One of the last places I expected to hear an engaging antiracist and feminist critique of the fashion industry was on The Tyra Banks Show. But on a January 2006 episode, there was Banks, sitting couch-to-couch with supposed archnemesis and fellow supermodel Naomi Campbell, discussing the forces that years ago had pitted the two women against each other on the assumption that America had room for only one black top model.
I sat rapt on my futon, munching potato chips and settling in for what I had expected to be a legendary catfight between the catwalk titans. Instead, Banks, at times fighting back tears, dedicated much of her sit-down with Campbell to spelling out the dearth of opportunities for black models in the fashion industry. She concluded the very special episode with a segment calling on women to stop competing with one another and unite: "One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is because sisterhood is so important to me. I feel like women hate on each other—we're jealous—and it has to stop."
Banks, who hoped her confrontation with Campbell would bring "healing" for both women, attributed their painful 14-year rift to a narrow-minded fashion industry and the media that covers it. "Back then there were 10 top models...but there was an unwritten rule that only one of them could be black," Banks said. "And Naomi was that one black girl." Indeed, upon her spectacular rise to prominence soon after being discovered at age 17 by a model scout, Banks was hailed as the "new Naomi Campbell" and a Campbell "look-alike." Such race-based comparisons are nothing new for black models. In a 2003 Time article, Somali supermodel Iman said that, upon arriving in New York in 1975, she realized she was being pitted against Beverly Johnson. She recalls quickly learning "that magazines would only use one black girl at a time, and they were trying to create a competition between us." It's needless to say that neither Iman and Beverly nor Tyra and Naomi look much alike.
As far back as 1994, Banks resented the comparisons between her and Campbell, as she told People in a rare comment on her supposed competitor: "Why do I have to knock Naomi out to be successful? With white models they don't do that." Nonetheless, in one oft-recounted incident, Campbell had Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld ban Banks from appearing on the fashion giant's runways; she also reportedly tried to force her then-agency, Elite Model Management, to choose between her and Banks; Banks decided to leave Elite for IMG in order to ease the tension. (Campbell was later dismissed from Elite after founder John Casablancas declared the model to be "crazy, irrational, and uncontrollable.")
Banks eventually quit high-fashion catwalks and photo shoots and found refuge in the mainstream gigs—like modeling for the Victoria's Secret catalog and posing for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue—that make room for more voluptuous (in modeling terms, anyway) figures like hers. This has been her official story for years—but as she revealed to Campbell on her show, "That's only 50 percent of it." Banks was also "tired of the comparison" and "tired of constantly hearing that I got canceled from this job...or this magazine was called and [told] not to use me." Ultimately, Banks grew tired of walking in Campbell's shadow, so she ceded the haute couture battle to her.
Prior to the talk-show sit-down, the most Banks had been willing to publicly say about Campbell was that she doubted they would ever be friends. However, on the show, Banks elaborated on their strained relationship, offering up specific examples of unpleasant moments between the two, and pointedly asking Campbell why she had treated her so badly. Campbell, for her part, stopped short of outright denying Banks's allegations, opting for an Oliver Northian failure to recollect. Responding to the recounting of one particular incident, Campbell said: "I know the person that I am and I'm not someone to go and give myself away and say that to anybody. But if that's what you remember, I accept that, but it doesn't sound like me." Campbell also conceded that she was emotionally unstable during the period in question and was being advised by the wrong people.
Indeed, the two women were embedded in an industry that yanks adolescent girls from anxiety-ridden obscurity to magnify their assets and flaws for worldwide assessment. Given this backdrop, it's not difficult to imagine Campbell's distress at having to contend with a younger model who was literally being groomed to replace her. Campbell's own career was launched in 1986 when she landed the cover of Elle in place of another black model who had canceled. Having established her livelihood on the missed opportunity of another black model, Campbell must have learned an indelible lesson, and would not allow herself to be so easily displaced.
Though the Tyra episode ended with the requisite apology from Campbell ("However I've affected you or you've felt that I've affected you, I take my responsibility. I must say I'm very proud of you. You've been a powerful black woman.... Please continue") and tears from Banks, its real strength was that Banks framed her enmity with Campbell as a result of the larger institutional and social forces that pitted the two models against each other in the first place. The story had all the elements of talk-show pathos—the tears, the accusations, the confessions of emotional agony—but to her credit, Banks refused to make the story purely a personal one, reminding the audience throughout the show that "the press had cast Naomi and [me] as rivals before we ever met each other." She could easily have made Campbell the sole villain—given the model's history of petulance, anger-management issues, and resulting lawsuits, most of the work was already done for her—but instead she chose to focus on both systemic racism in the modeling industry and internalized sexism among women.
