Black Models Take Off


Last month, photographer Steven Meisel used only black models for an entire issue of the Italian edition of Vogue, and it became something of a landmark publishing event: Copies sold so quickly that Condé Nast had to stock the stores with reprint runs. But as remarkable as the reaction to the magazine was, observers wonder whether it will have any lasting effect on the industry—one in which black models often have a difficult time getting onto the runway or in the pages of magazines.

Before the Vogue buzz dies down, however, Ryan Leslie is giving some of the women from the special issue more work.

That explains the procession of lithe beauties making their way to a studio on 33rd Street at Eleventh Avenue last week, where they were prepped before performing, one in front of a giant image of Leslie’s head on a wall. That seemed especially appropriate, because it was Leslie’s giant head—or at least his giant brain—that gained him notoriety a couple of years ago. New York magazine, among others, was impressed that the Harvard grad and r&b artist—who had written and produced Cassie’s 2006 hit “Me & U”—had scored a perfect 1600 on his high-school SATs. Leslie was profiled as a smart kid with a bright future (he’d started college at 15) who had already signed to the Universal label and had an album on the way.

Things haven’t worked out so perfectly for Leslie in the two years since: His album was shelved, along with a couple of videos that he shot for singles. But now, he sees an opportunity both to get some attention for his latest single and to keep the subject of black models front and center.

Inside the studio, Leslie sat at a keyboard as the young models—Jessie, Gaye, Jalika, Lily, Jeneil, and Sonja—were ushered in for their parts. They would be lip-synching with Leslie to his song “Addiction”—reminiscent of how George Michael used fashion models in his 1990 video for “Freedom.”

Taking turns, each model lip-synched the song, pretending to lust after Leslie. Jessie was wearing a sequined short jumper in front of the projection of his face, her hands “caressing” his mouth. Gaye, a tall, dark-chocolate girl, was wrapped in swaths of fabric that matched her Hershey tone. She also undulated in front of Leslie’s projected face as the director, Diane Martel, brought her camera closer. Jalika, meanwhile, was propped up on pillows, her hands tied for a bondage look.

“I’ve never been in a music video,” says Jalika, 22. “I’ve had several opportunities, but I didn’t, because I don’t like the connotation of what a video girl is.” In urban-music videos in particular, women often are reduced to an ass-shaking caricature. But despite the erotic nature of Leslie’s video, Jalika says, she didn’t feel exploited: “Even though I was the bondage girl, it wasn’t a highly sexual thing.”

For help wrangling the models, Leslie had turned to Bethann Hardison, the former model who for years has chided fashion companies for their failure to provide images of black beauty. It was to Hardison that Meisel turned for help in putting the Vogue Italia issue together, and the magazine also features an interview with her. For the video shoot, Hardison brought six models; four of them—Jalika, Jeneil, Lily, and Sonja—had been selected by Hardison for a special section in the blockbuster Vogue issue. “When I met with Bethann, the first thing she said was ‘Oh my God! You are beautiful,” Jeneil tells the Voice. “She also told me that the Vogue Italia issue will open doors for black girls.”

Hardison says she didn’t have to think twice about helping Leslie, even though, she points out, fashion models and music videos normally don’t mix.

“I manage Tyson Beckford, and he’s only done three videos in his 14-year career. Music videos are not our business or our market,” she says.

For years, Hardison has been trying to shake up the fashion industry and force it to address its lack of diversity. Black models, she points out, actually had more visibility when she was posing for photographs in the 1960s and ’70s. “When we came up . . . there were a lot of interesting things going on. The industry is so dull right now; that’s why the talks help put it on edge,” she says, referring to the town-hall meetings she’s put on to make waves about the overwhelming whiteness of fashion.

Last year’s panel, “Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color,” was sold out at the New York Public Library. “It’s very nice that both [Italian and American] Vogues did something to address the lack of color in fashion,” she says. “However, when you start something as important as this, it’s a point of celebration—you can’t fall back.”

Leslie, who considers himself a connoisseur of fashion, has traveled to Milan for the men’s shows, where he too noticed the sameness of the models: “I have a secret love affair with fashion,” says the singer, who’s been wearing custom-made clothes since he was a child. “It’s a very practical application of art. For some reason, there is a disconnect between fashion and music. If I want to be someone the fashion world acknowledges, I need to let them know I respect their art.”

Back in the studio, the shoot began to run late: One model had to leave early for another job; another was late because she had come from an earlier shoot; a couple of others were rushing to learn the words to the song.

And a spotlight illuminated Jalika, her hands tied in her bondage getup, as she shyly mouthed the words: “I’m addicted to you/I’m addicted to you. . . .”