The Beauty-Industry Problem No One Talks About

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.
A couple of weeks ago, model Nykhor Paul put the fashion and beauty industry on blast in an unapologetically honest Instagram post that quickly went viral. In it, she calls out makeup artists for being ill-prepared for working on models with darker skin tones. “Dear white people in the fashion world! Please don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s time you people get your shit right when it comes to our complexion! Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the other white girls don’t have to do anything but show up, wtf!” the South Sudanese model writes. She goes on to list a number of beauty brands that offer wide shade ranges of products to choose from, and adds that apologies don't help — but action does.

The lack of diversity in the industry isn’t necessarily news to anyone. A survey of the fall 2015 fashion shows conducted by The Fashion Spot found that out of 9,538 model bookings in 373 shows, 80% were white. And while industry leaders like Iman, Naomi Campbell, Bethann Hardison, and Tyson Beckford have been long-standing advocates of ending racism on the runway, the issue is still looming large.

“I’m tired of complaining about not getting [booked] as a Black model, and I’m definitely super-tired of apologizing for my blackness!!... Why can’t we be part of fashion fully and equally?”

It’s a question that would seem to belong in the '60s, rather than 2015. Iman and Jourdan Dunn have talked about their experiences and frustrations around being models of color, but it’s still a topic that goes largely undiscussed. Paul says she thinks the overwhelming silence is mostly due to fear of not getting hired.

“There’s a fear within all of us girls that are modeling…even for me — I don’t want to be labeled as an angry Black girl for speaking my truth; I don’t want to not be able to book jobs because I’m speaking about what’s going on,” she told us in an interview. “So, for a lot of people, there’s a fear that you’re going to be sidelined or you’re going to be blacklisted, [even though] it’s a serious issue that in the long run deals with racism.”

As esteemed makeup artist Sir John puts it, the job of those with voices in the beauty industry is not only to come prepared, but to create a safe, welcoming space for models of all races and backgrounds. “You have to realize that these girls feel alienated, and that makes you feel undervalued. [They] sit in our chairs and render themselves completely helpless, to a certain extent, and they expect you to have everything from A to Z,” he says. “It’s almost like being a doctor. You don’t look at bodies and say, ‘Oh, I don’t work on this type or that type,’ you just know that you need to go to work. And so, if you start to have a hesitation about, ‘Can I handle this or not?’ then you need to go back to school, or start to assist longer and figure out what the needs of today are.”

You have [a] problem in the industry where you can only have one major girl at a time who’s 'ethnic'…you’re forced to pick between Joan and Jourdan, or Naomi and Tyra, and this doesn’t happen to Karlie, this doesn’t happen to Linda Evangelista.

Sir John
Celebrity makeup artist Nick Barose echoes this sentiment and notes that with the plethora of products available today, makeup artists don't really have excuses. "When I first started, there weren’t a lot of choices, but if [makeup artists] like Kevyn Aucoin and François Nars were able to do it in the '90s and make every skin tone look good, now we’re in 2015," he says. "You can go to Armani, Lancôme, L’Oréal, Make Up For Ever, and pretty much find everything from the fairest to the darkest [shades]. It’s your job as a makeup artist to find something that works."

But as Sir John mentions, the blame doesn’t fall solely on the makeup artists — plenty do come prepared — it also circles back to the booking process. “It’s indicative of how the casting is, and how predictable makeup artists and hairstylists feel the casting is going to be. I can blindly pack my bag because I know [the model's] going to be Caucasian, or an Eastern European girl,” he says. “You have [a] problem in the industry where you can only have one major girl at a time who’s 'ethnic'…you’re forced to pick between Joan and Jourdan, or Naomi and Tyra, and this doesn’t happen to Karlie, this doesn’t happen to Linda Evangelista.”
Paul also expresses her disdain about being the token Black girl in runway shows, or feeling like she’s filling a quota. “There are so many Black models, every single day they write me, but nobody gives a shit…I’m like ‘Hey, wait until I retire, maybe you can take my spot,’" she says, laughing.

She mentions that, once in a blue moon, there's an uproar about the lack of diversity on runways. In response, designers will put a model of color in a show just to, essentially, shut everyone up. But, as she reiterates in her latest Instagram post, the problem runs deeper than the inconvenience of having to bring your own foundation to a show, or being the "black dot" in a sea of white. It comes down to feeling inadequate, like you're less than your counterparts — an issue that reaches beyond fashion and beauty.
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Dear white people in the fashion world! All women are beautiful in their own skin whether you are black, white, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian. Beauty is diverse and it deserved to be appreciated and honored by true artist who are free of prejudice or racism. I am not a racist, I am a human being expressing herself about the lack of diversity in the fashion world. Black models have never been a priority in this industry and they never will be if we don't addressed the root causes. Clearly there is a serious issue facing our world and we as a people are choosing to hide from the truth. We are a society that is too sensitive to the truth but we are hurting and have been for generations. You can't speak your mind as a black person without someone labeling you as an angry black woman, I mean how would white women feels if every time they tried to speak what's happening to them someone calls them names? How would a white girl feel to walk in my shoes as a blue black African girl in this western world? Learn to handle the truth without using racism as an escape goat every time so we can have a healthy dialogue about us and the issues facing us today. I am a child of Africa with many shades of darkness and have no hate for another human being in this world because I was raise to love all things life under God light. I am blue black and proud of it, I am beautiful in my own skin no matter how dark and scary people might feel around me. Embrace your blackness!!! #RefugeeGirl #SouthSudan #WeAreNilotic #Modellife #NiloticQueen #NiloticGirl #BlueBlack #Akobogirl #BlackModelsRock #Africangirlsrock #BlackBird #BeautyandPeace #WalkingArt #Africanstakingover #onepeople #onetribe #OneAfrica #ILOVEAFRICA. @marieclairesa

A photo posted by nykhor (@nykhor) on

“People have to be real about the world we live in. It’s a really, really racist and segregated world. Nobody wants to take the time to be like, 'Okay, these Black girls are really going through something, let’s see what their perspective and their point of views [are],'" she says. "I think people who are running these shows have to take off the blindfold and be real. Whoever’s setting the bar needs to open and pave the way for the rest of us.”

Until the industry gets it together, Paul's question — "Why can’t we be part of fashion fully and equally?" — should serve as a call to action.