Model Agents Speak Up on Breaking the Glass Ceiling

There are behind-the-scenes positions in the fashion industry that are purposely secretive. Positions where doing the best job is intrinsically tied to who you know, who you can persuade, and of whom you can ask a favor. For every model that has successfully made it to a billboard or a coveted cover, there has been an agent behind-the-scenes, who has strategically guided them to notoriety and fame. The right agent can make or break a talent’s career in a matter of weeks, aligning them with high-profile photographers and casting directors or keeping them back due to bad advice or inconsistent bookings.

When transparency comes into play, it’s been difficult to determine if the same accountability applied to the modeling world has taken root in their representation, as many agencies purposely align with anonymity and being on a need-to-know basis. Yet, as direct initiatives like Pull Up For Change ask companies to release percentages on employees of color in leadership roles, it’s clear that there is still a glass ceiling for model agents of color in executive decision making, especially for black people. Representation without accountability is lip service and the recent expansion of Black Lives Matter protests around the world has made many internally analyze what their own industries can do to improve relations for black people in the workforce. spoke to top model agents based in New York City to get insight on their experiences, where the problems still lie in model management recruitment, and what is needed for this part of the fashion industry to become more inclusive.

By Irene Ojo-Felix, Rosie Daly, and Betty Sze

For most model agents, the consensus is that the diversity you see on the runways, in editorial pages, and in advertisements has vastly improved from a decade ago when tokenism prevailed. However, when it comes to behind the scenes decisions, whether it’s behind the lens, in editorial offices, or at boardroom tables, inclusion has lagged with many firsts just recently being achieved. “I rarely see call sheets having a majority of black models and creative teams and it really makes me wonder why,” Wilhelmina New York agent, Pierre Ellis questions. The model agent with over 7 years of experience recalled an internal conversation with a previous superior that pushed to represent more Caucasian models “because blonde hair and blue eyes bring in more money.”

Pierre Ellis

Many of the agents we talked to positively pointed to the recent appointments of Edward Enninful at British Vogue, Samira Nasr at Harper’s Bazaar or covers shot by Tyler Mitchell, Nadine Ijewere, and Dario Calmese and how their careers, albeit inspiring and well-earned, also correlate with black creatives’ rathered delayed opportunities to showcase their talent. “It is an illusion,” The Jeffries agent Kendall Werts declares. “There is a perception that the industry has changed because of these images. Behind the scenes, though, the people who call the shots aren’t Black.”

Working at one of the biggest model and talent agencies IMG New York where he looks over talent like Alton Mason, men’s booking agent Charles Short mirrors this sentiment, “it should not have taken more than one hundred years for talented photographers like Tyler Mitchell to shoot a cover for Vogue Magazine or for Dario Calmese to shoot a cover for Vanity Fair.” Short goes on to hold the fashion industry accountable in the digital era, where everyone has a voice and a platform, “these types of glaring omissions can no longer, and will no longer be accepted or tolerated. Publishers, designers, casting directors, magazine editors, and modeling agencies must reflect the diversity of the world in which we all live, work, and consume.”

“There is a perception that the industry has changed because of these images. Behind the scenes, though, the people who call the shots aren’t Black.” – Kendall Werts

Encountering development roadblocks and glass ceilings, many have been turned off by the current corporate structure of agencies and have branched out on their own. Talent agent Kendall Werts took this direction by creating his agency, The Jeffries, named aptly after the housing projects in Detroit where he grew up. Representing a roster of buzzworthy names like rapper and activist Vic Mensa, Evan Mock, and actors Julia Fox, Ryan Destiny, and Kelsey Asbille, Werts struck out on his own after wanting to represent talent that wasn’t deemed “commercially viable” and then having his ideas stolen by higher-ranked, tenured agents. “I came from a big agency background; I often felt like I was there as a resource, a sounding board for decision-makers trying to stay relevant.”

Another layer in this network of representation is the mother agencies that provide the essential, on-the-ground recruitment globally for agencies in the Big Four. Mother agencies are the ones funneling the diverse talent into the major fashion market, getting models placed from far-off locales like the Caribbean, China, Nigeria, and Kenya or closer markets like the Midwest, Copenhagen, or Eastern Europe. Often, mother agents are based in the local communities that they push and have the best direct connection to the rural communities that they’re servicing. Yet, mother agent Showin Bishop of 28Models goes further to explain how the few black success stories in the mother agency realm don’t necessarily translate to long term equity, especially when you want to crossover and work in bigger markets. “The luxury fashion industry was created by mostly white designers and fashion houses so the baton has been passed on for generations,” Bishop explains. “You do have people like Edward Enninful that are making huge strides to make changes and I can applaud the work that’s being done. It’s just that it’s taken so long and definitely not without fight and sacrifice.”

Damien Crews

So if there’s a lack of diversity in executive-level talent representation, then why? Surely, recruitment shouldn’t be difficult, especially in major fashion capitals that house plenty of different backgrounds within their cities. Firstly, to understand the nature of model representation is to inherently acknowledge that it is in part a shadow industry, where education is limited to hands-on experience, tenacity, and bullying grit. “You can’t go to college to study model management the way you can study medicine, law, or even fashion design,” explains Damien Crews, an agent at Red Model Management Management that represents models Debra Shaw, Inguna Butane, and Lakshmi Menon. So many agents have fallen into working with agencies or come from different backgrounds entirely. “I have a degree in political science because I wanted to be a lawyer. It wasn’t until I realized that I knew every model in every ad campaign and editorial, particularly in Vogue and W Magazine, that I thought to pursue this career,” explains Akeem Rasool, an agent at DNA Models that represents talent like Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Doutzen Kroes, Mica Argañaraz and Imaan Hammam. “There was no roadmap or adequate representation to even think about seeking mentorship. I had to move through the ranks on my own and I would really like for the industry to be more inclusive about recruiting young black creatives.”

