As the discussion about diversity continues to take place across our arts and media sectors, the beauty industry has become one of the frontlines for debate. People are speaking up against the status quo of what beauty ‘should’ be—typically white, thin, young—and instead are championing representation of what beauty can be, whether that is plus sized, black, disabled, and/or gender non-conforming. Over the past few years, many a brand has seemingly woken up to the idea that diversity sells, and many too have tried to capitalise on this.
A decade ago, Dove’s famous adverts showing ‘real women’ were lauded as a huge step forward. Still, these days, similar campaigns are criticised for ticking one box (in Dove’s case, size) while leaving many others neglected (most of the women in that first Real Beauty campaign were white, and all were able-bodied). As brands edge themselves closer, the discourse (and subsequently, the goalposts) continues to shift. However, whilst some beauty campaigns have seemingly been getting diversity ‘right’, many too, have failed.
With its firm stance against animal testing and the Anti-Fascism Pledge it posted on its blog in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the US Presidency, beauty brand Illamasqua has long positioned itself as ‘political’. The decade-old British beauty company has been explicit about its company views to an extent few other brands have been willing to go to—perhaps for good reason. In recent weeks, beauty giant L’Oreal found itself being criticised on all sides following its handling of its much-hyped True Match campaign. Choosing to drop DJ and model Munroe Bergdorf after the Daily Mail ran a story revealing she had once written ‘all white people are racist’ on Facebook, many were unhappy with their decision—some claimed they should have stuck by her, while others claimed they took too long to drop Bergdorf in the first place. In comparison, Illamasqua released a statement highlighting their unwavering support for Munroe. Whilst this support came across as sincere, nonetheless, a brand with their reputation must have known their market would respond positively to this. But does that matter? Should we care if bands benefit from diversity, if they are attempting to be representative for the right reasons?
Human Up, a new campaign (that, surprisingly, isn’t linked to any specific products), is another step on Illamasqua’s progressive march forward. While the full campaign will be released in November, so far they have announced that they’re working with androgynous model Rain Dove, and woman-of-the-moment, Munroe. While much of the media reaction to Illamasqua’s work with Munroe has framed her supposed signing with them as reactionary to the L’Oreal fall-out, it turns out the shoot was in the works long before.
On set, in between touch ups and shots, both models chat to me in the few minutes they have between getting styled and actually being photographed, with both telling me they see themselves as more than ‘just’ models.
Self-styled ‘gender capitalist’ Rain is clear when she recounts the story of how she began working in fashion: ‘I’ve been modelling for about three years. Another model was like “you should be a model”, and I was like “models are pretentious fuckers who don’t eat, and I don’t think I could support a capitalistic industry that sucks the soul out of people and tells them that they’re not good enough until they buy a product they don’t need. I didn’t wanna model, but when I realised how much people are spending on goods and secondary things. I realised if you can afford a three thousand dollar purse, you can afford $3 a month to help people acquire their basic needs and rights. My goal is to eradicate poverty. I think we can’t have equality until we eradicate poverty. That’s the basis for world peace, you know. And it turned into a much bigger thing, it turned into gender, sexuality, a bunch of things I didn’t know that I could be the face of.’
So does Rain think modelling is simply a vehicle to achieve her aims? ‘It’s definitely a vehicle for my voice, and I think it’s a vehicle for a lot of peoples’ nowadays. Modelling is changing—it’s no longer just about the body now, it’s about the personality and the story, and because of social media we’re in a new era where Vogue can fuck off in a lot of ways… it no longer gets to sculpt what is popular and what is not popular, and who is popular and who is not popular. We the people have the power to decide who we want to see in our advertisements, and how we want the world to be portrayed. If we show that being ethical and being diverse is profitable, they’re going to market to us. It’s like medicine. We’re gonna get advertised to whether we like it or not, we’re gonna end up having to take the medicine. We’re just gonna have to decide if we want that medicine to be the flavour that it’s always been, or a new flavour. Allies should hopefully be saying things like ‘I’m buying from this brand because [they’re] fairly representing marginalised groups, and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is’. We have the power to change everything, but it’s expensive. But that’s just the cost of a clear conscience.’