The issue of race and modeling goes far deeper than Tyra vs. Naomi, of course. Hot on the heels of the televised showdown came a May 2006 Slate article by J.E. Dahl that wondered, "Is Tyra Banks Racist?" In it, Dahl notes that on America's Next Top Model, Banks reserves her harshest criticisms for the black wannabes. Taking Banks to task for "discouraging any behavior that could be considered 'too black,'" Dahl cites some of Top Model's biggest controversies—Banks's disapproval of season-three runner-up Yaya's Afrocentric head wraps; her many admonitions to recent winner Danielle that her accent was "too country"; and her now-infamous "Tyrade" (as Television Without Pity dubbed it) against season four's ghetto-fabulous Tiffany, in which Banks's usually composed persona gave way to unbridled rage at the contestant's seemingly indifferent attitude toward the competition. The diatribe reiterated the kind of rhetoric about self-reliance and individual responsibility often directed at black Americans in general, and Dahl argues that these and other actions suggest Banks's own internalized racism—a criticism similar to that lodged against Bill Cosby, who in 2004 publicly lambasted black Americans marginalized by poverty for, among other things, not speaking proper English.
But it's worth arguing that Banks is not so much racist as she is both aware of racism and dedicated to ensuring that future black models arm themselves with the sensibilities and postures necessary to compete in a stubbornly unreflective, homogeneous industry. Surely Dahl has heard of the phenomenon wherein members of marginalized groups are tougher on their own, instilling the "twice-as-good" attitude among protégés within their group to ensure that they thrive in the mainstream. Just as Cosby critics aptly retorted that the comedian should save his scathing tongue for the systemic injustices that drive urban black poverty, Dahl would have done better to balance his critique of Banks with a stark assessment of the modeling industry.
Yes, Banks's criticism of black contestants on Top Model works to reproduce the Eurocentric notions that impede the success of blacks in the fashion industry at large. But it also acknowledges the endemic racism in her industry—and not just the modeling industry, but that of reality television. For example, Banks warned season-three contestant Eva that she was in danger of not being cast simply because Banks didn't want "another black bitch" on the show. Banks's statement reflected an awareness of reality television's "Omarosa complex," where black women are represented as haughty divas with attitudes in order to heighten drama—and, subsequently, ratings. In petitioning for black models (and reality-show contestants) to change their behavior rather than for a systemic overhaul, Banks opts to reform black models rather than to revolutionize either industry.
Banks is obviously not the first to verbalize this resignation to the fashion world's limitations. Legendary fashion editor André Leon Talley—the lone recognizable black face at Vogue—has long acknowledged the dearth of opportunities for black models in the industry. In a 2003 Essence interview, he admitted, "We have regressed. I often sit at a show and see not one black model on the runway. Can't they find some black girls?" Talley, who has also noted this frustration in his monthly "Stylefax" column for Vogue, explained in the same interview that he has written notes and made suggestions to designers and editors, stating that he "can't believe it when [they] say, 'I couldn't find anyone' or 'She didn't look right in the clothes.'" However, when pressed for a solution to this problem, as well as the one of a scarcity of black editors at fashion magazines, he replied matter-of-factly, "Vogue, Condé Nast, that's not our world. We are not the majority."
But neither Talley, Banks, nor Dahl addresses the intransigence of this "world." In his Slate article, Dahl tags Banks as a kind of reactionary without considering the rigid context in which she operates. We all know that the fashion industry is hardly progressive in its representations of womanhood. And where race is concerned, the industry has largely sidestepped the issue by reducing the significance of skin color to the aesthetic: Black models are reportedly in higher demand during spring and summer seasons because their skin color contrasts well with the brighter shades in such collections. Just as purple can be in one season and out the next, so can, say, Asian models. (In a 2003 article on the fashion industry titled "The Role of Race," IMG agent Kyle Hagler told Time, "A while ago, every show had to have an Asian girl, but that seems to have passed.") The modeling industry, shrouded by notions of subjective aestheticism, is one realm that has remained largely untouched by gender- or race-based identity politics. Physical appearance, even if racial or ethnic, can be embraced or disregarded by the industry as capriciously as Marc Jacobs tulip pants.
