White on black: the racism in women's glossies

The queen of Britain's model agents claims that ethnic cover stars are much scarcer now than they were 25 years ago. Arifa Akbar reports

Way back in 1982, when Carole White co-founded the world- famous Premier Model Management agency with her brother, Owen, black faces were all the rage with fashion editors, with the likes of Iman, Pat Cleveland and the teen sensation Naomi Campbell gracing the covers of magazines.

More than 25 years later and White says the industry's progressive instincts have gone into reverse, as editors have taken a view that only white faces sell at news-stands.

"Whenever I ask the question, it's always about sales and the idea that blue eyes and blonde hair sells. I'm not sure I believe that. If fashion editors were a bit braver and tried out black, Asian and Chinese models, our eyes would be easier on that look.

"They don't give the opportunities to these girls. Given that there are so many variations of skin, particularly in London, it's a backward step being taken if no one is brave enough to give ethnic girls a chance," she says.

White has made it her business to challenge the colour prejudices of the rag trade, speaking out earlier this year during London Fashion Week. She thinks that the women's magazine industry, which gives a platform to the designers and their catwalk shows, is part of the problem, not the solution.

Though Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman has insisted the number of black women featured in her magazine is "absolutely on a par with the whole population", White begs to differ. "Why is it getting worse and not better, then? There are fewer and fewer black models in magazines, in spite of [the increasing ratio of ethnic minorities in] the population," she says.

"The African look is the hardest look to get work for. Some of that has to do with photographers who are not au fait with how to light black skin properly, and with make-up artists, I have seen some horrendous jobs on black girls."

Of the 200 models White currently has on her books, only around seven or eight are black or Asian, a reflection of what is marketable. "It's harder to find work for them, it takes longer, and then they have to be perfect to succeed."

It was not always so hard. "It was very different when I first set up. Black models were seen as having a better stance and regarded as more powerful on the catwalk. Pat Cleveland was seen as "queen of the shows". She was amazing. Back then, catwalk shows were predominantly black because designers loved working with black girls who they felt portrayed their clothes better."

The term "supermodel" was coined by Gianni Versace with the media in mind, says White. Until then, there had been little crossover between the catwalk, magazine models and actresses. He began dressing his models in his best designs and having them turn up at parties to be photographed. The media lapped it up and the models became quasi Hollywood icons.

"Actresses were dressing down and his models were given beautiful clothes. He wanted them wearing them to parties as a way of advertising them. From then on, it became a more personality dominated thing. They became like Hollywood icons from the silent movies era. They didn't talk but they looked great all the time."

After a brief teenage stint as a model herself ("I was rubbish. You have to have quite a big ego"), White signed up to secretarial school and became a "temp" who booked models for exhibitions. That experience sowed the seeds of her passion for "every aspect of the business" and Premier was formed.

By the 1990s, its reputation as a giant among London modelling agencies led to a transatlantic partnership with the American agency Elite, until 2000. Together, they represented such stars as Christy Turlington and Claudia Schiffer, as well as Campbell.

White says that Campbell, who she represented for 17 years, is "so famous, more famous than any other supermodel. Both Naomi and Kate Moss are beautiful and a bit risky".

Even at the height of Campbell's fame, it was still a tougher business for her. "They always tried to pay her less. Maybe people thought she was black so she was not worth as much."

White thinks the reason the fashion industry might have turned against black models could partly be down to the collapse of former Eastern-bloc countries which led to a new "waif" look. "They are very skinny and white, beautiful, but quite bland. It had the effect of changing the bargaining power of an agent, because the market was glutted with girls. If one could not do a job, another one could."

In spite of the lack of diversity in magazines, White has never been in favour of ethnic minority "quota systems" which Vivienne Westwood has urged glossy magazines to adopt. Change will come through media debate, she thinks, and she is aware of the pivotal role she can play in that.

But not every change over the years has been bad. We are much more accustomed to seeing "bigger women" in magazines, she says, thanks to original advertising campaigns such as the TV and poster campaign for Dove soap. "You wouldn't have thought the campaign would be successful but people really related to it. The public is much more open to seeing bigger women."

What really irritates her is the media's obsession with size zero, and particularly the focus on eating disorders within the industry. While there is a growing movement from within the industry to ban models of a certain size, she thinks this would be foolish.

"The size zero thing is just idiotic, there is no such thing as a size zero. But just like ballerinas and athletes, they have to be a certain size to do their job. I don't think we should ban anything. I think everything is about common sense.

"Most of our models eat junk food. Our biggest problem is getting them to stop eating chips. I don't think girls develop eating disorders from looking at magazines. Obesity is a much bigger problem."

As the emotive debates on the colour and size of models rage on, White ultimately defends the fashion industry as being a "healthy" one. And having experienced the fickle nature of the business over the decades, she understands its cyclical nature and is confident black will, once again, be back. "It's very sad that this is the case at the moment but I'm sure it'll change," she says, shrugging her shoulders. "Fashion always does."

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