The fairest of them all

June 30, 1994|By Joseph Steuer

IT HAS become one of this country's most popular sporting events: Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue. This year's cover featured three sexy white models in skimpy bikinis and a headline that read: "The Dream Team."

When Roshumba, the striking 5-foot-10 black model saw it, she had one question: "Whose dream?"

"Knowing that the swimsuit issue has been put out for the last 30 years," says Roshumba, who is in the issue, "it appalls me that they have not been able to find a black woman beautiful enough to put on the cover."

In some ways though, times are much easier for black models. Gone are the days when modeling agencies signed on a single top black woman, or none at all. At least two top cosmetics companies, Revlon and Cover Girl, have made history in the past couple of years by signing Veronica Webb, Lana Ogilvie and Tyra to beauty contracts. And it is hard to find a fashion magazine without images of Naomi Campbell. Yet several top black models, despite the money -- six and even seven figures -- are far from satisfied.

Ford model Karen Alexander says she turned down a cosmetics contract from Cover Girl, even though cosmetics contracts for black models are scarce. She says she found the money they offered her "insulting."

"The white girls I know get offered $1 million or a million five, and they offered me $100,000," she says. "I don't want anyone thinking that I just turned down that money. Who doesn't want to have an extra $100,000 lying around?" Ms. Alexander said she could not accept a contract knowing that a white model gets 10 times as much.

Not all black models are this angry. IMG model Tyra, who has a new contract with Cover Girl, says she is happy with the money she is making: "I have a general knowledge of rates, and I am happy with what I am being paid."

But even black models who are happy with the money puzzle over why they are not getting exposure comparable to that of white models. Since Beverly Johnson appeared in Glamour and Vogue in the 1970s, each era has been marked by one primary black cover girl. After Ms. Johnson, there was Iman. Now Ms. Campbell is the chosen "black model."

The rest, unlike those in the white modeling world, are often consigned to a ghetto -- used when needed to integrate catalogs, fashion magazines and swimsuit issues and ads, but not considered as desirable or salable as a leggy white blond or a brunette. And in the highly competitive and often short-lived career of a model, there are many, many more cover opportunities for white women.

Sara Foley Anderson, senior bookings editor at Harper's Bazaar, admits that there has not been a black model on the cover until now. Last March, she said: "There will be [a black model on the cover]; I have no doubt. "Every issue there are five or six mock-ups considered for a cover. So far it hasn't worked. But it hasn't worked because the picture hasn't worked, not because it is a picture of a black girl that hasn't worked."

Paul Wilmot, director of communications and public relations at Vogue says, "It is not about black and white . . . The public responds to supermodels. Supermodels sell covers. Of all the supermodels, all are white with the exception of Naomi and Veronica."

Asked why he believes that in a given time period, there is generally only one black diva model, Mr. Wilmot responds: "I don't know why. That is in the hands of the gods. But that question should not just be posed to fashion magazines. It should be addressed at media in general. Name three big successful female black actors. Or three black anchorpersons."

Joseph Steuer writes for the New York Daily News

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