Friday, 04 June 2010 18:39

Bright Future Awaits Models of Colour

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Exclusive interview with Sola Oyebade, Founder and CEO of Mahogany Model Management.

You can be beautiful but if the colour of your skin is not white, then finding work as a model in the UK and other European countries is very difficult. This is because models of colour are victims of racial discrimination. To fight against this injustice, Mr. Sola Oyebade founded Mahogany Model Management, an agency specifically catering for models of colour. He made a commitment to fight against discrimination of models of colour, to help them become professionals and find work. By doing this, Mahogany Model Management is injecting "colour into mainstream fashion", as Mr. Oyebade explains in this interview he granted The AfroNews.

Why did you decide to create Mahogany Model Management?

Mahogany International has been in existence for over 13 years. When we first started modelling was not the "in thing". It was initially so difficult to find models to participate in our bridal shows. However due to the fact that I was once a model, I was able to find women who wanted to be models and teach them how to walk, etc. There after people started coming to me to ask for models to use for their shows and I spent a lot of time doing this for other people. I soon found out that it was very hard for black models to find work and I felt that something had to be done about this so I set up the agency as a way of trying to redress this imbalance and it was decided that it would be set up to specifically cater for models of colour - models of African, Caribbean, Asian, oriental, Hispanic or dual heritage ethnicity.

Please share with us briefly the experience you went through to create Mahogany Model Management.

Setting up a specialist modelling agency in the UK was extremely challenging as we were attempting to compete with the mainstream agencies. There was also the fact that our agency was seen as a controversial one because we were excluding Caucasian models. Finding models was not a problem because there were models in abundance that were unable to get into mainstream modelling agencies – our tag line is "Injecting colour into mainstream fashion". We also faced the problem of how we would sell black models as they felt that "black does not sell". It has been extremely hard getting work for our models, but slowly and through our various campaigns things have been changing and it has now got to the stage where companies come to us when they are specifically looking for models of colour.

What are the objectives of Mahogany Model Management?

To "Inject colour into mainstream fashion", to get more and more models to be featured in major advertising campaigns in magazines, fashion shows, photoshoots or television. Mahogany Model Management also aims at helping black models become as professional as possible and to work with mainstream fashion to get rid of the stereotypes that they have of black models. It also aims at letting clients, casting directors and companies realise that black is beautiful and that black models should be used in a multicultural Britain. It is our aim to create as many supermodels as possible and to become the biggest agency for models of colour in the world.

What are some of the main challenges you've encountered since creating Mahogany Model Management?

We have many challenges as an agency which include casting directors and clients who don't want to use us as an agency but to directly use our models. We are constantly hit with accusations of racism that we have set up an agency that excludes white models. From a business perspective it is extremely hard to find paid work for our models and when we do find them, companies try to take advantage of the fact that black models are desperate for work and therefore they offer very low pay.

There are people who hold that beauty pageants expose models to promiscuity. What's your reaction to that?

I am unable to really comment on this as I am unaware of this happening, but if it is I am extremely disappointed as it is wrong to exploit young people who are striving to achieve their dreams. At Mahogany we do everything we can to promote young people and get them a foot into the modelling industry.

You've led a campaign against discrimination of Black models. Why do you think Black models are still victims of discrimination in the UK which is such a diverse country?

I believe this is due to the fact that the people who have the power within the industry - the big modelling agencies, casting directors, advertising executives, etc do not feel that black models bring any extra value to their campaigns. In other words by putting a black model on the cover of a magazine, it is not going to sell any extra copies of that magazine. In fact in their view the magazine is most likely to sell less copies. However one must also be fair and say that a company like Marks & Spencers and Halifax have done a lot to push black models and have used them in some major advertising campaigns.

In addition to the above there is also what they consider to be the extra work that is involved if they are to use a black model on a campaign. They feel they would have to get extra lighting in to take pictures of the black models, their makeup artist would not be able to do the make up properly and so many other things. Ultimately it all boils down to money and they feel that investing in black models is not commercially viable.

