Just a couple of months ago, I found myself crying backstage with Nicole Doswell, 34-year old founder of Models of Color Matter, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and representation for models of color. The moment came after Black designer Buki Ade showcased her latest Resort collection, BFYNE, a Miami-based swimwear brand, at the Paraiso Tent during Miami Swim Week. As a woman of color, witnessing the all-Black cast of models in a sea of mostly white runway shows was transformative. For Doswell, who casted the show, the moment was just as colossal and marked a milestone in her career. “There is something really beautiful about seeing people that look like you in clothes that make you feel and look beautiful,” says Doswell to TZR.
In addition to its all-Black casting, the industry veteran says another goal for the show centered on the backstage environment. She wanted the models to feel supported and considered throughout the whole process, which she knows has not been the norm for many. In a 2019 survey she conducted (through Models of Color Matter) of 60 working models of color that walked in Fashion Week shows around the world, she found that 45% of them arrived backstage to makeup artists that didn’t have their foundation color, 66% of the models arrived to shows where their hair texture was not catered to, and 33% of models said they did not feel discriminated against for the color of their skin when they arrived at casting.
That data told Doswell that, from the beginning of the experience to the end, a large percentage of these models were not feeling like their best selves. “Even though they have been given the title of ‘model,’ they did not feel beautiful or treated fairly,” she says. “Ultimately, we are being given a seat at the table but not given utensils to eat at the table.” So when Doswell teamed up with BFYNE, she was ready to switch things up. To avoid all the backstage trauma most models of color experience, Doswell had extensive conversations with the hair and makeup teams to make sure they understood the show was for the designer and the models.
“I said, when you arrive you need to have oil sheen and pomade. We are going to be embracing their natural coils and curls, so I’ll need their edges laid,” she reflects. “If they had a weave-in, I made sure they asked the model if it was synthetic hair or natural, cause I didn’t want anyone burning anyone’s hair.” Her extensive experience as a modeling agent served her well in ensuring the show went off without a hitch and that everyone felt taken care of. “[The] models said the show was the best experience they’ve had in their careers,” Doswell says. “Which was my goal because, at the end of the day, my focus is to create safe spaces for the individuals that show up for us and are the representations of us every day.”
Doswell, who was born and raised in Washington D.C — to a father who was an architect and a mother who was a nurse that was awarded for her help with The Human Genome Project — always believed Black people were capable of anything. “My mom used to say, ‘I want you to grow up in a place where it's not strange for you to see Black doctors and politicians,’” she shares. “[Growing up in D.C] I actually never thought there was something I couldn't do, something I couldn't change, or a space I didn't belong [to].” Her desire for all people of color to have the same mindset was challenged when she began her career as a modeling agent in Atlanta and found out how ugly the industry can be for POC.
“In Atlanta, I had a model who got signed to an agency in New York,” she recalls. “Shortly after he arrived, he was propositioned sexually and had his contract threatened if he did not oblige.” This was one of the first stories that prompted her to counsel models outside the agency realm. “A lot of models are really young and they don’t know what their rights are. Unlike actors, who have SAG as a union, there is no SAG for models so they are on their own,” she says. “I think it’s so important to have your morals intact because people will try you.”
These days, Doswell’s counseling services extend to both her role at Models of Color Matter and as the co-director and casting director of public relations firm, The Riviere Agency. As a casting director, Doswell has more access to models than she did as an agent, which means more candid conversations about what’s going on behind the scenes in the industry — and not all the experiences she hears about are positive.
There’s one particularly disheartening experience that comes to Doswell’s mind: In the early days of Models Of Color Matter (2018), which originally started as an Instagram account, Doswell worked with an Asian brand who asked for very pale models. After asking for clarification, she was told they wanted white models because Asian models didn’t work in their campaign. “To me that wreaked of self-hate, and it made me sad,” she says. “Here we are with a designer of color, asking for someone that doesn’t look like them, their friends, their mother, and it saddens me. Seeing that, I knew I had to do something.”
Doswell recognizes that this all-too common demand for white models is rooted in the historically racist belief that true beauty must follow Eurocentric standards. What she aims to do at Models of Color is correct this damaging and antiquated standard that does not reflect what the rest of the world deems as attractive and truly beautiful.
“I’m not saying that you need to have an all-Black runway show,” she says. “I’m not saying that you need to have a campaign that’s all Black. All I’m saying is to be reflective of the community in which you’re showcasing and which you’re targeting. That's when true representation is happening: when it's not performative, when you’re speaking to your audience.”
And while presentations like the all-Black BFYNE show were certainly a success and huge step in the right direction, they also raise flags in how far the industry still has to go in terms of inclusion and representation. “It was hard to find Black models, and it shouldn’t be,” Doswell shares. “Some packages [I received] from the modeling agencies didn't even include all the Black models in their roster. I had a friend who was signed to an agency who wasn’t in a package and I asked them why she wasn't included and, without addressing my question, they sent me a larger packet that included her. When agencies don’t include all of their Black models, what ends up happening is that you see the same girl, over and over and over again — further hindering the lack of representation.”
With that in mind, next up, Doswell plans to partner with a modeling agency (she has yet to decide on one) to get more Black models effectively placed at agencies. Simultaneously, in partnership with texture expert and author of Textured Tresses, Diane Da Costa, she is also working on gathering enough signatures for a petition to teach textured hair techniques at cosmetology schools in New York. Once the signatures are received, the petition will be brought to The New York State Board of Cosmetology for a decision.
Currently, New York and many other states have few to no questions on curls and coils on state exams, and the goal of the petition is to enforce and encourage curriculum on textured hair — which will ultimately raise up more skilled hairstylists (regardless of ethnicity) trained to work on textured hair.
Doswell hopes that with petitions like this and history-making legislation like the CROWN Act — the law that explicitly bans race-based discrimination in relation to hair choices — leading the conversation, more systemic change within the fashion and beauty industries is coming.