By Isatou Ndure

Confronting racial injustice in the modelling industry

Elizabeth Seyi, second runner up in the Miss Africa Beauty Pageant in 2018, shares what it is like being a black model in the modelling industry.

image courtesy of Elizabeth Seyi @aisha_seyi

Even with household names like Naomi Campbell, Grace Jones and Tyra Banks who have led the way and smashed down walls for black inclusion in fashion, the system remains ingrained in all areas of the industry. The challenge faced by black models in the profession is widespread. However, with the exception of a few bold personalities who speak out freely, these topics remain silent, veiled behind backstage conflicts and trapped in quiet casting room discussions. On the other hand, the lack of representation of black models in the industry is not so secret.

22-year-old, Croydon-born Elizabeth Seyi or Lizzy shares her stories on being a black model in the fashion industry.

“I was always curious about modelling, luckily my mum was very encouraging and pushed me to give anything a go no matter how far-fetched it felt at the time.”

Elizabeth moved to Derby when she was 10 years old.

“In my first years of school, I was very quiet and awkward, but eventually, I stopped caring and opened up more and from secondary school, I began going to modelling opportunities in London. Things really began to kick off after I won 2nd runner up and Miss Photogenic at the Miss Africa Beauty Pageant in 2018. From there I was constantly in London so, therefore, getting more and more opportunities to rebuild my portfolio.”

Now living in Derby, Lizzy would spend up to 8 hours per day travelling to shoot at various location.

“It’s definitely not an easy job, it becomes a lifestyle. People don’t really see the behind the scenes, maintenance and the constant travelling.”

The fashion industry claims to highlight the weird and wonderful side of beauty, but you can see how out of touch many brands are with their demographic target, referencing castings sheets targeted at ‘trendy or modern individuals’ but resulting in lineups of purely white models.

Terms like ‘tribal’, ‘ethnic’ and ‘urban’ are used to select black models and have been used to the point of cliche in fashion. Urban is not a person, it literally describes living in a city but somewhere along the way, urban has become a synonym for Black.

This is coming from an industry that benefits from black and brown bodies, our culture for endless inspiration, our music, and our images for their graphics. So not only are those displays disrespectful of diversity but are misleading examples of a multicultural millennial group of friends.

“The same negative connotation I face as a black model are the same stereotypes I face as a black woman. I’ve found that in certain situations I didn’t feel comfortable voicing my concerns because I didn’t want to come across as difficult to work with.”

At one of Lizzy’s first big shoot in summer 2019, with a well-established online fashion magazine company as expected she was excited to be paired with a makeup artist, experienced in preparing models for the likes of London Fashion Week. 

“There I was nervously sat and anticipating what beautiful concoction would be made of my hair and makeup. Except, it was not that. She applied a foundation that was three to four shades darker than my own skin, then an almost white concealer was rubbed into my face and my hair was not even styled.  Even the photographer seemed put off by the work done to my face.

After uncomfortable conversations about the redoing of my makeup with the photographer I only had time to remove my eyebrows and go take the pictures.”

Models are generally not asked to bring their own foundation to a shoot because that is the job of the makeup artist. But sadly, that is not the case for darker-skinned models.

“The makeup artist clearly had no experience with colour matching darker shades and there wasn’t a single person of colour on set that I could turn to. That experience amongst others has made me question why minorities are still dealing with these issues to this day.”

Ultimately, it is not harder because we are Black, it is harder because people have not tried to meet our fashion needs or to make Black clients a priority.  Because of this, Black models are continually distorting the very people we are paid to represent ourselves.

“It’s built me into not taking any chances when bringing my own foundation and even hair products as chances are I’ll be showing the hair team how to lay edges.”

We are continually faced with ignorance, and it makes it difficult for us to excel when we have an added burden that some do not have.

Even with the critical need for more representation Lizzy enjoys being a part of the fashion industry. She has worked with freelance photographers in the UK and Wales and with high profile brands like Adidas, Vogue Italia, and Picton Magazine. She is represented by Bame Models who have treated her amazingly.

 “They’re a great agency as their values align with my own.”

Lizzy is currently modelling for Asos who have allowed her to explore different personalities when modelling, which helped her feel less typecast. 

Image courtesy of Dom @say_so_photography

“My most memorable shoot to date would have to be when I had an underwater shoot, because of how bizarre and different it was. It was a giant fish tank with loads of fabrics that made amazing shapes when I went under.”

Lizzy is one of many Black models that are committed to breaking down barriers and hardships faced in the industry. She encourages Black girls that want to start modelling to go for it as everyone’s modelling experiences are different.

“I think that the fashion industry has a huge problem with diversity and inclusivity, but I also believe that the changes being made are small but in the long run incredibly necessary.”

It is impossible for an industry formed over so many years to abandon all its rules and traditions overnight. The best thing we can do to ensure change is to keep having these conversations about the importance of diversity not just in the industry but everywhere in between.


Follow Elizabeth on her instagram at @aisha_seyi