Agent and former model Bethann Hardison once said, "Modeling is probably the one industry where you have the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work." It’s also probably the one industry where you have the freedom to search far and wide for employees based on their genetic make-up—and brag about it to the New York Times.
A Times story this week follows the travails of model scouts who go to only three southern states in Brazil in search of beauties for the runways. That’s because the scouts are on the hunt for the perfect blonde and these Brazilian farmlands, once colonized by Italians and Germans, produced the world’s top earning model in 1994, Gisele Bündchen.
Scout Clóvis Pessoa tells the Times: "If a famous top model looks German with a Russian nose, I will do a scientific study and look for cities that were colonized by Germans and Russians in the south of Brazil in order to get a similar face down here." Lovely.
Today, more than 70 percent of Brazil’s models come from these three southern states even though more than half the country’s population is brown and Black. The blond teenagers are from poor farming communities. One named Michelle tells the Times reporter she’d hoped to give her parents a better life with her work on the catwalk.
The story may be surprising to Americans who think Brazil (like Cuba) is some kind of mixed-race paradise.
It is true that in the late nineties Taís Araújo, a Black Brazilian actress, turned one of the country’s telenovelas "Xica da Silva" into an international smash hit. Her role though wasn’t surprising, innovative or even just slightly different. Araújo played the saucy slave who wins over the good, white man.
Still in the traditional world of lily-white telenovelas, having a gorgeous, dark woman on the screen night after night felt like nothing short of a milestone. And as the Times points out, Brazil’s had non-beauty racial progress: Marina Silva is being picked by the country’s Green Party as their candidate for this year’s presidential elections and the upswing in the economy has given Black Brazilians a boost.
It’s just that the runways remain white territory abroad where it matters. Three years ago, even the fashion writer Guy Trebay took notice, writing that the New York runway season was so white it "made it appear as if someone had hung out a sign reading: No Blacks Need Apply."
Roshumba Williams summed it up well for the Black women’s website, NiaOnline: "The reality is that some seasons, Black girls are not in, and they will tell you that to your face. It’s just the way the industry is."
The best that can be said about Brazil is that it’s taking action. Local prosecutors have forced São Paulo Fashion Week to have at least 10 percent of their models be of African or indigenous ancestry. Hopefully they’ll be able to export this affirmative action model to New York and Europe.
In the meantime, Araújo continues with her telenovela success. She now has the lead role in the Brazilian telenovela "Seize the Day," where she plays none other than a successful top model.
Photo: Gisele Bündchen, Getty Images/Larry Busacca