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Philomena Kwao is the socially conscious black model we’ve been waiting for

08 Apr 2017

“Plus-size” and black, Philomena Kwao defies not one but two of the fashion industry’s odds. But instead of letting the labels define her, she embraces them. If she’s going to be the “token black girl”, it’ll be on her own terms as “a step towards representation, diversity and opening the doors to so many others,” she tells me.

Like many of the gal-dem themselves, British-Ghanaian Kwao hails from Deptford, south east London, and her beginnings on Pepys Estate have certainly formed her “take no prisoners” attitude. Splitting her time between New York and London, Kwao has had to keep grounded, something she’d already proved in graduating with a first in MSc International Health Management even after winning Models 1 X Evans nationwide plus-size contest at just 22 years-old.

Modelling for Kwao is a platform to inspire change in international healthcare access, particularly within maternal health. And, alongside these hopes, she’s paved her way to being the voice of plus-size empowerment, featuring in Sports Illustrated iconic #SwimSexy campaign and even inspiring her own mother to don a swimsuit.

But plus-size is not synonymous with black, and Kwao still feels the constrain of an industry that largely remains a white-washed catwalk. Albeit the stats from this Spring 2017’s diversity report, which counted more than 25% models of colour; ethnic minorities are still – wait for it – the minority, the anomalies continuously tokenised in “all black campaigns”, such as Gucci’s. Kwao’s collaboration with i-D and supermodel Iman revealing the struggle that black women face with make-up shows just how adamant she is at breaking down the barriers and achieving true diversity and representation.

We caught up with the 27-year-old to talk about the changing face of the make-up industry, her experiences as a model and what beauty really means to her.

What made you want to create the video about black beauty for i-D?

I’ve always realised that there was a problem with make-up even before I started modelling. I grew up in a predominantly black area, lots of Africans, Caribbean’s and not many white people, so you don’t always immediately realise the problem. And then I got older and my boarding school in West Sussex was predominantly white. On the weekends we’d go to Horsham Superdrug to get make-up and that’s when I first realised, hold on there’s a problem here. Your usual high street brands like 17, Maybelline, Rimmel catered for my friends but offered nothing for me. For a long time, all I wore was mascara and lip balm, I would never ever get foundation. Then when I came home for sixth-form, there was MAC, but as a student you can’t always afford it. Why did my friends pay £5, while I spent a good £30-£40?

And could you even ever find your shade, your colour, or did you have to blend? These woes have been on gal-dem’s lips for time. In i-D’s video, Iman says that bringing her own “blend” to shoots, was precisely what encouraged her to create her own make-up line.

I’m very dark. On the high street my colour doesn’t exist. Bar MAC, there weren’t two options to even choose from.

As a teenager did you ever go through any phases like Vogue’s Funmi Fetto’s coined “Orange is the New Black era?

Several, there was a whole period in my life where my make-up was just too light. Dream-matte mousse and even MAC just felt like I was oiled up and greasy.

Make-up is supposed to make us feel good; how do you feel that you were denied that chance of luxury?

Make-up is a tool of expression, it’s one of the many ways in which we show who we are, an extension of you. So to not have the tools to accurately display yourself the way you want to makes you feel excluded, that you’re not worthy of luxury. It’s not even a luxury, it’s a staple, as important as clothes or hair products. Whether you wear make-up or not, black women should have the option to choose.

Going into the modelling industry, what would you say was your more predominant exclusion – your size or your colour?

Both. I had everything against me: natural cropped hair, almost bald so couldn’t fit into the American girl next door with weave or wear the token afro. Then add the fact that I’m one of the darkest girls out there and I’m also plus. It’s like everything society said you shouldn’t be, I was. I didn’t work for almost a year in America; clients, hair stylists, make-up artists, they all just didn’t know what to do with me. You can be skinny and dark, like an Alec Wek or a Naomi. But I was too much for them to handle.

So four years later, how do you think the industry’s changed, if it has at all?

There’s been more change in the last two years than in the last 10, for the better and for the worse. I find that amongst straight size modelling, there’s a lot more diversity of skin tones in campaigns. Yet, because plus-size is new in itself to fashion, most plus-size models tend to look one certain way – there’s currently only one acceptable plus. For me, it’s been positive because I’ve been working a lot. But I wish there was more.

How do you think the industry can change? What are the initiatives?

I think social media has been really powerful. It’s given the consumer a voice, the distance between the consumer and the brand isn’t so wide anymore. I can make a blog, Instagram or video post and tell them [brands] this is what I want to see, this is the representation I need. We all have a voice and brands are listening. L’Oréal True Match just had an amazing campaign with models from my agency showcasing a variation of skin tones, my complexion and even darker – and that’s in response to people saying this is what we need. If enough people talk about what they want, we’ll see more change.

Completely. So, last year you confessed to using skin whitening soaps. How do you feel now looking back at that?

It wasn’t even that long ago. I’ve grown to become more comfortable in my skin, to value it, to treasure it. Even though now I know I’m on the other side as a model, when I see women of my colour in magazines and on TV, I feel happy, elated, more accepted. It helps when I’m now booking jobs and see that my skin isn’t getting retouched. It’s so ingrained in our cultures, in some families it’s a rite of passage, they’ll actively encourage you to use soaps if they think you’re too dark. And you internalise that feeling of feeling substandard.

So talking about labelling, how do you feel about being labelled as a plus-size model, especially since the controversy with ASOS removing the label on an Instagram post?

It’s a personal journey for everyone. I’ve had so many labels put on me – the natural girl, the token black girl. I’m more than those labels and I don’t allow them to define me. I understand the importance of them in the industry, but also that these labels can be divisive attached with negative connotations. They can be insulting, so really it’s a personal thing, each person has a right to identify with what they want. Do I call myself black, African or British? It’s my choice.

So what does beauty mean for you?

Beauty means that you’re completely comfortable with who you are and what you are. It means you understand your being and you’re happy with it. You can put labels on yourself but are you happy with them? It’s only once you marry the two together that you can find that harmony and confidence from within.

Lastly, any advice on empowerment for the gal-dem?

Celebrate yourself. Every day find something about yourself that you like. The more you learn to see the good in you, the more others can see that good. Everything else becomes very superficial, you build a confidence that surpasses expectations, the limitations that society wants to put on you.

Photography by Ife Akinroyeje. Styling by La La Love. Clothing from Lavish Alice and Remi Ray London.