Analyzing the Rise of Black Models With Albinism

 Albinism is a defect of melanin production, resulting in little or no pigment in skin, hair, and eyes.

 Vitiligo is a skin condition that causes depigmentation in various areas of the body.

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Shaun Ross is the first male model with Albinism and has been in many fashion publications, walked runways worldwide, and starred in music videos for pop icons like Lana Del Rey, Beyonce, and Katy Perry. He’s the new face of Ford Models and emblazons the campaign slogan “be Unique”.

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Diandra Forrest is the first model with Albinism to sign to a major agency (Elite Models) and is also a spokesperson for Albinism, working with organizations in East Africa that fight discrimination against the Albino community.

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Chantelle Young, is a model with vitiligo who is a contestant in the current season of America’s Next Top Model. She is also the featured model for Desigual’s fall 2014 campaign.

The rise of these three models have come about very recently.

Fashion and visual media is featuring Black models with albinism and vitiligo for the first time in history- the past five years have not only introduced these models, but created a pathway and interest for their look in magazines, billboards, and media content. Modelesque Africans and African-Americans with albinism and vitiligo have existed before, so what brings the spotlight now? It’s important to answer this question through cultural analysis rather than to accept it as another ebb and flow of the high fashion and media industry.

Black American pop culture always has, and still is, influencing and creating mainstream American culture today. We know that lots of lines are blurred when mainstream pop culture adopts what is found distinctively in Black-American culture, like when we see pop icons who teeter on the lines of minstrelsy and appropriation. At this point in time, hip-hop and rap is so entwined with mainstream (white) American culture that even a white Australian woman can rap with the pseudo sonic Blackness of a Southern black woman and top charts in America (to the dismay of many critics. And ears). Television shows about black families and black protagonists have gone from interest-based channels (or hours slotted for the African American viewers), to integration with major channels, to primetime. All in all, there are many social, cultural, and media related examples to underline that we are vying consumers for this integration.

“As with any great consumerist power, it behooves marketers to create campaigns featuring models with whom new consumers will relate. (“Selling Ethnic Ambiguity”, Jessica Clark).

Does the advent of black models with albinism parallel the height of black culture meshed with mainstream American culture, today? Could black albinism represent a sort of visual release and fantasy for mainstream America that is fascinated and entertained with Black culture and Blackness while still idealizing white beauty standards? We know that the beauty industry loves to parade around those who have overcome their disabilities or differences through beauty (this weeks readings about Heather Whitestone, Vanessa Williams, Bess Myerson) so seeing black models with albinism (and vitiligo) finally getting a shot in the spotlight isn’t all that surprising to me. What I am looking at is why now. While there could be applause for the fashion industry for relaxing its conventions…I believe this change is much more a social cue than an editorial one.

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2 thoughts on “Analyzing the Rise of Black Models With Albinism

  1. In one desigual ad, Chantelle brown-young is pictured smiling, her leg kicked up against a pink and black spotted wall. She wears a shiny white jacket with big black blots and not much else. Her limbs are dangling, their unpigmented splotches fitting in nicely with the theme. Brown-young doesn’t mince her words explaining the cohesion of body and aesthetic here: “Desigual stands for being unusual and unique and atypical, so they figured I’d be the perfect person for that… They had a new line that had a lot of dots. And some of my skin patterns are dots.” While this particular model seems thrilled with the attention she’s getting, I think the ideologies operating to make this kind of campaign possible are seriously concerning. Bodies shouldn’t be ascribed with aesthetic meanings that can go in and out of style… Maybe this desigual campaign feels like a celebration of difference now, but what about a year from now when the brand is really into solids? A toned down, “clean” look? I am willing to bet that Brown-young won’t be called in for that job. When desigual makes this model the human embodiment of a textile design, they erase her blackness even as they supposedly foreground it. They “manage” her difference. Vitiligo on a black woman is wiped of racial meaning and becomes a quirk, an aesthetic, a fun look.

    Assigning certain bodies to certain “looks” is an insidious practice in fashion, whereby all-white casts are continually assembled for runway shows because they supposedly complete a sort of stylistic vision. This demonstration of white supremacy is shielded from criticism because of a you-can’t-police-art line of thinking. Showcasing a model with racial difference in a desigual campaign is not radical. Rather, it reinforces and normalizes the rule of matching racial bodies to ideas.

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  2. Grace, absolutely loved your post and I myself am super curious about the last questioned you posed – “What I am looking at is why now?”

    A simple answer that you touched on concerning Whitestone and Myerson, the idea that we celebrate individuals of disability/difference/etc. in mainstream media in an attempt to instill the idea that we as a nation accept these differences (even when on the individual/personal level we may not nearly be there yet), did also come across my mind. However, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into the timing of it all as well. I do think in the year of 2014, we (as in those in the media) are not acknowledging these individuals of difference in a matter to prove that we accept and celebrate these individuals on a national scale – if anything, we are nearly doing the exact opposite.

    I believe we’ve come to fetishize these “exotic” individuals. As Zoe remarked, their physical presence alone is being exploited for the artistic purpose of high fashion…as she mentioned they “supposedly complete a sort of stylistic vision.” Similar to the way Myerson was nothing other than a “face of the Jews” to show America what and really who we were fighting for, these black albino models are, in a sense, stripped of the individual strife that many face socially in terms of identifying with a particular race and become commodified as exotic, eccentric portrayals of obscurity and for that matter a representation of what we frankly don’t often see on the day-to-day (interesting read on a black albino woman choosing to align herself with the black community over the white community and engaging in a great deal of “race work” to compensate for her “competing features” : http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/news/black-white-skin).

    I came across this New York Times article titled, “For Fashion Models, Quirk Is In” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/fashion/for-fashion-models-quirk-is-in.html?ref=global&_r=0). The article states:

    “The New Quirk might be an adjustment of sorts to an Instagram world, where amateur images of beauty fly fast, and editors and advertisers are looking for something to make the viewer linger longer than a nanosecond. “When you first meet a girl, something like a gap tooth catches your attention,” said Kwok Kan Chan, 45, director of the American operations at The Society Model Management, based in the Flatiron district and part of Elite World/Elite Group. “You might look at her and think ‘She’s not a conventional beauty.’ ”

    To help answer your question, Grace, I think it is safe to say that in a visually-centered society that is only increasing in terms of the number of platforms and ways we can consume images, there is no better time than to represent things that seem exotic to the viewer. As the article also mentions,”Or maybe, like so much in fashion, the quirk is just a reaction to what came before it. “There was a big phase when they all looked like clones: beautiful with amazing bodies, blank screens,” said Wayne Sterling, 44, the creative director at Mix Model Management in SoHo. “You couldn’t distinguish one girl from another. It was a great aesthetic trick. A circle of powerful photographers, editors, and designers get bored of the flatness.” Although much of the discussion here, unique hair colors and haircuts and the growing popularity of the gap tooth, is certainly not on the level of a severe physical condition such as albinism, I think it can help to tell us about the shift in visual aesthetics in modeling campaigns.

    The article ends on the note, “Perhaps quirks, too, will at some point become so ubiquitous that agencies grow weary.” This is more of a fearful than exciting notion for me. If the beauty standards keep changing (no longer is just pretty acceptable but now you need to be unconventionally pretty – quirky with something a little off, but in the way that it just works for you) young girls/women consuming these images in the media will feel increasingly more helpless in their attempts to achieve a look that is truly unattainable for all its complexities.

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