One of the very few models with natural hair. She talks about her work and her life.
You have an amazing career. I am sure my audience will be inspired by you. Let’s start chronologically. You were born in Guyana? (I am not sure if you are aware that I am from Suriname. We’re neighbours. I grew up in Suriname.) Do you remember a lot from the time you were growing up in Guyana? What was it like? Any brothers or sisters?
I was born in the Corentynes, Rose Hall Village in Guyana, South America and my parents immigrated to the States when I was five. I think Guyana is still one of the most beautiful places on the planet, economically challenged, but beautiful. I went to daycare there and I have many fond memories…my best friend Shelly Bell, my grandmother, our house on Purple Heart Street, eating tamarind balls, (a type of candy). I have two brothers and one sister.
Was it easy to adjust to a new environment, in fact a whole new country as a child of five? Was there a big cultural difference between New Jersey and Guyana?
Adjusting to life in NJ was traumatic. Kids weren’t the nicest in the beginning. Initially they were very mean. My brother and I had heavy accents and dressed differently and kids gave us a hard time. The cold temperatures and snow were no joke either. That was a real adjustment, but kids are adaptable and my brother and I were no different in that aspect. We adjusted to the weather and made friends after awhile.
Well you seemed like an ideal kid. You went to school, got a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Journalism from Rutgers University. Did you always know that you wanted to be in the arts?
I knew that I loved fashion and wanted to do work I felt was meaningful and interesting. I loved creative writing and knew that journalism would be a good fit for me. It took me many years, before I fully realized how journalism could be a real tool for social change and that’s how I use it today.
You went from the Fashion department at Essence Magazine to an international modeling career. That sounds like a dream. Can you tell us a bit more about how that happened as well as about your career?
I was an assistant to the Fashion Editor at Essence as well as Model Editor and I thoroughly enjoyed my work. There were long hours of hard work, shopping the market for our stories, putting fashion shoots together from soup to nuts, traveling, scouting new model talent…It was quite fun and fabulous, but I knew since I was a teenager, I wanted to have a career as a professional model. What better place to begin but Paris? I was at Essence for two years before uprooting and moving to Paris.
I had a French boyfriend at the time and he made the cultural transition much easier. I really enjoyed my time there. I won’t pretend it wasn’t difficult, because it was, but it really helped shape my modeling career. There were many top black models in Paris then doing amazing work and I was happy to be there in the mix. From my time at Essence, I was already familiar with the French fashion shows because I went to see the collections. Stunning black Models like Mounia and Magic Jordan, Lu Sierra, Sonia Cole and Pat Tracey, Alva Chin and Coco Mitchell were strutting for the best designers and they were just beautiful. I was excited to see such color on the runways.
I went to Paris as a size 8, came down to a size 6, but in reality I really needed to be a 4, which annoyed me, because I felt pretty good about myself. This was before anorexia and bulimia were such big issues in the industry. I didn’t develop an eating disorder, but I saw how easily someone could. My first job was the cover of a food and wine magazine and then a few showroom jobs came along, then small designer shows and I was on my way.
What was your favorite fashion show and photo shoot and can you tell us why?
My favorite fashion show was done on the island of Martinique with the model Mounia, who was Yves St. Laurent’s muse for many years. She’s brown and beautiful and she chose me as one of her models for an annual benefit show she does there. She had been my favorite model as a kid and to actually work with her, stay at her home was just a thrill and an honor.
My favorite fashion shoot, I would have to say was a series of ads I did for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines where I sailed the Caribbean on one of their new ships being photographed for their catalogues. It was really a lot of fun and I particularly liked the models I worked with.
After two years in Paris, I returned to the States and continued doing fashion modeling, but my focus was shifting to commercial print work, which I found a better fit for me. I could go back to being a size 8, which felt right and comfortable for me, plus this type of modeling was more lucrative as well. I began doing what is commonly called today, “real people advertising”. My clients range from Verizon to Slimfast, Sears to Infiniti Cars, CoverGirl, Dove, IBM, Chase Bank, Microsoft… I do different pharmaceutical products as well as beauty products. Some days I play a doctor or a mom, a business owner or a wife. I do both television commercials and print campaigns.
What was the toughest time for you as a model?
Modeling in Paris and not fitting in with the market initially.
What do you think about the fashion world today? Has it changed a lot?
