The Realities of Being a Black Alternative Model

I had my eye on alternative modelling since I was about fifteen. It was the counter-cultural aspect of the industry that attracted me, how it seemed to celebrate different kinds of expression that were usually excluded from mainstream portrayals of beauty. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the successful models in the industry are White and thin (not dissimilar to glamour models) with tattoos and coloured hair. There was a small amount of Black models, and that gave me some reassurance that the idea of entering the industry wasn’t completely insane. And so, I embarked on the complex journey of becoming a Black alternative model.

Women of colour – particularly unambiguously Black women – are still underrepresented in fashion. However, the mainstream fashion industry has been making some improvements in terms of diversity. While most agencies, magazines, and brands are making conscious attempts to fill their diversity quota, the independent modelling industry, especially in alternative fashion isn’t taking those steps. With only a handful of us in the UK, there’s no more Black alternative models now than there was when I started. In fact, I think there’s less. While the industry portrays itself as being inclusive, it’s an unfortunate fact that only those with the ‘right look‘ find success.

It isn’t uncommon to find leading photographers with a portfolio of White models. It isn’t uncommon to see brands with absolutely no models of colour, and magazines without the slightest amount of melanin in its pages. It isn’t uncommon to see castings highlighting a preference for White models. It isn’t accidental. I soon realised that my complexion was inherently ‘not alternative,’ and not something that brands felt fit with their image. I’ve had a certain alternative brand, following the photoshoot, decide that I – their only Black model – just didn’t look ‘alternative enough‘ in their designs. But the White models on their social media (many of which lacked in tattoos, piercings or colourful hair, I might add), were “alternative enough“. I know that I’m not the only Black alternative model who has had this kind of experience.

With the lack of opportunities – which, of course, means a decreased chance of making money – it’s no wonder that there’s less models of colour now than there before. Another unfortunate side-effect of this issue is that it increases competition between the few Black models around, who often feel like they have to battle twice as hard for jobs, even against one another. It’s a cycle I’ve seen multiple times, and have recently experienced myself. Models becoming intimidated by new faces out of the fear that they will steal the already limited spotlight that they have. Not only do these behaviours discourage Black models from joining the scene, but it threatens solidarity for the minorities who should be standing together. While I believe that a victory for one Black model is a victory for all of us, the competitive nature of the industry means that this approach is unfortunately few and far between.

I don’t think that those at the top-of-the-chain realise how damaging non-inclusive imagery has the potential to be. It’s common knowledge that it can be tough to be an alternative person, with issues like bullying and feelings of alienation being sadly common. Now imagine being alternative and an ethnic minority. Not fitting into the alternative community because you’re a minority, and not fitting into your ethnic community because you’re alternative. It is the main reason why I believe that representation of ethnic minorities in the alternative industry is so important. I believe that people need to stop thinking of alternative subcultures as being ‘for White people.’ The motivation to provide that representation for alternative Black girls is the reason why I continue to model.

Despite the difficulties, it isn’t all doom and gloom. I built a portfolio by connecting with local photographers, I got the attention of brands by building a positive reputation and by styling myself in shoots. I’ve had the honour of modelling for alternative brands and magazines from the UK and across the globe, gaining support from more people than I ever could have anticipated. Slowly but surely, I believe that other alternative Black models and I are changing people’s perceptions about what ‘alternative’ looks like, but I would love to see more people join the ride.

Words By Yasmin Benoit

*Disclaimer – all images within this article are the intellectual property of Glen Bryan. Ragged Culture Publishing Ltd. does not own the copyright to these images. All rights reserved.*

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