Fashion veteran Bethann Hardison on Numéro ‘African Queen’ blackface controversy

The "African Queen" spread, as discussed by Bethann Hardison, fashion legend

The "African Queen" spread, as discussed by Bethann Hardison, fashion legend. (Photos, left, Sebastian Kim, right, Getty Images)

Fashion legend Bethann Hardison saw it as a call to action when she learned of the controversy swirling around Numéro magazine’s spread featuring a white model in bronze make-up so deep, many called it blackface.

The editorial, called “African Queen,” unleashed a firestorm of disappointment online across fashion and news blogs, with users lamenting that a black model was not cast in an editorial that seemed perfectly suited for someone of African descent.

“You don’t use the terminology ‘African Queen,’” Hardison agreed about the backlash. “It normally goes towards someone definitively of a certain color.” (Both Numero magazine and the photographer who shot the images have since released apologies for the photos.)

For some, the French glossy’s March 2013 spread is a perfect illustration of what some perceive as fashion’s ongoing insensitivity to race. Yet the modeling world veteran — famous for championing diversity in fashion for decades — sees reactions to this editorial as a sign that models of color might once again need her support.

“Before all this happened, I knew it was time for me to get back on post, so to speak. To get my army and go back into the battle,” Hardison told theGrio in a phone interview after returning to New York City from the Oscars. “I knew that, because I got statistics about what was happening.”

As the numbers Hardison alluded to show, black models represented only six percent of all who walked at the most recent New York City Fashion Week, according to a report by Jezebel.com. This is a decline from over eight percent last season. Latina models? Two percent. White models dominated the runways at a rate of almost 83 percent.

“I find it very, very sad that we are still battling this industry,” Hardison said. “As soon as I take my foot off the pedal, then the car starts slowing down again.”

According this ’60s-era catwalker, bookers used to openly send notices outlining that “no blacks/no ethnics” were to be sent for consideration during a period ranging from 1996-2006. In 2007 Hardison held a symposium – the first of its kind in a series – to unite huge figures in fashion to end the exclusion experienced by many models of color at the time.

Hardison credits her efforts with eradicating this de facto ban.

She took a break from this cause in recent years — in part to develop a documentary about fashion’s diversity problem – but the Numéro incident is re-kindling her quest.

“I get mad that we are not a constant, permanent fixture. I feel like somebody’s pinched me,” Hardison said. “The more I see it, I want to just understand — why is that? You can’t tell me you still want to have 35 girls, and they all be white, or one black.”

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As a casting agent and modeling agency owner, she has witnessed a careless tokenism that harms the industry’s appraisal of all black women even when such models are sought for a show.

“Sometimes a creative director will be pushing me to just book a black girl. I won’t just book a black girl, because she’s black. And I wish a lot of people wouldn’t do that,” Hardison said, “because you’re not making it better for us. You’ve got to put a girl out there that people cannot deny is equal to her white counterpart. It’s a struggle. The market doesn’t yield, so it’s hard to bring in more than is needed.”

Numéro’s “African Queen” spread and the resulting debates about fashion and race are providing Hardison with “fuel” for her “fire” to continue searching for models of color, battering narrow beauty standards. One of her goals is to make fashion insiders take responsibility for diversity. Because consistent diversity on the runways enhances fashion for everyone, including models of every color, Hardison will be unyielding in her pursuit of justice.

“For me, I’m fighting for the fashion model in general, because I believe the fashion model is no longer that anymore,” Hardison elaborated. “She’s just somebody who walks up and down the runway. She’s no longer the girls we used to be. And there’s no longer the relationship between the fashion model and the designer, as it used to be, which really encouraged the spirit of the model.”

We can expect Hardison to be back on her megaphone promoting this message, applying public pressure on images makers behind spreads like “African Queen” to be more aware of the choices they are making.

For this grande dame of fashion, the situation is dire.

“We have no f**king choice,” she asserted with a touch of sardonic laughter. “You can put that in and keep it… At the end of the day, you still have this. It’s like the most un-modern situation.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb