PHOTOGRAPHY BEX DAY @bex_day
INTERVIEW EKOM @e.komm
HAIR CLAIRE MOORE @clmorhair
MAKEUP PHOEBE WALTERS @phoebewalters
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT NATALIA BJERKE @shotby_natalia
How are you? How have you been doing?
I’m good, I’m living in Europe right now. It’s fun! I miss New York, which I think is definitely my favorite city, but I do love the countryside. I’m in London and I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the country.
Is there any specific reason that you decided to move out there?
I’ve been assigned to an agency here, so I moved to work with them and just to get some work done. It’s really interesting because modeling in Europe is very different from modeling in the U.S. I’m technically a curve model – I’m not a US size 8 or 10 – But there’s not a lot of room for non-super-skinny girls in Europe. The politics of fitness and beauty are made very apparent in London.
How does that experience make you feel? Do you feel more welcome in America?
Oh, I feel welcomed in London! Everyone’s really kind, but I think people in New York are nicer. I think, especially in London, they care more about status quo and they are sticklers for rules and tradition. You can see it in many different ways, like if you go to a party, nobody really dances, they’re all just checking for everyone else. Maybe I just haven’t gone to any good dance parties, but in New York people dance so much. I feel like in LA people don’t dance but in New York it’s different.
Do you feel like there’s still some adjusting to do?
I don’t think there’s adjusting per se, I just realized how traditional it is. I feel very welcomed here, I have a lot of fun and I’ve made a lot of friends, but I definitely think people in Europe are a bit more gatekeepy than people in America. They’re sticklers for timing. I remember when all of the Black Lives Matter protests were happening all across America, they were also protesting in Europe. I wanted to do a Brown Girl Butterfly project in London and I was told that people only go protesting on the weekends. It was like if we’re going to do something, we can only do it on a weekend because that’s when people go out, and I was like… the weekend? That’s not good disruption. I just see that as a reflection of what I’ve noticed while being here, that people are sticklers for certain rules. I just feel like people in America would be like, “oh fuck that “.
The Brown Girl Butterfly project is a relatively new project for you. What inspired it’s creation?
It was a bunch of different things. I was protesting a lot and I was just very deeply unwell and depressed because I was experiencing a lot of trauma and I would feel it in my body. I was becoming extremely physically ill. Not only depressed and anxious from protesting, but also very ill. I got a chemical burn from a tear gas canister, and I was taking people to the hospital.
I was suffering from a large amount of trauma, but I was also very aware that I wasn’t the only one experiencing this trauma. There were people beside me in this moment of protest fighting for Black Liberty. This was a moment where I was traumatized, but people were with me, and I just wanted to do something where I could care for myself and others.
I settled on making something like a wellness kit, where I was giving out water bottles and tear gas solutions during the protests when they were happening. I’d give them out on the street and they’d have things like a granola bar, gatorade, water, and tear gas solution, [which was baking soda mixed with water]. I would just give it out to people but started thinking about doing something like this, but leaning more towards wellness and therapy.
It takes a lot of strength and resolve to take on such a responsibility, especially while going through your own trauma. How did you find the strength to pull yourself out of it and decide to go out and help other people?
I think I was very much in fight-or-flight mode. When I was doing the Brown Girl Butterfly project it was really in the thick of everything going on, so it was a really huge adrenaline rush overall. I am really big about community and I don’t think I would be anywhere without my community. I hate feeling like I’m not doing anything. Even if I’m hurt, if I see all of this craziness happening outside, I’m like “oh I’m going to go outside and fix this.” I don’t know, maybe it’s the Capricorn in me. And obviously I never have enough strength to actually fix anything. I think it’s very presumptuous of me to think that I can fix things, but at least I can help in my own small steps. It’s just really funny because obviously I have a lot of followers on Instagram, but even through all of this, I was getting a lot of PR packages. I was like, isn’t it sort of crazy that I’m here pouring milk into my eyes because I have a chemical burn and then I’m getting Glossier in the mail? I thought, “pay your reparations”. You’re sending this to me to post for free. Give it to 100 black women who are traumatized just out of the goodness of your heart. That’s what it is for me. It is therapy, but it’s also reaching into my network to help others.
Can you share how you define and perceive beauty?
I feel like people are their most beautiful when they’re really happy, and I think beauty has to do with a sense of being happy in your own body. I think beauty is joy and acceptance.
In what ways has being a model shifted your perception of self, others, and how you view the world?
It’s put me in a position where I’ve learned to have more body autonomy, but I also realize that people want to make every aspect of you sellable. You become more aware of your body and in that awareness I’m able to have more control over it, but also realize that people want to sell many aspects of my personhood. In that same way, with that ownership, I can decide how to politically align my body. I realized as a model, especially as a black model, that every aspect of beauty and myself is political, especially when being popular on social media. I could just post a picture of myself swimming in a swimsuit or smiling, and it automatically becomes a topic of discussion or something political. Because I’m not super thin, people message me and will say “I like seeing someone with your body type, it’s really affirming.” Or because my teeth are crooked people will say “your teeth are fucked up, get braces” or “seeing your teeth are crooked is really empowering,” and while I do think it’s amazing to have that autonomy over my body and to choose what parts to display, it’s also something where even if I’m just chilling, anything I release into the wild can become something political regardless of whether or not I want it to be. It is really interesting and fun, but also kind of scary.
I’m sure there are days where you want to be able to just post something and have it not be turned into something more. Is it something that you’ve had to learn to navigate?
I think I’ve realized, this going in hand with the autonomy thing, I truly only care about my own opinion of myself because people will form their own narratives and opinions. Sometimes I can just find it amusing and sometimes I’ll find it dangerous, but at the end of the day I just have to hope that whatever I’m doing is positive and put everything I have out with the best intention and hope for the best. It is a bit annoying having to be aware before just navigating my life, but I also think everyone else should just incorporate that into their own lives, that awareness, because maybe we could just live a happier life. I posted a photo my friend took of me and they edited my nipples out because of Instagram rules, and someone commented “This is really inspiring! You got a double mastectomy and you’re posting this photo.” And I was like, whoa whoa whoa! People were telling me I was so brave or asking why I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and someone goes, “It’s for breast cancer awareness!” Never once did I post that, but it’s just really funny how I can put something up on Instagram and then people will create their own narrative.
You started putting yourself out there, at such a young age and have transmuted your platform into a strength. It’s your power. How did you find it within yourself to stand confidently in your truth and in the way that you choose to present yourself to the world?
I’m not even sure. I think it’s really just community. I feel like I’m one of the few people who survived the post-Tumblr era. I felt like being hot on the internet was a bit overrated if you’re not trying to better the world in any way, even if it’s something small, and I think most of the people who I made friends with on the internet have really good hearts. I don’t think I got caught up in any crazy shit. I’m a very outgoing person, so I don’t think I kept to myself, but it was really just me taking selfies at my house, hanging out with my grandmother, and going to art school.
How does it feel to know that so many people support and are able to relate to you even though you just stumbled upon this path?
It’s amazing! It’s scary because I don’t want to ever let anyone down, and I think I’m always aware that a lot of young people follow me. I just want to be kind and not only in the way I am interfacing with someone, but kind in my interactions. I forget a lot of times that a lot of people follow me on the internet. I was in Lisbon and someone messaged me saying they saw me walking around, and I was like “people in Lisbon follow me on socials?” I kind of pretend I don’t see it, so I don’t know how I navigated it. I think if you just don’t think people care about you on the internet, and just stay honest, then it shows through and you can be productive.
You’re known to stand tall for black and brown people, creating space for us to be seen and heard. Do you remember the moment you realized just how much of a marginalized group of people we are?
I feel like I learned at a really young age. I was always aware of feeling marginalized. Growing up, I definitely have been at the tail end of a bunch of racist interactions. There was a time in the early 2000s where being problematic was “funny” and “cool”. I don’t understand why, but it was just cool to be inflammatory or be fucked up, and I feel like I got the tail end of that. People would just say the N-word to me all the time in middle school and high school, and I would think about how frickin weird as fuck that. If I got mad about it, people would tell me to laugh it off like it’s not that serious. It was like being gaslit by the people you’re around, and I would get pissed, but then people would tell me I was the one who was fucking weird. I feel like when I was young, I didn’t really have the time to gather the tools to process what was happening to me. Then you get older and you’re like, oh no, I’m not weird, you’re weird. This was a great epiphany around 12 or 13. In high school, I got really vocal about being like “you guys are friggin weirdos.” There was this common thing with a lot of black kids where people would tell me, “you’re black, why do you talk white?” So I was also on the tail end of that, and being told that was like feeling multiple rejections at once, I guess maybe because I didn’t sound the way that they stereotyped a black person, they would just say crazy things about me. But no. Just because this is the cadence I speak with doesn’t mean you can talk crazily about me.
You started Art Hoe Collective and Brown Girl Butterfly Project which both provide a space and community where black and brown people can count on seeing themselves and not feel alone. What emotions does playing such a foundational role in these spaces bring up for you?
It gives me a lot of pride and happiness and also a bit of sadness, because what I’m really trying to do is provide spaces that I didn’t have for myself, whether it was in childhood or when I was going through a traumatic stressful experience. I think there’s always that kind of sadness when you’re able to provide for people what you weren’t able to receive when you needed it. It comes with a sadness, but also happiness. Like a melancholy feeling. When I was much younger, I probably would have been really overjoyed to have an internet reprieve like Art Hoe Collective or Brown Girl Butterfly. Obviously I’m happy I did it, and I’m not saying anyone’s at fault or anything, but it would have been really beautiful having these spaces to aid my trouble growing up as a queer black woman in America. Having people affirm me and push my self-worth from a third party space. But I don’t think social media was super inspiring at the time. It was just about being on MySpace or figuring out who’s the coolest. I feel like Tumblr really birthed that wokeness culture. Even though I do have some issues with wokeness culture, I really think it enlightened a lot of people in a way that we didn’t have before with platforms like MySpace or Facebook. The birth of Tumblr was kind of the birth of mindfulness on the internet.
What are your disparities with woke culture?
I just think there’s not a lot of room for growth, and I feel like people don’t respect people’s growth as a person a lot of times with woke culture.
Is this with cancel culture as well?
Maybe slightly with cancel culture. Obviously if someone is a predator or violent, obviously we cancel them, but with certain things I don’t believe in it. Let’s say you believe in criminal reform. How are we going to put that into our interactions on the internet? Obviously in extreme cases, I am pro cancel culture, but I’m also in a place where I really believe in rehabilitation. Now, it’s not my job, but if someone has the capacity to take initiative on their own rehabilitation or if someone says something really problematic, I’m going to suggest they do some research to fix their problem. If they can do research on their own without having to be educated by other people and they’re asking questions, then I feel like I can bring them back from the cancellation. But I do think cancel culture does have its values, because I think it’s really important to remove dangerous people from the internet, 100 million percent.
Do you have any new ideas brewing for the future?
I want to extend my grant program and do more to aid young black femme artists. That’s always been the goal, and it still is the goal.