Fashion ebbs and flows. Some seasons you’ll see a lot of black girls on the runways and sometimes not. When I was in Paris in the late 80’s, early 90’s, there were black models on the runways, but the market has changed in that a model like Alek Wek can actually book successfully and that is a huge stride. You just weren’t seeing models so chocolate and ultra exotic then. She’s fabulous and opened many doors for more models that look like her. Sure there’s always more that can be done, but I think that’s why blacks in the fashion industry need to be the impetus for the real change they want to see reflected in magazines and on runways. There needs to be better access and opportunities for young designers creating in their small studios to the would-be models who’ll wear those clothes. It takes a lot of money. There needs to be grants and foundations in place to aid in the process of mentoring talented fashionistas.
I heard Tyra Bank saying that black is out of fashion referring to the fact that there were hardly any black models on the runaway last year. Is it harder for Black models today you think?
I don’t think it’s harder today than it was for me twenty years ago when I began my modeling career. Circumstances are different, but the level of difficulty is comparable. There are many more models now than then. More venues now than then, but there is a level of responsibility that needs to be in place allowing equal access.
I went back to my journalism roots six years ago and began making documentaries on social justice issues I feel are relevant and my perspective is the same for the fashion industry. We have a responsibility to make changes in the world that matter. Whatever needs revamping…revamp it! I do it with film. Clients do it when they hire me to appear in national ad campaigns. My image is clearly that of a natural black woman. I chose to wear my hair natural because that best suits me and my clients have warmed to the idea. It was difficult in the beginning because clients wanted me to wear wigs to soften my look somehow. I was accommodating back then, but now they get me pretty much like you see, curly and natural. Black women in the south or the mid west, west coast and east coast can more readily see themselves reflected on their television screens and being a small part of that makes me feel terrific.
Were you always natural as a model? If so, why did you choose to stay natural? Were you ever pressed to straighten your hair?
I’ve kept my hair natural for most of my twenty year modeling career. The few times I permed my hair over the years were short lived. My hair looks and feels its best when I keep it natural and I feel the statement I leave with clients as well as people who know me is that I’m comfortable in my skin as a black woman…hair and all. I don’t have hair issues. I don’t feel I need my hair long and straight to feel beautiful and that’s no slight to women who wear their hair that way. I just figured out what works best for me.
Modeling is a tough industry and from what I understand it’s very hard for a black model to get work. Do you think it is harder for a black woman who wants to keep her hair natural?
Modeling is a tough industry, but if you’ve got a great look and drive, you can reach a modicum of success in it. You need to do the work. You’re selling an image, so it’s important that your image be tight. Main stream may always be white, but there is room for blacks in advertising and fashion. Advertisers and designers know the value of Black buying power and will tap into that large market. I think over the last five years you’ve been seeing more and more models of color in advertising and that’s an important breakthrough. We just need to get to the point where more of us are green lighting major projects and campaigns. I think that’s where the real power lies and then we can present our images in ways that we want.
After a career as a model in fashion and commercial print, you discovered your passion: Filmmaking. You went home to make A Slice of Guyana, a social commentary on life in your home country of Guyana. How was your first documentary received, both here and in Guyana?
Fabulous! I didn’t set out to make this film. I was in Guyana for ten days. My cousin Ramona was getting married and I was prepared to take serious photos. I love photography and I always have a camera with me. My plan was to capture images of daily life there and the wedding. I was photographing Zando, the village historian who has an incredible face, when he asked me where my video camera was. He said it was important to document what was happening in Guyana. I didn’t have a video camera with me, but Zando found someone to videotape for me and for the next week we went around doing interviews with all sorts of interesting people… a cow farmer and local beauty pageant winner, a gold miner from the interior, family members…It evolved into this political essay on race relations and daily life in this economically stretched country.
I had an incredible New York screening and it fueled wonderful debate and conversation on what needed to happen next for Guyana. Journalism and film can really be used in powerfully effective ways and making my first film showed me that.
Your next film project was Hurricane Katrina: Life After the Storm. Were there any similarities between Guyana and New Orleans?
Disenfranchised poor people…that’s the major similarity. I am committed to shining a light on parts of the world people would sooner forget than h arp on. I want to continue to use the power of images to jar people into some sort of action and response. Everyone should do what they feel moved to do, but do something when injustice is staring back at you in real ways! I believe that! Write, march, create, speak out, stand up, acknowledge…Isn’t it a real travesty when good people don’t respond to situations that call for serious action?
What draws you to these social issues?
I’m passionate about social justice because I believe there needs to be a certain level of decency in people’s lives and I fully understand the power of access and opportunity. Had my parents not migrated to the States when I was a kid, I might have been one of those little black girls I saw the last time I was home in Guyana trying to figure out how to survive. I feel a certain amount of communal responsibility to give back because so much has been given to me and I don’t dismiss that. I have a profound faith in God and the teachings of Jesus Christ and believe that ultimately every person is my brother…my sister and together we need to find real ways of survival, balance and real peace.
