James Scully says he "flipped" the first time he saw pictures of model Liya Kebede three years ago, but the fashion-industry casting agent had trouble finding others whose enthusiasm matched his. Liya had already spent a couple of years in Chicago slogging away at catalog work, the style world's equivalent of toiling off-off-Broadway. When Liya moved to New York City in 2000, Scully took her portfolio around to designers and advertisers, who unfailingly turned him away. "The line I'd always get was, 'Wait until she's more experienced,'" he says. It wasn't until Tom Ford cast Liya in his show for Gucci that others began clamoring to work with her.
Scully has little doubt that initial objections to Liya, 25, who is originally from Ethiopia, had less to do with her experience than her race. It's a problem he often confronts when trying to get work for Asian, Hispanic or black models. "I once tried to make a magazine editor use a black girl on a shoot, and she didn't speak to me for two weeks," he says. Resistance can be cloaked in euphemisms. "I've had a photographer's agent tell me, 'He doesn't know how to shoot black girls,'" he says. Sometimes things are more direct: Michael Ross, an agent with the modeling firm Marilyn, says that when he's asked to send models for a casting call, frequently "the client will specify 'No Asians' or 'Caucasians only.'"
Says Ivan Bart, vice president of IMG, the New York City management agency with which Liya eventually signed: "We hear things every day that people in any other industry would realize aren't appropriate to say, but in the fashion industry, it's chalked up to a creative vision." He says it is not uncommon when he tries to book a black model for a runway show to be rebuffed with "We already have our black girl."
While average Americans are likely to view such machinations as far removed from their own lives, the world of high fashion is hardly divorced from the mainstream. A rarefied few may see designer runway shows in Paris and Milan, but the models who make an impression there secure editorial work at widely circulated magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire and eventually end up in images that pervade daily life, whether it's in a nationwide advertising campaign or as the host of a show on MTV.
Such is the case with Liya. After the Gucci show, she started walking the runways for Donna Karan, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, among others; she frequently appears in American Vogue and had an entire issue dedicated to her by the magazine's French edition, becoming just the third black model to appear on its cover. In April she signed a multimillion-dollar contract with cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, the first time in its 57-year history that the company, already represented by Elizabeth Hurley and Carolyn Murphy, signed such a deal with a black model.