As A Model & Actor, I'm Sick Of Performative Activism In Fashion & Entertainment

by Kendall Keith
Originally Published: 
Taryn Dudley
Kendall Keith, model and actor poses outside with her hand on her head in a black button up shirt

Seeing the multitude of agencies, celebrities, and brands across the fashion and entertainment industries jump at taking a stance against racism has left me feeling conflicted. Part of me appreciates the genuine efforts of those attempting to understand why these acts of violence keep happening. Large retailers, such as Sephora and Target, joining Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge and making internal and structural changes within their staff gives me hope. But I cannot help but feel most of these pledges are a mastery of PR sorcery and are merely performative activism for the fashion industry's major players.

In fact, already, I'm seeing a steady return to “business as usual” on social media: the unrealistic luxury photos to faraway places most of us cannot afford to visit right now, overused BLM and MLK quotes proclaiming vague solidarity against pretty backdrops, and generalized, empty statements with no plan of action. Recent celebrity PSA, “I Take Responsibility,” has me bewildered at the tone-deaf message and ability to somehow make this pivotal time about them. My conflicted feelings are deeply rooted in personal experience. As a Black, mixed-race model, actor, and creative, I've traversed through various career paths in the fashion and entertainment industry over the years and found that one thing remains consistent: Racism is very much still alive and well.

I was born in Okinawa, Japan to Marine Corps parents and grew up in Riverside, California. My dad is African American and Italian from the deep South, and my mom was African American, English, and Scandinavian and grew up all over the U.S. I always loved moving to the beat of my own drum and could not sit still, so naturally, my mom placed me in dance. I trained in ballet, tap, jazz, and contemporary/modern for the next 18 years of my life. It became an important creative outlet for me, which led me to joining theatre in high school.

Modeling was also something I always wanted to try and was often encouraged by family, friends, and strangers to do so. After college, I began reaching out to agencies. After attending San Diego State University, I began reaching out to modeling agencies locally and in Los Angeles. They all passed on me. But getting signed by an agency is a notoriously difficult feat on its own, so I kept trying. All the while, I observed many of my white counterparts getting signed quickly with no book or experience — I was expected to have both before even being considered.

After about a year and a half of persistence and investment, I finally signed with my first U.S. agency. But it came with a caveat: I had to wear my hair straight so I could appear more ethnically ambiguous, European, and less Black. (I would eventually return to my natural curls.) Even then, that "appearance" didn't always pan out, because I was not easily categorized and often labeled “too Black” or “not Black enough” from clients and brands (the latter of which further digs into the often troubling lack of identity of some mixed-race people, and the deep layers of colorism, but I digress).

Some of my Eurocentric attributes and lighter skin have provided me the occasional privileges and opportunities darker skinned creatives do not always have access to. I’d skate by on crude casting notes requesting “white, Latinx, Asian models. Models mixed with Black and some sort of European is OK.” It's not uncommon to hear “darker skin doesn’t fit our aesthetic” from designers, clients, and brands. They are essentially excuses to remain bigoted in an industry that favors lighter skin. Colorism, racism, and the longstanding, unrealistic tradition of Eurocentric beauty standards is so pervasive on such a global scale. In the ads. The magazines. The media. The beauty products, especially those containing bleaching agents.

Often, I'm hired as the "token" Black talent to represent a spectrum of diversity — or more aptly, lack a thereof — especially if I could assimilate and straighten my hair. I usually am the only Black model or talent on set. But even with these added opportunities, I am still mistreated and subjected to the same racist, ignorant experiences. I’m troubled by some of the compliments I receive on my appearance, as they can include qualifiers (e.g. “You’re really pretty, for a Black woman,” or “You have that good Black hair that’s easy to work with”).

While I've dabbled in a little bit in everything on the modeling front, I've been most successful with runway and commercial fashion, print modeling, and the occasional editorial. As I became established enough to work in markets outside of Los Angeles, I found a mother agency to place me abroad. I first agreed to work in Beijing, China, plans and contract options laid out to eventually make my way through the rest of Asia and Europe. Working in China is ... interesting. I had some fun jobs, but I learned very quickly the financial hole models often find themselves in, while also being occasionally exploited and having to maintain specific measurements (my contract said I’d be terminated if I gained weight or my size increased over two inches). I worked a lot, but only broke even, after my agents took 40 percent and my mother agency another 20 percent. (I only learned about the high commission rate in Asian markets when first signing my contract, but was naive in thinking I'd make a ton of money to make up for it).

