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.
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”.
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.
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.