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Conditions improved in fits and starts. In the early 1980s, after repeatedly being told by agencies that her Puerto Rican looks were "too ethnic," Talisa Soto managed to break through, but only when photographers Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel insisted on working with her. The late 1980s and early '90s proved promising as a whole class of black models was able to thrive. Naomi Campbell was among the first models of any race to be anointed a "supermodel," and African-American models Beverly Peele, Karen Alexander, Tyra Banks and Veronica Webb all worked consistently. In 1992 Webb became the first black model to win a major cosmetics contract when she was signed by Revlon, but she faced many of the same hurdles as Iman. "There was never the possibility that there'd be someone on a shoot who looked like you," she says. And Webb never went on a job without bringing her own foundation and having her hair done beforehand.
Webb insists that such hardships are relative. "It wasn't like working at the Perdue chicken factory," she says. True enough, and in a world that can be as insular as fashion, such a perspective is important to maintain. But it's the sort of obstacle that has the potential to keep images of black beauty out of view. The motive may not necessarily be racist: some hairdressers who work the runway shows say they are reluctant to style black hair because they have little experience doing so and don't want to do a bad job. What seems surprising, however, is that the industry has yet to solve the problem. Michael Ross says a black model represented by his agency was hired for two major advertising campaigns last season but ended up not being pictured in either because no one knew what to do with her hair.
Advertising is where models get the serious money, or as Iman calls it, "the spoils of war," but models who aren't white have a hard time getting companies to put them under contract. "Calvin Klein helped launch my career by putting me in ads," says Soto, "but he never put me under contract." She had similar experiences with cosmetics companies: they were happy to hire her on a job-to-job basis but, in contrast to the rewards given her white colleagues, never signed her to a contract. Companies are more likely to link their products to known personalities, like Revlon with Halle Berry and Lucy Liu or L'Oreal with Beyonce Knowles.
This is why Liya's Estee Lauder contract was such a big deal and one cannily planned by her agency. "We really pushed her as a beautiful woman, not a beautiful black woman," says Bart. Meanwhile, Estee Lauder president Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne had been looking for a way to update and broaden the brand's appeal, concerned that its image had become fusty and middle-aged. "The choice of Liya herself was first linked to her style and personality," he says. "But she also makes the image of the brand hipper and more fashion forward. You can't have a single white face express the diversity of the world today." And certainly not the diversity of the U.S. by some estimates, black women account for 19% of all cosmetics sales in the country. Estee Lauder has expanded the range of makeup shades it offers, and Liya's ads will appear not only in publications like Essence, targeted at black readers, but also in W and Vogue.