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Model Immigrants

John LaurensonSeptember 27, 2007

Elite, the world's biggest model agency, is scouting Paris' suburbs made infamous by the 2005 riots for new 'ethnic' talent. But is France ready to let models of African-origin onto its catwalks and magazine covers?

Iman is one of the few black models who have made it to the topImage: AP

Rosny-Sous-Bois, in the heart of the Parisian suburbs hit by riots in 2005, is a somewhat unlikely place to come in search of beauty and an equally unusual place to come in search of opportunity.

Unruhen im Raum Paris
The 2005 riots began in Paris in a poor commune with a mainly immigrant populationImage: AP

About two hundred girls with numbers pinned to their chests are waiting here for their chance to walk like a model down an improvised catwalk. This is their big chance.

"I’ve always been fascinated by the fashion world so I decided to try my luck today," said Nawal, one of those waiting.

Nawal comes from a Muslim background, which doesn’t make any easier for her.

"Some of my family said I shouldn't even think about modeling, but it's my life and I intend to live it the way I want," she said.

Fifteen-year old Elodie’s parents are from the Ivory Coast. She dreams of a success that would change the face of French fashion.

"It'd be great to see myself or one of my African sisters in the fashion magazines. Girls can be pretty wherever they come from, but right now you don't see many girls like me."

Lack of Africans in fashion

There are hardly any African faces in the fashion pages or advertisements, as a quick flick through the current editions of Elle, Marie-Claire and Marie-France makes clear.

Modenschau, Models auf Laufsteg
White-skinned models still dominate Europe's fashion showsImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

According to Marie-Claire's casting director, Carotte, there has "always got to be a reason to put a black girl in a shoot."

"There really isn't much demand," Carotte said. "For example, in twenty years neither the Greek edition of Marie-Claire nor our craft magazine Marie-Claire Idées has ever asked me to provide a black model.

"When I worked for Figaro Madame twenty years ago, they even had a rule against ‘filles typées’ -- girls whose looks stand out, which included anyone Asian or African."

Does modeling success count?

The question is, does it really matter what happens in the small and superficial world of fashion? It could be argued that the success of one black entrepreneur or one politician of Algerian origin is worth a thousand Naomi Campbells.

However, according to the sociologist and Sorbonne professor Eric Mace, events in the fashion world are significant. Mace, who earlier this year held a seminar on the media representation of ethnic minorities, regards steps to increase the presence of black models as "a form of recognition" that France has a black community and that "they are French and belong to France".

Naomi Campbell auf Alexander McQueen's Black Schau
Model Naomi Campbell is an inspiration for many black girlsImage: AP

"If black people are more visible on TV and in advertising, maybe the fact that there are no non-white people in parliament will appear more scandalous," Mace emphasized.

Yet, it is still difficult to persuade companies to use more black models, Professor Mace said, because when the advertising industry sees a non-European-origin face, it automatically identifies a commercial risk.

Is Elite is raising hopes for nothing?

Back at the casting, Elite's president, Gerald Marie, told a North African girl to come back and see them when she's lost a few kilos. But if she does, and if she manages to get on to Elite's books, would she ever get any work?

"If your fragrance has more vanilla and sugar than a fragrance of a different kind, you may use a girl of a more ethnic temper or character," one industry source confided.

"We have to be able to offer companies the possibility of choosing models from different ethnic backgrounds. If we are not able to, then they are going to have the opportunity to say ‘listen, there's nobody good enough, let's take a white one’."

As a voice on a loudspeaker announced the list of girls who has made it to the next round, girls all around started to celebrate. Ahead of them lies another eliminatory stage followed by three more selection rounds.

And even if Elite wants them, who is to say that the market will? These girls have a long journey ahead -- luckily for them, they have long legs.