Your most recent film, UMOJA that you’re currently in post-production with was filmed on location in South Africa. You say it’s about the power of music to unite people and cultures. This seems a little different from your other films. Is it and can you tell us a bit more about it?
When language can’t bridge the gap between groups, I believe music can and this was the case in my trip to South Africa. Music is a powerful connector. I was following the gospel choir of New York’s famed Marble Collegiate Church on their first tour of Johannesburg, Capetown and Soweto and nothing could have prepared me for how amazing the South Africans were and the impact music would have. So the film is about music and the choir, but it’s also about the end of apartheid and how that country is reconfiguring. It’s about poverty and relationships. It’s about children and the hope in their faces. It’s about what wealthier nations can do… about churches and the power they have to link congregations and forge change. Like my two previous works, this film invokes similar themes of social justice and responsibility. I think most of my work will continue to ask these types of questions.
Where can we see or order your documentaries?
You can youtube my name and Hurricane Katrina and you’ll see and hear a conversation between Howard Cash and myself, discussing our collaborative efforts regarding Katrina or just email me via this site.
What are you doing these days?
I’m still modeling, appearing in print ads and television commercials, living in New York and making films.
Who or what inspires you?
My grandmother inspires me. She raised me and she’s amazingly graceful and kind. Her name is Olive Blair and she’ll be 89 in March. My granny is the matriarch of an amazing clan. She’s really fabulous! My parents are pretty awesome too. They are important role models for anyone…married 45 years, church going, hardworking (My folks are both retired now, but my mom was a midwife and nurse, specializing in spinal cord injuries and my dad worked in computer technology.) and committed to raising a healthy family.
Do you already know what your next project is going to be?
I’ll be editing UMOJA through April and then I’d like to do something on depression and violence and how it’s affecting our communities.
Your favorite song:
Anything that India Arie sings. She’s Right On! I appreciate her music so much. I wear out her cds.
Your favorite movie:
I thought The Great Debaters was an important film. Brokeback Mountain, DreamGirls…I see a fair amount of documentaries as well. I love films! For my work I see about eight or ten a month, because I want to know what other filmmakers are creating.
Your favorite book:
I’m making my way through the tome, Che Guevara – A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson and I’m loving it. I’m a bit of an activist in lipstick if you haven’t noticed by now, so I just finished Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s INFIDEL and I thoroughly enjoyed that too. Perhaps my all time favorite book would be Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown, but then again, anything J. California Cooper or Maya Angelou writes usually thrills me. I enjoy books and I belong to a monthly book club. We’re reading Amy Blooms’ AWAY next.
Your favorite hairstyle:
My curly ‘fro.
Your favorite gadget:
My cellphone. It’s not fancy or anything, but useful.
Your favorite picture:
A picture I took at the Labor Day Parade in Brooklyn fifteen or so years ago with my two brothers. I was rocking a huge afro then, midriff showing, cut-off shorts and heels. I love my brothers and even if we weren’t related, I would still want to hang out with them. They’re cool like that. My sister too, but she wasn’t at the parade that day.
You still look great, healthy and in shape after two decades in fashion and TV. What is your secret?
I work out three times a week, watch what I eat and monitor sugar and fat. I don’t drink nearly enough water, but I find if I add a bit of oj or cranberry juice, I drink more of it. I love sweets and limit myself to two desserts a week. I’m trying to remove coffee from my diet altogether, but sometimes a frothy cappuccino does me good. I don’t weigh myself, but I can feel when I’ve strayed from my comfortable weight, so I just get more careful with what I’m eating. I’m naturally built like an athlete which wasn’t the best for Paris runways, but it has made me a nice living in the US commercial market.
My grandmother is beautiful and my mom has amazing skin so I have to pay genetics its due. At 5’10” I’m the shortest of my siblings, so my height helps too. I’m also happy. I believe you have to “create happiness for yourself”. A wise old woman artist Bessie Nickens once told me that. She said, “happiness isn’t tucked away on a shelf somewhere, in a neat little box. You’ve got to create it for yourself and if you don’t, that’s your fault!” She was spunky and talented and lived to be 100. I’ve never forgotten that advice. I’ve created a life that makes sense for me and I have peace about that. My faith keeps me grounded and clear. I believe in the power of prayer to transform lives. I’m healthy and strong and committed to using my voice and image in ways that build. Those are my secrets. If my grandmother and mother are any indications, I’ll be keeping it together for a long time.
I need to say that I had a wonderful time with Marcia doing this interview. She invited me over to her beautiful apartment in Manhattan where we talked about all the stuff you read here. Before getting ready for the photo shoot she even cut me some fresh fruit. Marcia is just beautiful from the outside as well as from the inside. Thanks Marcia!