The Black Alternative Model Experience

For the first time, two alternative Black models from the U.S. & U.K., Jessa Jordan and Yasmin Benoit, teamed up with a fellow Black artist, 13th Disciple, for a captivating photoshoot in London’s famous Kew Gardens, which embodies #blackgirlmagic and an inspirational, supportive sisterhood. The editorial comes with a written piece from Jessa and Yasmin, where they speak about their experiences living as Black alternative women and models working in a predominantly white industry in two different parts of the world – the UK and the USA.

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Yasmin: When you’re an alternative Black woman, you are a minority within a minority. It is unfortunately common for that experience to come with a sense of alienation from the alternative community and from your ethnic community. Throughout my life, I have felt like I didn’t fit into either. I opened magazines and saw more white faces. I went to concerts and saw more white faces. I went online and saw more white faces. I would even look at art inspired by alternative fashion and movements, and see more white faces.

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It was no wonder that the white alternative kids didn’t know how to react when I tried to enter their spaces, a brown face in a white crowd. And it was no wonder that the Black kids thought I must be “white on the inside,” because I was associating myself with something that most people thought of as being a “white thing.” That’s the way alternative subcultures are presented.

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Jessa: As a second child growing up in very long shadow of my mega talented and spirited older sister, I never felt like I had anything that was uniquely mine, or even a hobby that I was really passionate about. Modeling allowed me to find myself. I saw what the world was missing as far as someone creating fun, beautiful, sexy and provocative imagery with Black models, and I sought out to do just that. Through many reblogs and boosts on Tumblr and support on Instagram, I became a fixture on the Internet known for being one of the first prominent Black alternative models.

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I was clawing for visibility in a sea of white models and the first forum that really allowed for that visibility was nude, fine art modeling. The more frequently I posted my fine art work, the more people paid attention to me. Colorism, as always, played a huge part in why I was able to have so many opportunities. I was a light-skinned model frequently shot with an afro or braids or other natural hairstyles, and no one had ever seen or really done that before—especially doing fine art!

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Yasmin: Attracted by the counter-cultural aspect of the industry and how it seemed to celebrate different kinds of expression that were usually excluded from mainstream portrayals of beauty, I had my eye on alternative modelling since I was about fifteen. But it did strike me as hypocritical that the most successful models in the industry are still White, thin, and barely dissimilar to your average fashion models, only with tattoos and coloured hair.

Women of colour – particularly unambiguously Black women – are still underrepresented in fashion. However, the mainstream fashion industry has been making some improvements in terms of diversity. While most agencies, magazines, and brands are making conscious attempts to fill their diversity quota, the independent modelling industry – especially the alternative fashion industry – isn’t taking those steps. However, I did see very small amount of Black models, and that gave me some reassurance that the idea of entering the industry wasn’t completely insane.

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Jessa: As much as people applauded me, I realized I needed to also show that I had range and wouldn’t be pigeonholed, because then it would be easy for people to typecast or expect just one particular style of art from me. I never relied on one particular genre to define me, even as an alternative model (I’m classified as alternative because I’m not industry standard height or weight, I’m tattooed and have facial piercings that I do not remove).

I didn’t want to just shoot pretty and sexy boudoir or erotica, I didn’t only want to shoot fetish work, or even fine art. I wanted to shoot it all and I’ve done my best to encapsulate as many genres and really challenge myself. It’s more fun when I can look back after a shoot and be proud that I killed it on my terms. In surprising a lot of photographers and brands who hadn’t ever shot with a Black model, I was able to keep surpassing myself. I always stay true to myself and continue to be selective as my brand grows.

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I’ve been honored to work with some of the most prolific directors, writers, artists, stylists, photographers and designers in the industry. It blows my mind every time I look back on it – like I know I’ve made it because I’ve shot with Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler, Ryan McGinley and so many other incredible artists. That never would’ve happened if I had let people define me and tell me that I was simply not going to get the role just for being Black. It is so important that you listen to your instincts and put yourself out there. Just by being present in a casting they can’t ignore you, and when they see that shine, it’s hard to block it out.

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Yasmin: To this day, there are only a handful of Black alternative models in the UK—and less now than there were when I started. Fortunately, I have been able to find some success. I have modelled for British and international brands, often being the first Black model they’ve had. I have appeared in magazines and provided the representation I always wanted to see, but it hasn’t been easy, and it has been lonely at times. The lack of opportunities for Black models has made the industry incredibly competitive, to the degree that the women tear each other down instead of lifting each other up.

That was why working with Jessa Jordan meant so much to me. Jessa was one of the first Black alternative models that I saw, and one of the first to help me get my name out there. We’re fighting the same battle, and the images we produced together are a testament to how representation is an international issue, and how Black sisterhood should always come before competition. I hope that our collaboration can inspire more Black girls to stay true to themselves and make it known that you can be Black and alternative, without it making you any less Black.

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Jessa: In acknowledging my success, I’ve tried to stay as humble as I can and now I find myself wondering how I can leave a legacy. For me, it has always been important to not only collaborate with other Black artists but to support them in other ways as well, especially other models of color. That’s how this collaboration was born and what I hope to create with BrownGirlParty. We can create our own opportunities and we can force the industry to change. We make representation matter.

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Credits

Models: Yasmin Benoit @theyasminbenoit & Jessa Jordan @missjessajordan
Photography: 13th Disciple @13thdisciple_

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