With different cultures having different concepts of beauty, do you think that some key players in the Fashion industry believe that Black models are less beautiful than their white counterparts?

We live in a country where we are the minority and as such the power brokers feel they must cater to the majority and as they are primarily Caucasian, it means they see Caucasian as the beautiful race. Many a times I am told that black models are too curvy, with big hips and that they are too sexual when they walk on the catwalk and as such are not appropriate for fashion.

So I have always asked myself: is it that they do not see black women as beautiful or is it that they fear their beauty? For me, I think it is the latter. As you look around you will see that Caucasian women are injecting themselves to make their lips and their hips bigger, all traits that black women naturally have. So they like to look like us but do not want to use us in their campaigns.

What do you think should be done to eliminate discrimination of models of colour?

Very simple, use more black models in advertising campaigns, reflect the multi cultural society that we live in.

Would you say that the future is bright for models of colour?

Without a shadow of a doubt the future is bright. Mahogany has worked tirelessly for change over the years and we believe that our hard work is coming to fruition. There are more major national advertising campaigns that are using black models such as Marks & Spencers, Matalan, Halifax, GMTV, Sandanter, etc. Mahogany has also been working very closely with the British Fashion Council to initiate change within the industry generally and I sit on a working group that is pushing for change. So I feel that Mahogany through its Black BUT Invisible Campaign has been instrumental in pushing for change.

What are some of the most important achievements you've made since creating Mahogany Model Management?

Our biggest achievement to date is the "Italian Vogue All Black Issue" where Mahogany was instrumental in making it the biggest selling edition of Vogue ever and led to it being reprinted and selling out in full for a second time. This has never happened in the history of Vogue or any other magazine. It was via this campaign and our Top Model of Colour competition that we achieved world wide publicity about the lack of black models within the fashion industry. It also led to many celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and other supermodels coming out in support of the campaign and the need for more black models to be used around the world.

Furthermore through Black BUT Invisible Campaign we took on the British Fashion Council and their failure to use black models on the catwalks at London Fashion Week and this has led to them working closely with us to initiate change.

Finally we have had a number of our models appear in major campaigns, fashion shows and be invited to participate in shows around the world and due to all of these, Mahogany Model Management has become one of the most renowned specialist agencies in Europe and Africa.

What are the requirements for becoming a Mahogany Model?

We are a specialist agency so we only take on non Caucasian models. We take on experienced or inexperienced models. Minimum height is 5.1. Maximum dress size is 12 (we will take on plus size models in the future). The model must have a nice personality, be willing to learn and work hard, must be punctual and professional at all times and be prepared to invest in his/her future. Models must have strong features but they don't necessarily have to be beautiful.

What's your advice to those who would like to become models?

Everyone thinks that modelling is very easy and just a lot of fun but that is not the case as modelling is a very hard work and requires commitment and dedication. Models must be prepared for rejection as this is part and parcel of the game. Models must be confident and comfortable of their bodies as models will face criticism of their bodies and will have to be prepared to undress in front of all kinds of strangers.

They must realise that a lot would be expected of them in terms of how they must behave professionally, by being on time, being prepared and having a thorough knowledge of the modelling industry. Models should research into modelling agencies before joining them and they should not pay fees to join an agency. They must also be prepared to invest in their business as even though a model may be taken on by an agency, they must remember that they are self employed and as such they must have portfolio, be prepared to pay for travel and find their own way to castings, etc. Models must be prepared to learn and push themselves as much as they can and remember that even though it may seem like fun it is also hard work.

What are your future plans?

I will continue to work around the world producing shows for others as well as Mahogany and judging at major competitions. We expect the Top Model of Colour franchise to continue to expand, currently it is held in the UK, Holland, the Gambia and Nigeria and there are plans to have it in the USA, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

Models are applying for TMC UK at the moment and the heats will take place in July and August and the final in November. Since TMC UK is now in its 5th year this is going to be a very special year.

We are also expecting that Mahogany Models will be set up in a number of countries around the world. We will continue our fight to improve things for black models and to grow, making Mahogany a word wide brand.


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