Ashley Chew on creating a new vision of black beauty
“You can’t just say ‘fashion is so racist,’ you have to ask why?” suggests biracial model Ashley Chew about the deeply rooted industry inequality. The words “appropriation” and “discrimination” are making just as many headlines as the trends themselves these days, proving an increased awareness about colorism on the catwalks and in campaigns. After years of experiencing the racial disconnect firsthand – agents telling her “her hair wasn’t in season,” casting directors saying she wasn’t “black enough,” – Ashley took matters into her own hands scrawling the words BLACK MODELS MATTER on a tote bag post an all-white casting and inadvertently starting a movement in 2015. With her golden Afro, green eyes, light skin and bubbly personality, she readily admits her “features privilege,” but has all the same become a champion for inclusivity in the industry.
In an era where social media is the new soapbox, she veers away from being a “keyboard warrior,” and takes a grassroots approach to inciting change – through education and empathy. She works with various organizations dedicated to model wellbeing advocacy, like Sara Ziff’s Model Alliance, and Cameron Russell’s Model Mafia, in addition to her own research and consultancy. She acknowledges when brands don’t bring in models of color it’s often because they weren’t trained to do their make-up, hair, or the bookers are afraid to push them. She’s tackling the issue with a systematic approach, going to the shows, taking numbers, observing designer behavior and most importantly, talking to people. While she admits diversity is getting better, “there was a model of color in every show this past NYFW and I was credited for that,” the struggle is far from over. Here, she chats with us on being a voice of a movement, what the industry needs to change, and her recent transition into the art world.
COOLS: How did you get into modeling?
Ashley Chew: I got into modeling at Kent State University as a fashion student. In high school I was the ugly duckling. Nobody asked me to prom, I was this tall, weird girl in an urban school. When I got to Kent I met all the weird fashion and art kids, and they wanted me to model for them and pushed me to give it a go. When I became a semi-finalist for America’s Next Top Model I went for it. I did some smaller jobs in Indiana and Chicago. I walked MBFW in 2014 but do mainly commercial work now – Coca Cola, Refinery 29, Juicy Couture, Essence.
COOLS: What motivated Black Models Matter?
AC: To be blunt, there aren’t enough black girls in the industry. I know there is underrepresentation of black models in the industry. It’s a combination of things, there is racism but there’s also a lack of education. A booker will say “we’re not putting you in the show package because they aren’t booking girls like you” and then you see natural hair girls walking the Victoria’s Secret show. If hair and makeup aren’t used to doing black hair and makeup they wont book a black girl because they won’t know what to do with her. I’ve sat in chairs and the make-up artist will say, “I’m sorry but my school didn’t teach me how to do this” i.e. makeup on darker undertones. With an agency, if you don’t even put models of color in your show package how do you know that Dior wont book one of us? You won’t know if you don’t push for it! Sometimes designers will say flat out “no colored girls”, and sometimes agencies are afraid to send us because they know they’ll make their money off European girls.
I started Black Models Matter unintentionally. I was on my way to a casting for a designer I knew didn’t book black girls because I’ve worked her show before. I went to this casting and I was the darkest girl there – which is crazy. It got me thinking about how Black Models Matter, and I wrote it on my bag. I was walking a show later and someone snapped my picture and the Huffington Post got a hold of it. They emailed me at 3AM for an interview. The next day I was working production and had my phone off all day. I finally checked my phone at 11 [that night] and it [had gone] completely viral.
COOLS: And it snowballed into a movement?
AC: Bethann Hardison hit me up for 3 bags. Zac Posen wore one. Selita Ebanks, June Ambrose, Sean Ross, Ajak Deng and Iman have reposted it. I checked last week and Instagram has 30K hashtags, 90K on Facebook, over 25 million impressions online. For Paris Fashion Week last season, Balenciaga said “no black models,” and a bunch of girls went out and protested and tagged me. I’ve never even been to France. I started crying because it lets me know, A: this is a huge issue and B: it resonates in other countries. I’ve been featured in Elle Belgium, Marie Claire Brazil, German TV followed me around to shows last season, publications in South Africa and Nigeria. When people think of institutionalized racism they think of America but it’s everywhere. Darker skin tones are looked down upon globally. I’m very aware of my light privilege and features privilege. I can speak on being black but not darker toned. But now people see me as a face and a voice, and companies are asking me to consult on their diversity.
