Aussie fashion world clings to past

Article by Jonathan Pearlman /
Sunday Times /
November 17, 2013 /
[Link to original unavailable] /

The faces on the covers of Australian fashion magazines vary widely, but they are inevitably those of white Anglo-Saxon models.

There is a glaring lack of Asian or black faces. As Australia’s politicians and businesses rush to embrace the so-called Asian century, its fashion industry has been accused of being racist and backward.

Modelling agents and experts say the fashion industry and advertisers have tended to adopt Angglo-centric notions of beauty despite the country’s varied multicultural make-up. More than a quarter of Australians were born overseas, with a third of recent migrants coming from Asia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The controversy followed a survey published in the November is- sue of a women’s magazine, Cleo, which found that out of 1,100 models from major modelling agencies in Australia, only 16 were Chinese and seven, Aboriginal.

Up-and-coming model Shanali Martin, 16, who is of mixed Indian, Fijian and Australian descent, told Cleo that modelling agencies “play it safe”. According to Australia’s main modelling agencies, advertisers tend to be less interested in models from a single ethnic background other than Anglo-Saxon. Aboriginal models often find it easier to get work in Europe.

The head of FRM Model Management, Mr Stephen Bucknall, told The Sunday Times that it is tough for non-Anglo-Saxon models in Australia. “It is more the public that has a racist view than advertisers. The advertisers are afraid to use models out of the norm, which they see as Anglo.”

Mr Bucknall added: “If they hang around in Australia, there’s a lot less work for them.”

Ms Diane Geach, who runs Asia Look, an agency that specialises in Asian and Eurasian models and actors, said she believed the industry was slowly
improving. She said advertisers were not “racist” but reflected market demands.

“We would love to see more work come through but we only see a reflection of market forces at play,” she told the Sunday Times. However, she said, demand for Asian models was growing as Australian films increasingly targeted Asian markets. And mixed-race models tend to be more popular, she added.

Indeed, many of Australia’s top models are of mixed descent. One of the country’s best-known models both at home and internationally is Jessica Gomes, whose mother is a Chinese Singaporean and father is Portuguese. Other top models include Shanina Shaik of Pakistani, Saudi Arabian and Lithuanian heritage, and Samantha Harris, who has an Aboriginal mother and a German-British father. Increasingly, smiling blonde-haired white faces on magazine covers are at odds with Australia’s head-long rush into the Asian century.

“The fact that we set white women as the pinnacle of beauty is racist,” said Dr Lauren Rosewarne, an expert on popular culture and the media at Melbourne University. “We pride ourselves on our multi-culturalism but if you look at advertising, which tries to create an aspiration, it says the aspiration is wanting to look like white women.”

“Television and film are a bit better,” Dr Rosewarne said. “Audiences want film and television to look something like our own lives.” For now, it is unclear when the the nation’s magazine covers will catch up to its ethnic diversity. As the face of Australia changes, it is becoming more and more difficult for any single face to be considered a one-size-fits-all.