Renee Thompson puts in work. But “work” has not always reciprocated. She’s been modeling around the world for the past 10 years and is still searching for her big break. “I want to be the new girl who kills fashion week!” she chimes. Beautiful, tall, professional, and curvaceously slender: her aspirations seem tangible. However, reality is elusive: 87% of fashion week models are white, 6% are black. And although Renee is among the “fortunate” few to have “the look,” a Black girl with traditionally embraced “White features” to use as a platform, she’s found out that this platform made for a much better soapbox.
The mini- documentary, “Colour of Beauty,” (directed by Elizabeth St. Philip and The National Film Board of Canada) is Thompson’s introspective narrative into the life of a Black girl disgusted by the overt racism of the industry that she has fostered as her career. Instead of fleeing from the very same industry that has caused many Black models to give up in defeat, pouring doubt and spilt Hennessy on their dreams—Thompson is still going. And she’s going for the win.
Coco & Creme caught up with the Toronto-native between shoots to chat about the documentary, racism in the beauty industry, and the holy matrimony between Black booty and newsstands. And as you can imagine, a lot was said.
C+C: How long have u been modeling?
Renee: Surprisingly enough, I never thought about it until now, but I have been modeling for almost 11 years. Wow! Since the age of 15 in Toronto as a local model there and for 6 years after overseas.
C+C: What models initially inspired your pursuits?
Renee: I never actually was into models or the industry before getting into it. I got involved after my older cousin Mark suggested it to my mom. He took me around to see some agents and nothing initially came of it until I signed up for the Elite model look contest in Toronto in 1999. I was 14 going on 15 and won both the Colgate smile and semi finals to go to Paris. It was fun but really nothing I had ever imagined before actually winning.
C+C: As stated in your documentary the Black models who receive most work are the ones who appear to be White girls “dipped in chocolate.” You fit the mold—a thin nose and thin lips—characteristics that are universally recognized as European. How does it feel to know that your marketability is contingent upon your ability to uphold ”White features”?
Renee: I have always been subjected to criticism for being both not Black enough according to industry standards and for not being White. I am a Black girl with traditionally White features, but never has it worked to my advantage when it came to marketing preferences to clients. When they want White, they want White—period. A lot of people don’t realize the industry has changed a lot since I started back in the late 90s. Black women in the industry are not expected to have White features all the time to be considered beautiful, but yet the expectation to over compensate is there—no matter what tone of Black you are.
C+C: And by “overcompensate” you mean, having something extraordinarily unique?
Renee: Yes, being just Black and pretty is not enough for the industry.
C+C: So is there a future for just plain old pretty Black girls—the ones without the standard “Euro look” or the exaggerated “Afro-centric” look?
Renee: I believe the industry changes its mind so often that it really isn’t just one look anymore. However, I have noticed a shift in the types of Black models that are becoming most popular. Afro-centric, dark-skinned and very abstract faces are what make the runway more often than not these days. As a “classic” beauty myself—caramel skin tone, it is hard to find where to fit within a tie of great changes. But I would rather know there is change to recognize all these different types of beauty and we can all have some shine one day.
C+C: Do you know models with Black facial features that have not been as marketable? What was their story like?
Renee: As expressed in my documentary, there are lots of beautiful Black women in the business who have those historical Black features that many said weren’t marketable. Alek Wek was thought to be a huge “No-No” when she first came in to the industry, but it took the special eye of her agent and the push from her managers to make the industry understand her African beauty. This was right around the time when Tyra Banks (another Black girl with White features) was just going out of style and Alek was coming in. Ordinarily, marketability doesn’t have to do with a standard look. A lot of people say the industry wants classic understandable, commercial beauty. With Black girls, when that one girl is chosen it is her push and the one designer or photographer who makes them. Names in the industry make a Black model marketable, not a specific look. So, it’s luck and imagination of the rare few in the industry to recognize a next level of beauty that a Black model has.
C+C: It’s funny how there is a discrepancy for Black features in the beauty industry. The typical Black face is not as marketable as the Black body. If you pass by a majority of magazine stands, you will notice Black models tend to be turned around or bent over, and White models standing forward. All though not all of these mags are high fashion (Smooth, King, etc.) it is modeling nonetheless. Why do you think there is such a regard for the Black body and not facial beauty?
Renee: I personally think that when Black women are sexy it is a powerful message. Although I’m not an avid King , XXL , or Smooth reader, I think if the same passion for the body was put into W, and Vogue and when it comes to Black beauty , we would be a lot less likely to take a visually sexual position when it comes to competing for the stands. There are beautiful women with great bodies on these magazines, but there is a part of Black that is regal and facially beautiful as well. We just need the chance to be shown in the other magazines that way too.
C+C: What critiques in regards to your look do you commonly receive from agencies, etc?
Renee: A lot of agencies have asked me to lose weight in the hips, and to make my hair more kinky or afro-ish to give that “Black” look. I also have had agencies tell me I am too White looking to sell as a Black girl. I am too edgy in my style vs. what my look gives. I am often told that I need to not be so soft in my pictures. I was also told I could never be an editorial high fashion girl. I am simply beauty and commercial. There is a certain level of prestige with being a high fashion Vogue girl as opposed to a Macy’s girl. Respectively, the two are well known, but Vogue puts a model, especially a Black model, on a level that makes him or her untouchable. It’s a hard place or status for Black models to get to.
C+C: Sounds pretty defeating; how do you deal with it?
Renee: My mother forewarned me about this challenge. Criticism in life is no different than in modeling. So I take it all as advice for self improvement. It hurts, we are all human. You never like to feel like you’re inadequate but you have to be able to roll with the punches.
C+C: So I take it that you’ve taken the advice and made the modifications?
Renee: I did not have the discipline at first to make the effort to market myself and look the part of a model. The industry is incredibly competitive. If it meant shaving 2 inches off my hips or wearing a body conscious dress to compete, that was my job. My agents never encouraged unhealthy weight loss just so we are clear. However, the girls in the business are young, skinny and mostly White. It’s hard enough to compete with my skin color; I could not afford not to slack off in my measurements or my grooming. I really love my job and I want to be able to compete. I do come from a background of go-getters, and I never half step with anything I do. It’s all or nothing with me. So yes, I have taken a lot of the advice given to me about my weight and grooming—i.e. diet change, exercise and making H&M my best friend!
C+C: What transitions in the world of modeling/fashion would you like to see?
Renee: I would like to see another Vogue issue, or W issue, or Elle come out celebrating Black beauty in the U.S. edition, not just the Italian edition. In addition, I like to see use of new up and coming Black models in these layouts. They need the exposure. Using already established models, Black or White, still doesn’t make the message of this celebration clear. We want to appreciate all beauty and Black beauty comes in many forms. Black models in the industry without names never got the chance to be apart of that experience. They are limited in their opportunities as it is.
I would also like to see industry embrace the idea of having designers included in the choosing of their models for shows and shoots a like. When the designer themselves see a model and decide that he or she works or doesn’t work with his or her vision, it is a fair judgment; it corresponds with the designer’s artistic vision. Not what the backers, or production teams or casting directors’ wants. I have had most of my luck when the designer and I actually meet. It also gives the model a lot of confidence in the designer as well. Kind of like the good old days when Valentino hand picked his models and they were stars!
C+C: True, what about runway?
Renee: I would like to see more shows with Black models in them: Prada, Alberta Ferretti, Carolina Herrara. I would like to see Black models on prize brands like these. I would like to see it more than just once every 5 years or so. And not just celebrity actors or singers! I would love the industry to go back to using models for ads and campaigns.
C+C: Your opening line in this documentary is “Sometimes it’s so blatantly racist—it’s disgusting”. And you then proceed to keep it realer than most throughout. . . . Do you feel that this documentary might hurt your modeling career?
Renee: When Elizabeth, the director, approached me about doing it, she asked me the same thing. I told her, and others who have asked me the same thing, that I cannot worry about whether it will hurt my career because my career is already hurting. I am getting a rough ride and have been for almost 11 years. My friends in the business are all coming home at the days end crying or upset because they have all it takes to be stars, but the color of their skin is an everyday excuse. The need for truth at this point in my career is more important than the hurt or backlash. I know what that feels like already. Rejection for something you care about seems like a better option. Plus, a real artist and real lovers of fashion and talent will understand. I pray they do anyways.
C+C: So this documentary was made solely to articulate your personal frustration with the industry your in?
Renee: No, I think it was important to be a part of the Colour of Beauty documentary because it is a real issue in the industry; Black model are less and less apparent. Not only are Black models in need of work, but women of color in general are in need of identification. People have been suffering from this great digression, general public, consumers and that goes beyond just fashion admirers. There is a large demographic looking for answers as to why more models don’t look like them. I had the opportunity to take a stand and I wanted to. So I did.
C+C: So brown girls trying to make it as a model, what do they need to know and do?
Renee: Study the magazines, know your body and be confident. If you’re awkward, be proud you are. If you have a big beautiful lips, love them. Love yourself and then you can give what you to make things happen in your pursuits.
What’s next for you and where can we follow your updates?
Well, I am still on the hunt for a new agency in New York. I am no longer with EMPIRE and I hope to sign with a new agent with a strong vision who can push me as much as I push myself. I have a group on Facebook called The Color of Beauty and I am also working on a possible follow up project with Hill Harper and I am working on continuing to reach out to women’s groups, schools and women’s incarceration facilities doing motivational programs and self help exercises. I love people and I think in all the madness of the modeling world its necessary to get back in touch with real people and real life.
C+C: Damn straight.
Photograpy: Kamaal Hall
Photography Assistant: Jermain Mageacy
Styling: Aldane Rockwood of Richborn Intern’l
Hair and Make Up: Jotashe Turnbull
Art Direction: Dwaine McLean
– Guerdley Cajus