whom she met on social media. “I was not expecting for it to get as big as it did. I almost canceled the shoot the morning of — I was really nervous. I didn’t want to put myself out there. They both helped me truly see my beauty.” Through the viral success of the campaign, she was able to get picked up by the Wilhelmina modeling agency before starring in Make Up For Ever’s viral #BlendInStandOut campaign.
Currently, she’s juggling school and modeling. And remarkably, Khoudia has aspirations to become an astronaut. We chatted about female astronauts Mae Jemison, Jeanette Epps and Stephanie Wilson. While appreciative of her success, she considers modeling as a means to an end. “Kids used to tease me and call me ‘fille des étoiles,’ which translates to ‘daughter of the stars.’ But I thought that was a cool name, I just love stars and space.” By "tease," she means that this was not said in a kind way, though she took it to mean something positive. They meant that she was so dark, she was black like the night sky.
Brands are trying to make Black girls a trend, and we're not a trend.
When it comes to backstage beauty, Khoudia always travels with her own brush, gel and foundation. “It’s not that they don’t provide someone to do it, but they won’t do it the way I like it. I’ll ask them to fix it very nicely, but sometimes I still have to sneak off to the bathroom to fix it.
“[Working with] people not knowing how to do my hair or makeup makes me feel not represented. It’s as if no one cares about my skin color or my hair type, you know? It’s unfair [for me to have to do my own makeup] because white models don’t have to do this. I’ve been at shows, and it’s only the Black models that do it. When I had relaxed hair, they would try to add texture to my hair but constantly use the wrong products.”
Recently, during a campaign in Europe, Khoudia had to speak up for herself. "The white stylist didn’t know how to do braids, so he just parted my hair and did whatever he wanted. I wasn’t happy with it, so I pulled the casting director aside (she was white, too) and she said, ‘Oh, this looks great!’ I then had to pull over the only Black girl on the team to have her explain to everyone why this was offensive and didn’t look right. That was my first time experiencing something like that.”
You could say that Ajak was a born fighter. Despite her bubbly personality and infectious smile, she was forced to flee her home of war-torn Sudan as a refugee at just 5 years old before fleeing to Uganda, Kenya and finally Australia at age 12.
“All my memories of Sudan are good ones — I was always playing with my friends, taking care of the animals, looking for my dog… to me, it was the best childhood ever. [Australia] is diverse but everyone is still separated, you know? There are Indian, Asian, Sudanese and white communities, but they don’t mix in as much as America does.”
Meaning Ajak, along with her seven siblings, often became a target of bullying. “[There was this one girl in class] eating eggs and a pear. When she finished, she put it all together and threw it in my face. She said, ‘Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you there... you’re so Black I thought you were a rubbish bin. I totally lost it — all the African came out. I was like, ‘RAWWWR!’ and went in. After that, I gained a lot of respect, and she got expelled.”
At a staggering 5-foot-11, it seems as though Ajak was destined to be a model, but she once dreamed of joining the army post-high school. “I told my career counselor that I wanted to join the military and 'protect and serve,’ to have my country's back. She was like, ‘There are other ways to do that — like modeling!’ I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t know anything about modeling, like how to get in touch with an agent or get a modeling contract. I didn’t even know how to walk in heels.” She ended up taking a two-week training course, at $800, with her first agency to learn.
I know I have the right to walk away from anything that doesn’t make me feel good.
Ajak learned that not everyone could be trusted, including her first manager, who took $40,000 from the young model after her first New Zealand Fashion Week. “He changed his number, moved from his address, blocked me on Facebook. He was nowhere to be found at all. And he had my portfolio, too.”
For many models, this would have been a career-crushing moment. “I can sit down and cry about this or I can show him that I deserve to be a star. [From there] I decided, I will become the face of Calvin Klein and Givenchy, and you will see me on the cover of Italian Vogue. So you take that little money that you have and good luck with your life.” From there, she contacted all the photographers to rebuild her book before signing with power-house agency IMG in New York.
In February 2016, the model said in a now-deleted Instagram post: "I am happy to announce that I am officially done with the fashion industry, I will be moving back to Australia in order to live the life that I fully deserved, which is real life. I can no longer deal with the fakes and the lies... My life is too short for this dramatic life."
Haters called it a publicity stunt, but Ajak calls it a “meltdown” when referring to her retirement from modeling. “It was truly the pettiness of the industry, the attitude, the lies. People would say, ‘Oh, she came to work today and looked like she didn’t want to work’ or ‘She was rude to everyone, she wasn’t nice.’ Or even, ‘She didn’t say hi to me, can you guys [my agents] talk to her?’ And that’s the last thing I’d do. I’m nice to everyone, but yet I'm constantly being told that I’m a diva. So I just said I’m done. I’ll move back home, finish my law degree, lead a normal life and possibly get married.”
If I can make a difference by just ‘being me,’ then imagine what I could do if I truly took this seriously?
Comments quickly flooded in reminding Ajak that her purpose is bigger than modeling. “It was overwhelming how many people cared about why I quit, I didn’t think it would go so viral. It touched my heart, and I realized I wasn’t just a model, I was a role model for these young girls. I didn’t want to be selfish and just walk away from something that I know can serve better in the life of others.”
She says that she’s seen a lot of new faces during New York Fashion Week this year. “The future is promising for us [Black models]. We really need to stick together and work together, because that’s the only way we will make it further.”
Like Ajak, Nyakim also grew up as a refugee. While she is of South Sudanese descent, she grew up in Ethiopia until age 7 before moving to Kenya. From there, she lived in Buffalo, New York, before her family settled in Minneapolis. As you can imagine, the culture shock was real.
“We moved during the winter. My mom didn’t leave the house for, like, two weeks because she was scared of the snow,” she laughs. “I was excited about my first year of school in America. I’m very talkative, I’d have no problem walking up to someone and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Nyakim! What’s your name. I grew up around so many people, all shades of black in Ethiopia and Kenya. Of course, I’d seen white people before at the refugee camp, but I wasn’t prepared for how the other students would interact with me.”
Of course, they targeted Nyakim’s deep complexion, saying that “she needed to take a shower” or “she looks like midnight.” Because she didn’t know English that well, the experience left her feeling disoriented, confused and, for a point, depressed. “I would just look at myself like something was wrong with me. I would walk down the hallway and kids would run away from me — that extreme. In the cafeteria, I’d spot people from my last class and try to sit with them, but they would grab their trays and just get up to leave.
“It really tore me down and brought down my self-esteem to another level. To be honest, for a long time I didn’t think I was beautiful, I would just cry myself to bed. I said, ‘I’m ugly, my skin is ugly.’” At that point, she considered bleaching her skin — especially since her older sister, who moved to America at 18, succumbed to the pressure.
I told her, ‘Listen, I want to bleach my skin like you. I want to fit in, I’m tired of people making fun of me all the time.’
was terrible, she encouraged me not to. She said, ‘You are beautiful just the way you are. If you bleach your skin, it's not just your skin, you’ll be messing up your mind — it’s going to be internal damage to you as a person.'" Ultimately, she decided against it.
Beyond racism, Nyakim feels that colorism is the true issue, especially from other African-Americans. “I spoke to my mom and she reminded me that God created so many different people. And that I was one of those beautiful people that He created. I just started surrounding myself around people that love me and expressing myself instead of holding it all in.”
Social media has played a huge factor in Nyakim’s career. The model of two years went viral twice — once for appearing in the “Different Melanin” shoot. “I was sitting next to another model, who was half white, half Black, with blonde, curly hair and pale skin. She had a tattoo of Africa, which I asked her about. [The photographer] Isaac West took a picture on his iPhone, and the way our skin color contrasted, it went crazy.”
The second time she was trending was when she sounded off about a jarring experience with an Uber driver. In short, he asked the model, if he were to give her $10,000, would “she bleach her skin to have a better life?”
“He said if I was lighter, life would be easier for me. Which means I’d get a job, be in a relationship... he had so many reasons. I could tell he’d never seen anyone who looked like me before. Yahoo! ended up seeing my story for that caption and interviewed me — that’s where it all took off.”
Nyakim’s Instagram presence grew from 3,000 followers to 200K followers overnight. She now has almost 400K people viewing her original shoots and reaching out to her for campaigns, including Toronto-based beauty brand Annabelle Cosmetics.
When this ‘trend’ passes, I’m still going to be this dark, and I want to be able to have opportunities to work.
to an agency due to the challenges of the Minnesota modeling scene. “It is so closed-minded. They want the girls with blonde hair and blue eyes, they won’t just work with anybody. Everyone I met with kept telling me, ‘Oh, we’re gonna get back to you,’ and never did or ‘We already have someone who looks like you.'”
At fashion shows, makeup artists have openly admitted that they have no clue what do do with her. “I don’t have the foundation for you, I don’t have the contour for you, I don’t have any products that can work for you.” Like the others, Nyakim often ends up going to the bathroom to apply her own makeup. “There are so many photos that I can’t use in my portfolio because I look ashy or my face is lighter than my neck. So now I just ask if I can come makeup-ready to avoid the embarrassment.”
On rough days, Nyakim reads her DMs and even screenshots — the most touching ones. “I don’t want the industry to think [Black models] are trending. This isn’t just a hashtag that’s going to last for a certain amount of time. When this ‘trend’ passes, I’m still going to be this dark, and I want to be able to have opportunities to work. It’s up to us to put ourselves out there and remind the industry, and otherwise, that we aren’t going anywhere.”
There are glimmers of progress, but aren’t we all tired of still celebrating firsts?
that there’s room for all of our shades of melanin, particularly our darker sisters. It’s no longer good enough for us to be pigeonholed into beauty standards that simply weren’t made for us. From our lips to our hips to our hairstyles, the world worships what we have, yet doesn’t want to be us. Yes, there are glimmers of progress, but aren’t we all tired of still celebrating firsts?
How long will we have to play catch-up before being seen as true equals in an industry that thrives off of us to the tune of billions of dollars? When will our little girls be able to walk confidently without constantly being reminded that they are “different” or “ugly” instead of “beautiful”? We have to keep pushing the conversation forward, like the strong-willed models above, by using our voices for good.
No matter your shade, Queens, hold your heads high. Acknowledge there’s more than one type of Black girl. After all, isn’t that the beauty of being Black?