In 1992, Veronica Webb became the first African-American model to sign a major advertising contract with Revlon. Today, it’s not uncommon for black celebs to land lucrative ad campaigns promoting beauty products. So does this trend reflect a genuine commitment from the global cosmetic industry to embrace diverse beauty?
Indeed, twenty-five years ago it would have been near impossible for a black woman to be the face of trusted brands such as L’Oréal, Revlon and Estée Lauder. Today all that’s changed with the likes of Beyoncé, Halle Berry and Thandie Newton snagging profitable, six-figure deals, to market beauty products to women of all races across the globe.
This development, though, is not limited to the beauty industry. Singer and actress Jennifer Hudson fronts commercials for Weight Watchers and Janet Jackson is new face for the Nutrisystem diet. Men of color have also been cashing in. Tiger Wood’s good looks and “multiracial” appeal was enough for him to earn millions fronting major campaigns; of course, before his popularity plummeted when he was caught cheating on his wife.
Sola Oyebade, the chief executive of Mahogany Models Management, Europe’s largest agency for models of color, however, is skeptical about the cosmetic industry’s commitment to embrace multicultural beauty.
“The major cosmetic brands tend to use black celebrities to promote products,” Oyebade told theGrio.com. There is still the perception that “black doesn’t sell” and white consumers will buy into products if the women of color are well-known, he says.
Ethnic models still face discrimination and “it’s rare for major advertising campaigns to use black models” whereas they may take the risk with up-and-coming white models, adds Oyebade. This also extends to high-fashion: “If you look at back issues of magazines like Vogue they generally use black celebrities on their covers but very few lesser-known black models.”
Admittedly it maybe a coincidence but the black women currently fronting major global beauty campaigns are all light-skinned or of mixed heritage: Beyoncé at L’Oréal, Thandie Newton at Olay and Halle Berry’s long-term contract with Revlon.
Even then, L’Oréal faced a huge backlash after it appeared to “whitewash” Beyoncé in its 2008 ad campaign. She appeared to look almost white, with pale skin and strawberry-blonde hair.
Nevertheless, Oyebade concedes there has been change in the industry based on calculated economics. “The global economic downturn has had a huge impact on mature Western markets and the industry is looking to find business in new and emerging markets such as Asia, African and the Caribbean.” These cash economics weren’t so badly affected by the credit crunch, he says.
“I’ve started noticing cosmetic brands hosting fashion shows and sponsoring events in Africa and Caribbean, which have now become viable areas to make money,” and add new customers until economics in the West improve, says Oyebade, who also works as a creative director for international fashion shows.
Perhaps, this is the motivation behind one of Estée Lauder’s latest ad campaigns. This year’s product launch is fronted by Chinese supermodel Liu Wen, Puerto Rican-born Joan Smalls and French beauty Constance Jablonski.
However, Aerin Lauder, senior vice president and creative director of Estée Lauder, said earlier this year at press event in New York, the company is committed to diversity. “Estée’s choice of models throughout the brand’s evolution was always extraordinary,” said Lauder. “We continue this legacy with a new group of diverse faces that truly represent a modern vision of beauty.”
Whatever the reasons for women of color fronting major ad campaigns, it can only be a good if this fad continues. Trends such as western markets becoming more multiracial and emerging economics, such as Brazil, China and India, carving out dominant positions in the global economy, means the cosmetic industry may have no choice but to change.
Most importantly of all women need to see their skin and shape reflected in the media.