Salem Mitchell isn’t a traditional model, and it’s not because she’s shorter than the standard 5’10” or because she has a face full of freckles—no, it’s because she’s one of the women changing the game on who can become a model, and what kind of work they can get. Now 21-years-old, Mitchell has been covered by Vogue and become a front-row staple at Fashion Week. But she’s still stayed completely true to who she is.
“My core following came from people picking on me and making fun of my freckles,” Mitchell admits. “I mean, I grew up very secure in my skin. I look like my mom and I look up to her, so I was confident in that. The thing was that I wasn’t used to was that sort of behavior from other people. They would call me a banana or a chocolate chip cookie or a poppy seed bagel. Basically, anything that had spots. I was like, ‘what can I do to make people stop bothering me’. So, I found a really ripe banana that looked like me and I posted a photo of my face next to it and said ‘this is me and my family.’”
After Mitchell’s off-the-cuff banana post went viral, people wanted to know more about the teenager with confidence beyond her years. First came the massive social media following, then the campaign with Converse, and then all the press. “People really started to respect me after that photo,” she says of her untraditional foray into the fashion world. “I think they saw my ability to make fun of myself as something really positive and different.”
Though her rise was quick, breaking into fashion wasn’t all smooth sailing. Between normal growing pains and dealing with an industry that’s not set up for people outside of the straight sized, cis, white norm, Mitchell dealt with plenty of roadblocks. “When I first started modeling, I didn’t have braids in, so I had a hard time keeping my hair healthy,” she says. “I was working with people that maybe didn’t understand my 4c afro texture hair. I think that was the main thing I needed to get vocal about, because I would not want to share photos where I felt my hair didn’t look good. That’s also why I switched over to braids. I know that [braids] look good regardless of how they’re styled. Living in LA, people always want to do beach shoots, but as a Black girl that doesn’t always work, because the water and humidity don’t always match with my texture. I think that used to make me uncomfortable. There are definitely good people who know what they’re doing and I don’t want to discredit that, but hair is one of the biggest struggles for Black models for sure.”
When Mitchell talks about her life, she is both relaxed and pointed. It’s the sort of confidence and maturity that not many people, regardless of age, can hone in on, and it has allowed her to be both an advocate for herself and for others looking to change what modeling and fashion looks like. In 2018, she went viral again after calling out commenters who called her braids “ghetto” after Vogue posted her bikini shot on their Instagram. “The reason Black women/poc fight so hard for representation, diversity, and over cultural appropriation is because of this!” she wrote in a comment. “Everything about what I look like is considered ‘trendy’ in the media and in fashion right now. The freckles, the braids, the big lips, etc. But on a Black woman, it’s ghetto for NO reason and we’re tired of it.”
She’s turned this outspoken advocacy into part of how she participates in the world of fashion. One of her most recent projects addresses this idea head-on. “I’m hosting a new show on Broadly called ‘Style and Error,’ she says. “It’s about fashion cultural appropriation, but it’s not really about my personal opinions. It’s just about facilitating conversation between me and people that are partaking in things that could be perceived as cultural appropriation. We want to understand different perspectives, because these things are never black and white. It’s really an exchange about what they were thinking, what their intentions were, how it was perceived, how we can move forward, and how we can make things better and not be so aggressive with one another.”
As Mitchell moves into this new phase of her career, where she’s more of a “who’s who,” than a “who’s that,” she’s insistent on staying humble. “I’m a real person with real stuff going on,” she says. “I don’t ever want to have this facade up like I’m working every day or that I look the same every day, because some days I look really crazy and some days I’m not working. As I move forward, I think those things will always be important for people to see.