Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The whiteness of the Australian modelling industry

Thanks to reader George for the heads up on this story.

Modelling agency denies racism claims
An Indian-Australian model told by a national modelling agency that her work chances were "limited" because she was not Caucasian, is speaking out against the company in a bid to stop the discrimination continuing.
After living and working as a model in the United Kingdom for two years, Kema Rajandran emailed a short biography and photos to Chadwick Model Agency in Perth on Monday, and was "truly disheartened" at the response she received a short time later.
"We think you are very photogenic and would be suitable for our Casting Division," the email from the academy coordinator read.
"Please note however that as you are of non-caucasian heritage that your work opportunities in Perth would be extrremely [sic] limited."
Ms Rajandran said given the "extremely multicultural society of Australia", she was shocked at the response, and hoped that by her speaking out about it, the practice of culling models based solely on their appearance would change.
Chadwick's Perth manager Tanya Muia said she was "gob-smacked" that the agency could be labelled as racially discriminating against Ms Rajandran, and that they were simply relaying her chances of finding work in a tight Perth modelling market.
"This is just ridiculous. I don't see that this is race related," Ms Muia said. "If we don't feel that she's going to secure work in the Perth market... then we tell [her] about it. We have the liberty to give an honest opinion."
Ms Muia said Chadwick, along with other modelling agencies, provided models based on industry demand and that as such had no control over the "looks" chosen for various campaigns.
"We are not discriminating in any way. We represent every culture out there," she said. "There is a bigger picture here other than just that one line, and yes, we will be changing it. But we have worded it (the standard email response) that way for 10 years. We've never had a complaint."
Equal Opportunity Commissioner Yvonne Henderson said while she could not comment specifically on Ms Rajandran's case, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee either at the workplace or in the recruitment process, based on their race. She said there are some exemptions in the case of artistic performance, however did not believe that modelling agencies would fit into this category.
Ms Rajandran said she was extremely disappointed to learn that her Indian appearance would hinder her employment opportunity, especially given the extensive work on offer in the UK to models of "all ethnicities and cultures".
She said she had previously expressed her thoughts on Australia's predominantly Caucasian-based image, and until she saw this email, thought she might have been exaggerating it in her mind.
"This is not right, and I want to bring it to the attention of Australians," she said. "I'm sure they are going to try and justify it... but it is not an acceptable comment."


Ok, a few thoughts here. It seems like Chadwick Modelling Agency aren't really the problem; I wonder if this is a case of "shoot the messenger". If they rejected her solely for that reason and without even giving her a go, then obviously they are just perpetuating the cycle - it's all very well to say that the demand is not there for non-white models, but if the agencies don't give them a chance to even be in contention then there's no chance for things to change. But from my understanding, they actually offered to take her on board their casting division, but felt it necessary to advise her that there weren't many prospects for her. Apparently, the email they sent her was a standard format they had been using for 10 years for clients like these. (Which is sad in itself.)

It must be pointed out for context that Perth is not an especially large city; it's population is around 1.6 million, compared to Sydney (4.5 million) and Melbourne (4 million). Thus it's a smaller market for models and there's obviously going to be less work around. In addition, the ethnic mix of Perth is less diverse than either of those two cities, and that has an effect on how accepting the public is of non-white standards of beauty. Yet Perth also has a substantial Aboriginal community, and is one of the few cities in which a non-white person (Sri Lankan-born and extremely fine Karina Carvalho) is the lead anchor on prime-time news on a major channel (ABC).

Some would argue that there is a lot of political correctness at play here. In other words, it's all about the bottom line, and when it comes to non-white models, the market has spoken. Companies do not want their products represented by the likes of Kema Rajandran, so why should anyone try to force them otherwise? The public, who buy the products, identify more with the traditional Western ideals of good looks, and casting non-white models might cost the company money.

First up, this begs the question: do consumers really respond better to models who fit a Western European ideal of beauty?

Let's assume that to at least some degree, consumers have a greater tendency to identify with celebrities and models who look somewhat like them, or at least look like something they could aspire to. Within a country that is about 90% white, that means white models will clearly receive preference, as currently occurs. Yet check out some ad campaigns for major international brands that feature in Australian television and print media, and it's certainly not all white faces. Beyonce Knowles, Halle Berry, Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba, Jennifer Lopez and Aishwarya Rai are common sights in that realm. Yes, they are famous, but clearly their colour is not a significant obstacle to their images being used as a selling point. Which suggests that if the model is attractive enough, she's good enough.

Although you might wonder if the likes of Knowles and Rai had just been aspiring models from Perth rather than global superstars, how successful they would have been. I wonder if it is significant that two of Australia's most successful models who happen to have non-white ancestry - Samoan/Anglo Megan Gale and Portuguese/Chinese Jessica Gomes - were little known in Australia until they found success overseas.