Akeem Rasool

With no set formula and different regulations globally, what is consistent is it is an industry solely based on word of mouth, that hoards access amongst a select few gatekeepers. Charles Short goes in-depth on how problematic the lack of access can be specifically for black people. “Without access, there is no real way in which to garner these positions,” Short explains. “There is no effort made by the industry to do real outreach, in order to gather a team of different ethnic backgrounds, points of view, ideas and opinions of what the beauty standard is and what it could be in the 21st century. There is far too much group think.”

“There was no roadmap or adequate representation to even think about seeking mentorship. I had to move through the ranks on my own and I would really like for the industry to be more inclusive about recruiting young black creatives.” – Akeem Rasool

Was it always this way? Hard to be certain but seasoned agents like men’s director at Next New York, Gaspard Lukali are sure to point out that there have been agents of color who have been dedicated to changing the narrative like Kyle Hagler, New York President of NEXT Models; Mohammed Fajar at Women Management; and Noel at Re:Quest Model Management. “I myself never felt not welcomed at a table,” he explains. “Not to mention that a lot of the source of inspiration I had to become an agent and a director have been individuals of color such as Karen Long who was the director of men’s at some of the most reputable agencies at the time; Ford, Wilhelmina, and DNA. Oscar Reyes at Elite Models, Peter Cedeno at NEXT, Omar Alberto of Omar Men Models Management…I’m sure there is a lot to work on within the industry and inclusivity but there’s a new generation coming up and a lot more to be seen.” These veteran, high-ranking names have opened the door for the few black agents that are representing a range of talent now, but their small numbers showcase how they’re not so far removed from the issues that plague the industry. “I will say that in my time working as an agent in NYC, it became clear that there’s been a handful of predominant power agents who have been in the business for quite a while,” explains Ebony Simmons, agent at Women Management who represents Mariacarla Boscono, Isabeli Fontana, Lais Ribeiro, and Jing Wen. “That said, I do see the industry moving toward making space for young and eager individuals, and people of color are moving considerably higher up on the ladder.”

Often, the racial discrimination that models can face isn’t blatant. Instead, it comes in the more insidious form — microaggressions, acts which may not be intended as discriminatory but are damaging nonetheless. “I will never forget, I overheard a casting director during fashion week say ‘she is too Black Panther’,” APM Model Management agent Kianna Alexander recalls. “It’s not enough to post a black square via Instagram or to cast more black models when it’s convenient.” Moving past performative gestures into concrete change starts with employment and continues with ensuring mobility up the ladder. It then comes as no surprise why agents of color with influence are needed to recognize, then keep these comments in check and their models of color protected. “Unfortunately it’s all too common to hear different types of microaggressions when receiving briefs from clients. I’ve heard everything from ‘not too black’ to ‘looking for cappuccino models,'” says Simmons. “Honestly these types of comments tend to come from our international clientele.”

Gaspard Lukali

These microaggressions run deep within the industry, where they are commonly explained away that certain creative visions are not conducive to black beauty. “The most egregious things that [clients have] said with respect to black models I have represented are ‘That’s not the look that we are going for this season’ or ‘We’re not booking ethnic or urban talent for this particular job,'” adds Short. While brands have increasingly been held accountable by the public for their lack of diversity, the decision to incorporate black faces into casting lineups often comes at the eleventh hour. This becomes most evident during fashion week when black models won’t be requested at the outset of the casting process but at a later stage when the oversight becomes too obvious. “It is difficult to not feel that they are considered as an afterthought and not a priority,” says Ellis. “When it comes to clients I feel like nothing shocks me anymore. They send briefs stating in bold letters ‘NO COLORED GIRLS’ or ‘NO KINKY HAIR’.” When the extraordinary hurdle of booking the job happens, the impediment of not having the right support team follows right after, and speaking up for yourself can have dire, career-impacting consequences. “I have had incidences where clients have asked if a model was ‘going to be difficult’ in any way which is not really a question I get asked about a white model,” David Ralph agent at IMG‘s men division breaks down. Women’s agent at Next New York, Vic Roseboro goes further saying, “The ‘angry black woman’ trope is alive and many black women have to combat that every single day. I’ve seen women show up to get their hair and makeup done, and the hair team does not lay a single finger on the black model’s hair. Like why? Why is it that black models can not be provided with proper hair and makeup experts and be presented equally as their white counterparts?”

Ebony Simmons

The question of why is diversity an afterthought can also extend to agencies themselves, where all too often models of color can be overlooked or dismissed in favor of their white counterparts who are an easier ‘sell’. “People usually surround themselves with what they know, and if diversity is not being appointed to director positions how is it supposed to trickle down into the agency,” Ellis questions. Not having enough diverse representation to identify and deal with microaggressions from clients can negatively impact the careers of the very models that agencies are supposed to help bolster. For models to thrive, they need agents who understand their needs and will champion them at every opportunity—and address problematic casting practices. “I do like to think that these missteps are not coming from a hateful place and that it’s sometimes due to obliviousness,” explains Simmons. “Instead of getting upset I simply correct their mistake in hopes that it will create a lasting awareness.”

“People usually surround themselves with what they know, and if diversity is not being appointed to director positions how is it supposed to trickle down into the agency?” – Pierre Ellis

If fashion is to move on to the next step of its evolution, valid concerns on oversight should not be dismissed as trivial. Harping on “the way things were” will stump an industry that prides itself on being trendsetters and a pillar of pop culture as we know it. We must bear witness to what the public has demanded of us and support the factions that continue to be underrepresented. Black agents are valued as a resource to help others understand the black experience and we cannot be passive in our support.

Related Posts: