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One of the most certifiably stunning women in the world has graciously agreed to beam her radiant, white-clad self from sunny Monaco into a Zoom room with me, a poorly-lit writer bobbing helplessly against a starry stock background intended to approximate the grandeur of a lunar eclipse. “I like your astral projection,” she says warmly. But we’re not here to discuss the cosmos. You see, the woman in white is Joan Smalls, who was set on a decidedly stellar trajectory just over a decade ago, when Riccardo Tisci handpicked her to walk in Givenchy’s couture show during Paris Fashion Week.
Not unlike other extremely successful models, she’s since walked for luxury houses from Fendi to Chanel. Unlike other extremely successful models, Smalls was one of the first Afro-Latinas to walk the runway for the aforementioned brands. She was also the first-ever Latina model to be named a face of Estée Lauder. As a fellow Puerto Rican (Smalls’s family is from the northern coastal town of Hatillo; mine is from Barranquitas, a central mountainside hamlet), I find Smalls’s benchmarks both impressive and far, far too recent. The first New York Fashion Week was held in 1943—and so Smalls’s emergence as one of the rare Afro-Latina supermodels only a decade ago points out the glaring shortcomings in representation, particularly in the upper echelons of fashion.
Of course, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been a visible Latinx presence in modeling before. You just probably wouldn’t know it… unless you were in the know. Supermodel Christy Turlington Burns is part Salvadorean, Helena Christensen is part Peruvian, and a slew of successful blonde and redheaded models (Caroline Trentini, Cintia Dicker, Raquel Zimmermann) hail from Brazil. While Latinx beauty encompasses a spectrum of shades, shapes, and hair types, the Latinx models who rose to fame in the ’80s, ’90s, and aughts could almost all be described as fair-skinned and boasting naturally stick-straight or wavy hair. “There was a time when some hairstylists didn’t even know how to work with curly or textured hair,” says Ro Penuliar, cofounder and casting director of Noir Casting agency and a former longtime agent at Elite Models. “Fashion is more open to it now.”
Happily, we’ve come a long way in the past decade. Today’s reigning models with Latinx heritage are almost too numerous to list. Among those who reflect growing diversity in the larger industry are Dilone, Lineisy Montero, Manuela Sanchez, Brandi Quinones, Mica Argañaraz, Devyn Garcia, Paloma Elsesser, and Denise Bidot, who collectively represent a spectrum of sizes, hairstyles (close-cropped! curly!), and skin tones. But there’s a difference between more diverse casting and true progress, warns Bidot, who recalls being on sets even within the past few years where she felt stereotyped by the clothing she was asked to model. “There was a client who always found a way to put me in the red dress or the animal print,” Bidot says. “I had to be like, ‘You know, there’s a fundamental problem with why you think that out of the four girls here, I’m the one who always looks best in [these outfits]. That’s pre-programming [stemming] from your misconception of what the Latin woman wants to wear.’ ”
While individual advocacy, like Bidot’s, is crucial to propelling Latinx modeling toward a more equitable future, so are sweeping changes, like rethinking the scouting process itself. “As soon as a successful model comes from a certain country, others will follow. If you don’t have anyone to use as a reference, it’s really hard for that to develop,” explains Luis Domingo, an associate director of scouting at IMG Models’ London office, who recruits from both Latin American and Spanish-speaking countries. To this end, IMG is leaning heavily into We Love Your Genes, an online scouting tool that aims to break down barriers to entry by allowing would-be models to gain exposure to the elite agency via social media. “Through the platform, we can ensure that we have models from every corner of the globe,” Domingo says. “That’s really helped our scouting in Latin America.”
The final frontier in the Latinx modeling world, however, is one less talked-about than skin color, body type, hair type, or geography. It’s openness to and valuing of the indigenous features that characterize so much of Latin America. For the time being, breakout Roma star Yalitza Aparicio stands as a rare example of fashion and media embracing the beauty of this heritage. (Venezuelan model Patricia Velásquez, who lit up the runways in the ’90s, is another.) There is hope in the burgeoning success of the Mexico City–based modeling and casting agency Guerxs, whose founder, Maria Osado, prioritizes diversity in signing models. Guerxs models have worked with brands like Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga. “It’s still really hard for me to book certain models—people may be open to someone with [indigenous] features, but they still want the [‘classic’] body type,” Osado says. But what’s the standard?
Back on my Zoom call with Smalls, she echoes Osado’s frank outlook—with hopeful resolve. “I was always the only [Afro-Latina] girl,” she says. “I don’t want to be the only one in the room.”
This article appears in the September 2021 issue of ELLE.
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