How much does the modelling and fashion industry reflect the general public's ideas of beauty, and how much does it shape them? As a parallel, I would argue that the relative dominance of gay men in the fashion industry has played a factor in promoting female models with a more androgynous look than you might expect if it was more in line with how heterosexual men see women. So in that sense I would say that it is not necessarily reflecting public tastes. Yet it certainly shapes public tastes; our expectations of what women's bodies should look like are seemingly more unrealistic than they were several generations ago. Models considered unusually "curvy", like the aforementioned Jessica Gomes for example, still tend to be thinner than the average woman.

Likewise, if the various industries that use models start to use a more diverse range of them, it will undoubtedly have some degree of influence on the public's notions of beauty. So to say that the industry merely reflects the public's taste is erroneous, since it both reflects and feeds it simultaneously.

Given that Rajandran was obviously able to find work without much problem in England, where the South Asian population is considerably larger than in Australia, one might argue that it simply comes down to the size of the market, and a non-white model is best off promoting herself in a location where there are more non-whites. But is that really where we are at? Do we really only want to look at one kind of beauty?

15 comments:

  1. Clear case of shooting the messenger. Perth's white South African population of Dutch ancestry is increasing sharply and although these are well educated whites, they stink of bigotry, particularly the white South African girls and women.

    "Companies do not want their products represented by the likes of Kema Rajandran, so why should anyone try to force them otherwise?"

    The question is whether Indians and the Asian community at large stop buying products when only white models are employed. Based on our experiment with a chain in Singapore, I think not. Once the white models are taken down and Asians put in place, Asian women stop coming to the stores...a sale at one such store plunged by half back in 2005! Asian women prefer the white skin and white models! So I would suggest stop blaming the whites. I will bet anything that although the Indian media like to throw stones on the Aussies, none of them will give Kema a chance in India. They will reject commercials featuring her. Too dark!

    "Beyonce Knowles, Halle Berry, Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba, Jennifer Lopez and Aishwarya Rai are common sights in that realm. Yes, they are famous, but clearly their colour is not a significant obstacle to their images being used as a selling point."

    They all look lot whiter than Kema Rajandran! They can pass for white and whiteness sells as long as the racist consumer is unaware of the non-white heritage! A white American woman is a bit more expert at ferretting out the non-whiteness of a woman or man better than the white Aussie woman! For white women in Australia color matters, but American women go deeper...and ferret out your race...they are experts, believe me!

    "I wonder if it is significant that two of Australia's most successful models who happen to have non-white ancestry - Samoan/Anglo Megan Gale and Portuguese/Chinese Jessica Gomes - were little known in Australia until they found success overseas."

    Ditto...probably look white enough..Kema has found success, but looks dark and I know precisely what racist white South African females call people like Kema in contempt when I used to work in South Africa..a derogatory term which is a modified version of dark!

    "So to say that the industry merely reflects the public's taste is erroneous, since it both reflects and feeds it simultaneously."

    A vicious cycle..but no guarantee it will change and industry does not want to take the risk. White men and Asian women couples are supposedly accepted in the US...but when Hawaii Five Os Asian female actor, Grace Park, kissed a white male in one of the shows, there was a sharp decline in audience, particularly white female audience...did not work. So, yes many like Alexandra Wallace of UCLA are inherently racist although they may not be aware!

    "But is that really where we are at? Do we really only want to look at one kind of beauty?"

    It will be easier for her to find a rich white husband (although the white South African expat women may not like it) than break into the modeling industry in Perth. That is the reality!

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  2. australia is not that diverse :-) i always joke to my cousin that london seems like a white city to me. it's got the same racial mix as the *whole USA*

    IMO there are more important issues in the world than ferreting out modeling racism. what next, models in the USA don't represent the obesity of the population well?

    and indian actors and actresses don't look like indians either. they might as well be another race.

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  3. @ Razib:
    I guess it's not about maintaining diversity of representation, but primarily about whether someone gets a fair go in whatever field, be it modelling or science or whatever, based on their talent.
    And I'm well aware that "talent" is a very rubbery concept in the world of modelling in that it's based on extremely subjective criteria.

    I agree it's not necessarily the most important issue, but as a window into the way a society sees itself, or portrays itself, it's interesting. The Brazilian modelling industry is another example, as it tends to promote only Gisele Bundchen clones.

    and indian actors and actresses don't look like indians either. they might as well be another race.
    Rajandran, whether or not you think she's good looking (I do), actually looks Indian! As George said in the comment above, she'd be unlikely to be successful at all in India. Despite being (I assume) Tamil, and being relatively light as Tamils go, she'd probably even be too dark for the Tamil film/modelling/ad industry.

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  4. "Rajandran, whether or not you think she's good looking (I do), actually looks Indian! As George said in the comment above, she'd be unlikely to be successful at all in India. Despite being (I assume) Tamil, and being relatively light as Tamils go, she'd probably even be too dark for the Tamil film/modelling/ad industry."

    You definitely got that right!