“If you don’t even put models of color in your show package, how do you know that Dior won’t book one of us? You won’t know if you don’t push for it.”
COOLS: And other model activists have taken note too. You’re heavily involved with the Model Alliance, Model Mafia and LAPP the Brand. What do you hope to champion through these platforms?
AC: A lot of people “champion for issues” but don’t do their research; they haven’t talked to people, and they haven’t sat in on meetings. They’re keyboard warriors. I don’t want to accuse the fashion institution; I want to be educated. I’ve both walked and worked the runways. I’ve done production so I look at everything and do my research. I make sure I come off as understanding – why did you cast this way, why aren’t you doing curvier models?
An agent told me I wasn’t going to be in the show package because I’m too big – I’m a 2. An agent told my best friend that “her braids looked too hood on her profile and she needs to take it down. You can’t appear too hood for luxury clients.” She was a black girl with braids. Period. I would be a hypocrite to work in an industry like that, so I’m pushing myself creatively and socially so I can rise above that. Being in between in general when they think of black they think of dark exotic beauty fresh out of Africa, without realizing that African American comes in so many shades. YSL puts out 40 skin shades and maybe 2 are dark. That shouldn’t still be happening. People need to get with the times.
COOLS: The past few seasons we’ve seen a rise in inclusivity in fashion and art. How do you feel about being a maiden voice in that conversation?
AC: It’s terrifying. No matter how much you don’t consider yourself a role model, people look up to me. Editor, young models, moms are emailing me. It’s strange being this dorky girl with no sense of style from Indiana now being considered a fashion authority. I don’t feel like what I’m doing is great, I just think its being honest. But at the same time, why does it have to be great? Why does it have to be a thing that people point out these issues? It will always be an issue until it becomes the norm. But it has changed girl’s careers and that’s what keeps me going.
“YSL puts out 40 skin shades and maybe 2 are dark. That shouldn’t still be happening. People need to get with the times.”
COOLS: What does the industry ultimately need to do to be the change you want?
AC: The root of everything is institutionalized racism in any industry. As long as there’s racism in America, people of color will never fully be able to thrive in any country. Somebody might think someone is a great model or a fantastic candidate for a CEO but because they’re dark they won’t get it. A girl could be looking through a magazine and say “she looks like me” and it sparks her interest in fashion. If you don’t see yourself in media, it affects your self-esteem. If they don’t see themselves represented in an industry they aren’t going to have the same confidence to pursue what they want. Models are the forefront of brands but it contributes to the bigger picture. Its not just about color its about size too. Girls are starving themselves and getting surgery. I’m a 34 hip, a size 2 and I’m “too big.” Clothes fit everybody! The only way were going to fix that is if we don’t have to acknowledge it anymore and I don’t see that happening anytime soon sadly. The day a model of color doesn’t have to say – “I was on set today and I had to bring my own makeup” – we’ll know it’s changed. There’s too much underlying racism. There’s no way the fashion, music, tech, art world are going to be fixed as long as America is experiencing racism. The fashion industry could be the new model for that.
COOLS: And aside from your industry activism, you’ve transitioned more into art. What inspires your work?
AC: I try to tell stories, and depict black women as art in my work. I want to show that we’re feminine, powerful, beautiful and multilayered. I’m so tired of media depicting us as weak, uneducated, untalented, or unworthy. How many black artists can you name in the Museums? We’re multi-dimensional. Here’s a little art history lesson: back in the day a lot of slaves or women would paint, and their masters or husbands would take credit – hence all the unknowns. It’s good that slavery and black oppression is apparent and documented in paintings, but our history doesn’t stop there.