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?