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  5. I pity those that think Indian actresses don't look Indian. Simply because they do not fit in your stereotyped image of the "Indian" woman does that no longer make them look Indian? What would you say they look like? Do they really look Arab, White, or Chinese...?

    India has more than 1 billion of the most diverse people in the world. Hell, look in the North East of India, where the people there have a distinct 'tibeto-burman' flavour to them... does that make them non-Indian as you did not know that?

    And lol George if you think Beyonce and Halle Berry look "whiter" than Rajandran!

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  6. @ Nihar:
    When reference is made to Indian actresses not looking Indian, I believe the implication is that they are not representative of Indian people as a whole.

    Indeed, India is extremely diverse. Yet Indian actresses are extremely uniform in their "wheatish"-ness.

    Try this: Do a google images search on "Tamil actresses". Then do another google images search on "Tamils". Then you might have an idea of what Razib meant.

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  7. "And lol George if you think Beyonce and Halle Berry look "whiter" than Rajandran!"

    Beyonce does..Halle Berry probably closer to Rajandran, but still slightly lighter than her! And yes, many Indian actresses look nearly white. Remember Asians dont get too many roles in Hollywood...but Rai has been landing these roles...her father in law even sings of the virtues of white skin in the movie Kabhi Alvida Nahin Kehna...and guess what...AB complains about racism against Indians in Australia...and Rai complains about her being made to look white by Vogue...their hypocrisy makes me want to puke!

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  8. And one more point...how many non-Anglo Saxon girls in Australia's Next Top Model...I still think that Kelsey Martinovich was screwed over becuase she was not of British-Irish heritage like Amanda Ware!..Sanderson, Stocks, Burdeu,Reveley, Atkinson and Ware...ok I conced, Burdeu sounds French origin!

    Seems like there is a hierarchy here!

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  9. I think there is a distinct difference between being fairer in skin complexion and looking whiter... George, I had referred to the fact that based on facial features etc. Beyonce et al do not look whiter than this model in question!

    Furthermore I think its more important to differentiate that ads/movies target different sorts of people than the fashion industry (which I assume Rajadran is applying for), where different qualities are targeted (height etc. vs acting skills/down to earth marketability.... I am just babbling, I'm not a fashion expert!).

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  10. ^ I guess it depends if you are talking about "white" the colour, "white" the race, or a bit of both.
    There's certainly an element of truth in George's comment. Halle Berry is biracial and thus has whitish features. Beyonce, like most African-Americans, has some degree of European ancestry, probably around 20 or 30%. Plus she has blonde-dyed hair, and even considering her undoubted good looks, I wonder if she would be even half the star she is now if she wore her hair natural.

    It's also worth pointing out that the term "Caucasian", while old-fashioned, traditionally did include Indians.

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  11. Eurasian Sensation:

    You need to post this...

    http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG8409583/Indias-models-accuse-fashion-industry-of-racism.html#

    validates my point! Preference is clearly of white skin and white race in places such as India that even fair skinned Indian models complain!

    When I used to live in India back in the 1970s, I always insisted that the pro-Soviet tilt of the Indian government was because Russia was and is mostly white, and had nothing to do with ideology! Now, the Indians are showing their true colors (no pun intended).

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  12. it's a war of ideology, i agree that asian women actually like the looks of white women. but why is it? Because the beauty concept is all constructed by humans and the one that is prevalent in our society is constructed hundreds of years ago by the more affluent western society. However there is chance that we can change this. In order to change it we need to change the ideology behind this whole concept of beauty. Stop feeding the circle of whiteness, we need more Aisans.

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  13. To be honest speaking as an indian australia, i feel confused as Samantha Harris who is gorgeous is a well sought after model and she is gorgeous but i wouldn't call her "fair". i don't really think skin colour matters….

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  14. Watch a commercial channel for more that 4 minutes and you'll see that Australia has zero interest in reflecting the true populas. Africans, indians, asians - they are just simply not in our popular television shows and are rarely even seen on our commercials. As a south Indian (and very dark) Sydney-sider, I've experienced racism for 3 decades despite my Aussie accent and "western" dress. A person of another colour will never be white enough for the average Australian no matter how much they adopt and embrace Aussie culture. I feel America is light years ahead of us!

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  15. "As a south Indian (and very dark) Sydney-sider, I've experienced racism for 3 decades despite my Aussie accent and "western" dress."

    Here in the US they will be hostile to you as well..not because you are Indian...but because they think you are black. When they find out you are Indian, they will be at least friendly to you although you may not be invited into their social circles.

    "A person of another colour will never be white enough for the average Australian no matter how much they adopt and embrace Aussie culture."

    Even here in the US, assimilation has its limits. Whites will want you to assimilate but the moment you tried to apply to become a candidate on the bachelor or bachelorette shows they will run you out of town. I heard the latest white bachelorette virtually froze and became sick to the stomanch when a black contestant gave her the rose...and this from a woman who has children from multiple men.

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