Model Nykhor Paul Opens Up About Racism in the Fashion Industry

Model Nykhor Paul poses in this photograph taken by Luis Guillen and posted to her Instagram account.

South Sudanese model Nykhor Paul sparked online debate in July when she wrote an open letter to makeup artists who show up to gigs unprepared to work on her “blue-black” complexion, saying she was “tired of apologizing” for her blackness. She speaks to Glammonitor about calling out racism in the fashion industry.

“I had just really had enough because it had been going on since I had begun modeling,” the 26-year-old says of her decision to write the impassioned Instagram post that went viral. “For me, I was at that stage where you’re like, ‘I’ve done this job for so long, and I can’t take it anymore’ because it just isn’t right, because it keeps happening all the time and it keeps happening at every show.”

For years, Paul says, she used to take her own makeup to modeling jobs – something white models would never even have to consider doing.

“I’m sure it would be helpful at these times when people are freaking out about my complexion, but then I thought that I shouldn’t have to; it’s not part of my job requirements as a model,” she says.

Her glowing skin doesn’t really need makeup, so often she’ll go without if there is no other option. Although some makeup artists will still make clumsy attempts to find a solution.

“For the ones that don’t have it, they’ll try to mix it with a brown eyeliner to try to have a concealer on my face. I’m like, if you don’t have my makeup, just forget it.”

She is not the first black model to come up against the problem. Jourdan Dunn, for example, has spoken out about a white makeup artist who refused to work on her because she is black.

Paul, who fled the civil war in South Sudan and has lived in the US since 1998, says the problem is symptomatic of wider racism in the fashion world.

“I lived in Nebraska, and they were fucking racist down there, but to come to New York City and they’re like, ‘We’re not looking for black girls today. We don’t have your shade. We don’t book your kind of people,’ you’re like ‘Whoa.’”

She points out that the industry holds so much power to change society yet when it comes to ingrained racism, refuses to address the issue.

“In the fashion industry itself, they are like pioneers – they open so many doors, they influence people all over the world – so it’s up to them to realize there’s a serious problem,” she says.

“If there’s a Chanel show and there’s barely any black girls or all the black girls are light-skinned with washed-out hair but the girls who are real African black looking girls are not accepted because we’re not Chanel material or Dior material or Valentino material…do they not see it and think there’s a serious problem?”

Paul was modeling at Paris Fashion Week when she composed the Instagram post. She says she was the only black model included in the shows she was booked for.

The Fashion Spot has been crunching the numbers on fashion diversity of late, and the results are not pretty. Their analysis of the Spring and Fall 2015 runways found that 80 and 83 percent, respectively, of the models at the major shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris were white. At the Fall shows, 7.4 percent of models were black, 7.4 percent Asian and 2.9 percent Latina.

The data from Spring/Summer 2015 advertising campaigns was even bleaker. Across 577 campaigns that were analyzed, 84.7 percent of the 811 models who featured were white. Asian models made up 5.7 percent, black models 5.1 percent and Latina models 2.3 percent.

As Paul says, “It’s right there in your face, but nobody’s talking about it.”

“People are turning a blind eye to it because it doesn’t matter enough, because it doesn’t affect them…. This is happening to those people. You know, those,” she adds.

Paul, who has walked the runway for the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Balenciaga and Calvin Klein, was scouted when she was just 14 and living in Nebraska. She became a full-time model at 17 and has since featured in major campaigns, including for Louis Vuitton.

She says that black models have to work harder than their white counterparts to score jobs (although she adds that she does not want to underestimate the work that Caucasian models do). And with family members still living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, she says she feels added pressure to book jobs because so many people depend on her.

“There’s a lot of black models, so maybe I’m not wanted or I’m only wanted for a few shows because there’s another girl that’s now working instead of me. There’s not that many spots for us. It’s almost like you’re waiting in line,” she explains. “We have like one little bone, and they throw it at us and we all go at it because we’re like fucking hyenas trying to get it, and we gotta eat. And that’s not a way to treat people.”

As Paul herself points out, plenty of black models, including Naomi Campbell, Iman and Chanel Iman, have been vocal about racism in the fashion industry before. So it’s understandable that she’s frustrated that it keeps on happening.

“It seems like for one second, as soon as we’re talking about this, then people do something. They’re like, ‘let’s use a black person for this’.…All of a sudden, everybody’s working. But then it goes right back down,” she says. “So people don’t really take the time to really address the root cause of all these things. They don’t take the time to really talk about what is really happening, what is the problem. Because if you don’t talk about the problem, how can you even have a solution to something you don’t even acknowledge?”

At the same time, appropriation of black culture is rife in fashion and the world of celebrity, something Paul finds particularly grating in this context of discrimination against black models. Reflecting on the irony of a Caucasian model wearing her hair in African-style braids while Paul is asked to keep her head shaved, she says, ”They don’t want me to braid my hair, because that’s not a good look, but they’re so quick to put it to a person that doesn’t do it, that doesn’t even have nothing to do with it.

“I don’t care about it, go ahead and copy my culture, I know where I come from. But I just don’t want to be belittled because I’m this complexion,” she adds.

While she acknowledges that speaking out about race issues in fashion is a risk, saying it can “go really south or really north for you,” Paul says she felt compelled to do just that.

“For me, if I feel something and it is in my heart and makes me not sleep at night then I have to bring it out so that my heart can be healthy. At this point, this has been repressed for so long and I don’t care I’m not scared if people are going to say this or that or I’m not going to work,” she says.

Nevertheless, she has some optimism about the future, adding, “I’m hopeful and I really pray that there will be some kind of change that happens.”