Also, I found myself the tourist attraction while trying to be a tourist on my days off. While exploring different parts of the country, I’d get followed by an increasing mass of people taking my photo with a blatant disregard for permission, like I was some sort of spectacle. Complete strangers came up to me and grabbed my hair, without my consent. Although my experience was not all bad (I met some amazing souls I’m still friends with and saw so many beautiful places all over China), it left me feeling a bit broken, depressed, and unsure as to whether or not I should continue working abroad. I decided to abruptly change paths and make my way down to sunny South Africa right after.

When I moved to Cape Town, the racial disparity was instantly obvious. I could see the drastic consequences and effects of years of apartheid (which only ended in the early ‘90s). As much as I love South Africa, the country’s incredible beauty and charm fails to mask the differences between how Europeans and white South Africans live versus native Blacks and mixed-race South Africans. Agents quickly told me right off the bat that Black and mixed-race models do not sell as well as European ones. I’d get notes warning me to avoid getting too dark in the sun. I’ve been on shoots where I could see other non-Black models were uncomfortable around me (or avoided me all together). Once, a white model felt the need to wash her hands after she had to pose with her hand on my shoulder for a shoot. I would often lock myself up in my room after castings, smoke pot, and cry alone. I thought about giving up modeling all together.

Southern California has always been home for me, so coming back to Los Angeles to recoup, model, and train for TV and film felt like the right thing to do. These days, I attend acting auditions and create content, with the occasional modeling bookings from my agencies. But I can never quite escape the subtleties of deeply embedded racism and bigotry surrounding me. At some auditions, I hear code words like, “sassy” or “urban,” having to then adhere to certain Black stereotypes the media portrays accordingly. It’s humiliating.

My excitement for booking jobs is often dispelled by the repeated lack of pre-preparation, shoot after shoot, when arriving to set. I have been asked by makeup artists on multiple occasions if I brought my foundation with me way too many times to count. I have also been given notes the night before a shoot to arrive hair and makeup ready, only to be duped by seeing the rest of the non-Black talent getting prepped when I show up. When I do get may makeup done, artists often struggle to find which shade of foundation matches my face, or concoct together some mix, resulting in a rushed job or grey or orange-tinged skin. I now come to most shoots with "base makeup” (foundation, eyebrows) already on or bring my foundation with me, to be safe. I shouldn’t have to do that.

And don't get me started on my hair. Hairstylists never know what to do with it! I’ve watched my hair get burned off from too much heat and hair spray not meant for my hair type. A lot of hairstylists avoid my hair all together and say, "I'm too afraid to mess it up. It looks perfect as is." I want my hair styled beautifully like everyone else!

Over the years, my social media presence has grown, throwing me rather unexpectedly into the influencer space. Unsurprisingly, I am often the only (or one of few) Black guests invited to events or dinners to fill the quota of diversity. I remember seeing two white women freeze up and walk away as I approached their hairstyling activation station at a gifting event, immediately alerting me to their nervousness or lack of knowledge with my hair.

I am frustrated at the fact that I am repeatedly paid less than my white counterparts. Even right now, as brands struggle to adapt and reach out to Black creatives to collaborate and save their image, I am still getting offered gifting with no pay, which results in free labor for these brands that oftentimes pay other influencers with a similar following. Years of this has made me, at times, numb. I've found myself asking myself, Why am I okay with that? Why am I allowing this to continue to happen? Enough is enough. It is unsettling to be in this business for over a decade and still deal with this nonsense.

Surface-level alliance doesn’t work. I want real solutions. Hire makeup artists who know how to work with (and are equipped for) all skin tones. Hire hairstylists who are skilled to work with all hair types and textures. Hire more black designers. Photographers. Directors. More Black agents. Diversify the agency boards and talent pool on jobs (one or two Black people out of 75 doesn’t cut it). Diversify the existing staff positions within your company. Don’t make it a short-term trend. Directors and casting directors: Talk with your ad agencies and producers. Discuss how you can change the tactic of marketing in a way that is more inclusive and representative of the message you are trying to relay. Have uncomfortable conversations with clients and challenge their way of thinking and approach. I no longer want Black creatives to be continuously subjected to this kind ignorance, mistreatment, and discrimination.

The world is waking up and changing quickly, and if fashion and entertainment wants to continue to thrive, then it needs to change as well — immediately.

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