Rain is right. Slowly but surely, brands are realising that diversity sells. In the wake of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line and its 40 shades of foundation, many people online pointed out the brands trying to similarly highlight their diversity credentials. Admitting my apprehension when it came to trusting brands to ‘do diversity right’, Rain continued: ‘I think there are two parts to this. One is that diversity right now is a trend, and we need to keep it from being a moment and make it into a movement—something that’s going to last and stay around for a long period of time. Another thing that’s happening though is [brands] are no longer just hiring us because of our faces because they can’t. They need to start looking at us as brand alignments. They need to look at the history of what we’re saying and look at who we are and what we’re doing. I think unfortunately they haven’t really taken the time, a lot of these brands, to see that diversity is more than skin deep. That situation with Munroe was a lesson. The minute they saw that article, L’Oreal should have wanted to collaborate with Munroe immediately and say hey, what happened with this, where did this come from. If L’Oreal had done their job and if they really wanted to stand with diversity, they should have got Munroe an article [somewhere], for the opportunity to set the record straight and stand with diversity, but they dropped the ball. Because they were too scared.’
Speaking to Munroe herself, she admits she ‘should have done more research… I could have avoided that situation to an extent’. However, she’s clear about the way she will assess working with brands in the future: ‘I think this [situation with L’Oreal] is really going to wake people up. I think people are going to be more aware of what they can and can’t get away with. I think we need to look at the histories of companies. L’Oreal doesn’t have a great history with different things like animal testing [or] like selling skin whitening creams—I don’t see how you can preach diversity but also sell skin whitening creams to a vast proportion of the world. So I think we really need to be looking at the whole company, rather than just what they’re doing with a marketing strategy.’
‘I don’t really like to be involved with projects where I don’t get to speak, which is probably why I’m so disappointed with the current situation with L’Oreal’, Munroe adds. ‘I kind of felt like I was being gagged so it’s good to be involved with a company where I can say everything that I want, and it’s not a gimmick. This is what this company actually believes in. All the parts of me just all feed into [the same conversation]. They’re all just branches of the same tree. Modelling allows me to reach more people, really. It’s all about the message. I don’t really want to be involved in something if I can’t spread a message that I believe in.’
So, does Munroe feel that Human Up is going to help her spread her message? ‘I said yes to the campaign because I’ve been working with Illamasqua for ages, I love the ethos of the company, I love that it stands for pretty much everything that I stand for when it comes to politics, equality. They just got in contact because the campaign is around gender, and it’s something that I’ve super aware is so often gotten wrong within the fashion and make up industries. I think that when we talk about non-binary or when we talk about gender equality, there’s often a lot of gender erasure. ‘Non-binary fashion’ will be so bland and so boring, there’ll be no colour, brands just wipe out all identity to try to be neutral. But you can be masculine and still be non-binary, you can be feminine and still be non-binary. I think it’s all about really changing the narrative when we think about gender.’
When I ask Rain why she was happy to say yes to this campaign as well, she was also clear: ‘Illamasqua is a great brand with great people. They don’t see cosmetics as correctional—they see [make-up] as art, and part of personal expression. The biggest problem with the beauty industry is that it treats its customers as if they have a lot to be corrected, rather than things that should be highlighted’. Perhaps this is the way we should all be thinking about make-up, and in turn, the brands that sell it to us. The inherent problem with beauty standards is less about if our beauty standards are diverse enough, and more why we have beauty standards in the first place. When we have any sort of spectrum, someone always needs to be at the bottom. Maybe the time has come for us all to stop trying to market wearing make-up as inherently radical or feminist, but instead, reframe the conversation to explore the wonderful things about temporarily changing your face with a splash of colour or glitter. The time has come to get to a place where ‘beauty' is less about ideas of beauty, and more about art. Perhaps some brands will even help us on our way there.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.