Black alternative model Yasmin Benoit fights her way into the industry

September 12, 2017
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By Yasmin Benoit, AFROPUNK contributor

All aspects of alternative subcultures are associated with Whiteness. Consequently, Black people who appreciate it are often subjected to having their Blackness revoked.

Like many others, this was something I learned quickly. The dark clothes, facial piercings, vibrant hair colours, band t-shirts, the rock festivals, the mosh pits, the music, the art, the entire form of self-expression…isn’t for Black people. As a pre-pubescent, self-proclaimed rocker, I didn’t realise that interests had socially imposed racial boundaries. But as soon as my affinities became obvious, it seemed like everyone was sure to let me know. To the Black kids, I was a “coconut” – Black on the outside, White on the inside. My tastes had me labelled as a weird “mosher” by the time I was 11, but I noticed that alternative White girls weren’t afforded the same treatment by the Black kids in my class, or the White ones. Their expression didn’t need to be policed.

However, it wasn’t just alienation from fellow Black people that I could grow to expect. When I attempted to immerse myself in the local alternative crowd – which was almost entirely White – I found that I wasn’t welcomed as kindly as my White girl-friends were. Just as I was in my racial community, I was the outsider, even if we dressed the same. It was something my mother had warned me about, “Some of those kinds of people don’t like Black people,” she had told me as I insisted on putting punk band posters on my bedroom walls, most likely remembering the segregated subcultures of her youth. After all, it’s a narrative that has been replayed countless times. I know such experiences aren’t unique to myself, but alternative ethnic minorities in many societies.

Which begs the question…

Why are alternative subcultures perceived as being a White thing? Why is our racial identity called into question when we listen to rock or heavy metal music – genres that wouldn’t exist without the contributions of Black musicians?

Photo: 13th Life Photography
T-Shirt: CRMC Clothing

It isn’t just a matter of stereotyping, but representation. If you turn on the rock music channels, go onto the alternative clothing websites, look in the alt-fashion magazines, on the blogs, the ads, or even fictional portrayals of alternative people on TV and in films – the chances are that you will only see White faces. If there was more representation for alternative people of colour, it would change people’s ideas of what ‘alternative’ looks like. Maybe then, alternative Black kids wouldn’t feel so alienated. Maybe then, the phrase, “That’s not for you,” wouldn’t be heard so often. Maybe then, Black kids would feel more comfortable expressing themselves in unconventional ways with the knowledge that they would be accepted by all sides.

That’s why, when I became involved in modelling at the age of 16, I decided to focus my efforts specifically on the ‘alternative’ fashion industry. Unfortunately, gaining recognition there wasn’t an easy journey. Despite the alternative fashion industry priding itself on being inclusive – something for the ‘outcasts’ – it conforms to the same Eurocentric beauty standards as the mainstream fashion industry. Looking past the brightly coloured hair and the tattoos, alternative models are predominantly young women with feminine appearances, fine features, slim figures (although breast implants are welcome), most noticeably, pale skin.

Being one of the few black models in a homogenous industry characterised by its ‘difference’ hasn’t been easy.

Like in the mainstream fashion industry, there are fewer opportunities for models of colour – particularly unambiguously Black ones. Having a Black model fronting your brand could make it come across as ‘urban,’ thus alienating the White audience. I’ve been turned down by brands because my brown skin innately doesn’t fit the alternative ‘aesthetic,’ another experience that isn’t unique to myself. Fellow Black alternative model, Hot Cocoa, spoke on her YouTube channel about being replaced by a White model for a magazine shoot that she had pitched herself, because the White model was – according to the magazine – “more suited to the clothes.”

Photo: Shawn Bishop at the Scarlet Door Studio
Outfit: Bodysuit by Seduced By Lilith

There are models who have lost work from White photographers and designers – who, again, make up a large amount of the industry – for highlighting racial inequality. Fortunately, there are some brands, designers, and photographers are invested in adding diversity to the industry. For many brands that I’ve worked with, I was their first Black model. My first breakthrough was modelling for CRMC Clothing – a Scottish brand – back in 2015. Since then, I’ve shot their collections on multiple occasions, and I’ve had the pleasure of modelling for range of other designers on the British and American scene, including Love Sick London, Dethkult Clothing, Seduced By Lilith, Kuki London, Pin Up Girl Clothing, and Teen Hearts. I believe that it’s important for brands to feature a more diverse range of models because they help to define what ‘alternative’ looks like to an impressionable audience, and thus make life easier for alternative people of colour.

With Davinya Cooper (@davvycooper) recently rocking a ‘fro in Killstar’s recent Lookbook, Moniasse (@moniasseartistmuse) getting covers in international tattoo magazines, Hot Cocoa (@thehotcocoa) modelling for Cyberdog, there’s a handful of black women pushing the industry in an a more inclusive direction, with the help of those willing to give us a chance. There’s still a long way to go, but as Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”