The April 2005 issue of Vanity Fair echoed this sentiment with its cover story, "Slavs of Fashion," about the influx of models from former Communist countries. Among the women profiled in the piece is Natalia Vodianova, who succinctly interpreted the so-called invasion of models from the old Soviet Bloc as such: "We have beautiful skin, beautiful faces...and the Brazilians are finished!" Vodianova was referring to the erstwhile craze in the modeling industry for Brazilian models like Gisele Bündchen. But unfortunately for Bündchen and her bronzed crew, the newer crop of Eastern European and Russian models, according to Vanity Fair, exude a kind of "toughness or seriousness" that's apparently more in vogue than the "fun-loving Gisele thing." (Such toughness was attributed to hard times endured under the Communist regime. Frolicking Brazilians are out and poised ex-Soviets with an aura of stoicism are in—just another day in fashion.)
Though the prominence of different ethnicities or nationalities often swells and subsides within the modeling industry according to the whims of its decision makers, with race—and with black models in particular—such transient recognition has tended to be more singular than group-based. Sensations like Naomi or Tyra or Iman are singled out for individual success, rather than as one of a crowd or stable of black models ushered into prominence.
There have, however, been waves of wider acceptance. In the 1970s, Iman, Pat Cleveland, and Beverly Johnson—the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue—all catapulted onto the fashion stage. In the early-to-mid-'90s, opportunities for nonwhite models seemed to open up once again, as not only Banks and Campbell but also Karen Alexander, Tyson Beckford, Beverly Peele, Roshumba Williams, Jenny Shimizu, Veronica Webb, and Alek Wek became highly visible figures. It was a short-lived period, though, one that Webb herself explored in a 1996 Essence article, "Where Have All the Black Models Gone?" After noticing that the runways were overwhelmingly populated with very pale blonds, she took it upon herself to talk to industry insiders about the reason for this shift. Webb's interviews with designers, photographers, and fashion-magazine editors inspired an orgy of finger-pointing, with photographers claiming that they shoot models chosen by the magazines who hire them, editors saying they tap the runway for models to appear in their magazines, and designers replying that they look to magazine pages to scout modeling talent for their collections.
Chicken-and-egg conundrum aside, magazines do have a commercial incentive to keep nonwhite models off its covers, as an Allure editor admitted to Webb: "Sales are significantly lower when we put a person of color on the cover." But why? Gary Younge investigated this hard-and-fast dictum in a 1999 piece for the U.K. Guardian after seeing only three black models out of a total of 41 in Vogue's millennium issue showcasing the magazine's all-time favorite faces. Both sources he consulted—one a spokesperson for designer Jean-Paul Gaultier and the other a magazine editor—blamed the biases of the general reading audience, with the former stating that magazine sales can drop as much as 20 percent when a black woman is on the cover. "I would not say the fashion industry is racist; it's the world which is racist," the spokesperson said. "It is people who buy fashion and people who buy magazines and they seem to prefer the white woman." The editor had a more generous interpretation of the apparent tastes of magazine buyers: "The person you put on the cover has to be somebody that readers can aspire to aesthetically. You want to look at the picture and say: 'I want to look like that.' I'm not saying that couldn't happen if the reader is white and the model is black. But it is more difficult."
Even Campbell recently voiced her own displeasure with the paucity of black models, telling Vogue: "I remember a time when there were at least eight black girls working. And now, in 2006...it's shocking!" Nonetheless, any nonwhite model who takes legal action in the U.S. claiming employment discrimination on the basis of race can be easily trounced by the counterclaim that she was not "qualified" or hired for the position solely due to an aesthetic, not racist, judgment. Certainly, the fashion industry is one site where aesthetics and politics shall never meet.
It is important to note that race is less of a determing factor in magazine sales when black celebrities rather than models are the ones mugging on covers. The seminal example, of course, is O, the sales of which have consistently increased despite (or, indeed, due to) the fact that Oprah Winfrey is on every single cover. Winfrey, of course, is no regular celebrity, but a national phenomenon who has also appeared on the cover of Vogue. However, as legal scholar and author Patricia Williams wryly observed, given that Vogue is "the province of Helmut Lang's spiky, emaciated teenagers in white lipstick, cashmere underwear, and shoes designed for those who have little occasion to ride the subway...[i]n that space, Oprah appeared so...unusual." Seeing a full-figured black woman on the cover of a high-fashion magazine, even when the woman in question is Oprah Winfrey, is somewhat bizarre.
Given that we all know that fashion-mag standards of female beauty are hopelessly skewed and endlessly limited, why should we even bother critiquing the race or the height or the bustlines of the few women chosen to exemplify this absurd standard? It's an old question, and one that's been explored by everyone from Toni Morrison to Eve Ensler to Oprah. Morrison, in the epilogue of her novel The Bluest Eye, once pondered why black beauty needed "wide public articulation in order to exist," and concluded that "the assertion of racial beauty was not...a humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common in all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze."
Indeed, black models whose own beauty has achieved this "wide public articulation" frame their success as not only an individual one, but as something to be shared by other black models and black women more generally. Despite Banks's tough-love approach to black contestants on Top Model, she's acting with the hope that more black models will persevere in the industry and perhaps ease the path for their successors. Banks, who cites Sonia Cole and Iman as inspirations, has a sense of historical lineage; she sees herself as a descendant of those who came before and as a trailblazer for those who will come after. As she told Essence in 1995: "I think things will change for the Black models who come after us. They won't have to feel so insecure about losing their spots. They'll benefit from our pain." Current Ethiopian sensation Liya Kebede, the first black model to sign a multimillion-dollar contract as the face of Esteé Lauder, has a similar take: Discussing the contract and her overall success with Time, she said, "I'd love it if young girls can see me and say, 'She's done it, and so can I.'"
Banks and Campbell, along with their predecessors, are noteworthy pioneers in the representation of nonwhite beauty. Banks was the first black model to appear on the cover of GQ and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue; Campbell was the first black model to appear on the cover of French and British Vogue, not to mention the first black woman to be considered a "supermodel." Granted, GQ, Vogue, and the like are problematic turf on which to wage the battle for women's self-esteem. But for women of color of all shapes and phenotypes, the fact remains that many can and do see a part of themselves in the few nonwhite models designated as representatives of Beauty. Therein lies the conundrum of being a black spectator of American culture—seeing diversity as a tiresome mantra masquerading for tokenism and, at the same time, as a worthy principle pushing society to rectify persistent racial exclusion. Thus, while diversity practiced as tokenism creates a scenario whereby Tyra must replace Naomi or the Slavs displace the Brazilians, those who believe in diversity on principle are shoehorned into supporting new recruits despite the rigid context in which opportunity is supposedly being equalized. The danger of this situation is that instead of continually widening new opportunities—or, in the case of the modeling industry, expanding popular notions of beauty—certain token diversity slots are created and jealously guarded by persons occupying them, who rationally fear being ousted for the next exotic trend. Such is the predicament of nonwhite models roaming the frontier of identity politics in an industry both zealously fickle and unwavering in its devotion to Eurocentric beauty.
The hope in all this is that expanding opportunities for models of color will eventually put an end to the kind of jealous protectionism that created the rift between Banks and Campbell in the first place. With regard to the modeling industry, the increasing prominence of mixed-race models suggests a subliminal wish for a postrace hybridity that, once and for all, discounts race as an arbitrary and illusory category.
What's more encouraging is that celebrities of all casts and dyes are displacing professional models in both cosmetic endorsements and glossy fashion spreads. The implication of this move is that, more and more, having a certain kind of look will not be sufficient for models to successfully compete for such exposure; a personality might also be required. Supposed role models are being sought after to a greater extent than fashion models, with women like Halle Berry chosen to represent Revlon, Beyoncé for L'Oreal, and Queen Latifah as the face of Cover Girl. Lionizing celebrities isn't necessarily a solution, but a focus on beauty that's more than one-dimensional might help reduce the racial tokenism and exoticism that runs rampant on fashion's rarefied catwalks.
Still, it won't eradicate competition between models, whoever those models are. (For all we know, Halle beat out Beyoncé for that Revlon spot.) Jealousy and protectionism will always be a function of any commercial industry, and perhaps more so in one where catty women are the most visible agents. So, if race becomes a less salient factor in pitting future Naomis against future Tyras, something else will inevitably rise up to spur competition in its wake among other dubious elements like weight and height and the symmetry of one's facial features. In the end, understanding models as rational economic actors rather than as insecure waifs showing their claws is crucial to seeing hidden strains, pressures, and biases apparent in their cutthroat market—and changing them for the good of us all.