Above: Quiana Grant photographed by Chris Nicholls for Flare, September 2008.
“I’m a modelphile,” declares Marcellas Reynolds, editor of the new coffee table book Supreme Models (Abrams Books), which may be the season’s most sophisticated fanzine. The tome celebrates six decades of black female catwalk legends and magazine stars, from the pioneers to the present day. With iconic photos and new interviews, Reynolds pays tribute to the OGs—Iman, Pat Cleveland, Karen Alexander, Veronica Webb, and Naomi Campbell among them—and the cutting edge, including current top models like Leomie Anderson, Amilna Estêvão, and Jeneil Williams.
Supreme accomplishes what the best of the genre should: It’s both dazzling eye candy (packed with stunning shots by Francesco Scavullo, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, and Steven Meisel) and a rich piece of historical journalism. Reynolds, himself a model who walked for Calvin Klein and posed for Bruce Weber, recently dished on the supermodel stories you never heard in the gossip press—and the major industry scandal that continues to unfold today.
What was your inspiration for this project?
The conception was in 2011, when a book came out called Vogue Model: The Faces of Fashion. It was the British Vogue book. I ripped it open and read it from cover to cover in one sitting. And when I got to the end, it occurred to me that there were only two black models in it: Iman and Naomi Campbell. I was like, That can’t be right. But I went back through, and that was correct. And this is British Vogue, probably the most inclusive fashion magazine in the world. They were the first magazine to put a black model on the cover—in 1966, eight years before American Vogue put Beverly Johnson on the cover.
I was incensed. So I went on Amazon and wrote a review of the book. I was like, “Where is Veronica Webb? Where is Alek Wek?” And then I thought, Is there a book here? I sat down, and off the top of my head I wrote out the names of a hundred black models.
I’m going to guess that because the book is coming out eight years later, it wasn’t an easy sell to a publisher.
[Laughs] Oh, honey, no. Books are a dying art form, and then a queer black man walks into a room talking about doing a book about black women? Taschen passed on it. I had a book agent who couldn’t sell it and was devastated. My TV agent said she pitched it to everybody, and no one was interested. It was like she slapped me in the face. Finally, I went on Facebook and asked if anybody knew a literary agent. A friend suggested his cousin, who said she would like to represent the book. I asked her, “Little white girl, what do you know about a book about black women?” She said, “Well, I repped the Dapper Dan book, and I just sold the movie rights.” Three months after I found her, she sold the book.
What’s interesting about your perspective is that you were a model yourself. You write in the book that you have fond memories of that time. I don’t hear of too many male models who were part of an exploitative industry and are still modelphiles.
From childhood, fashion saved my life. It gave me a place to aspire to. I was a little gay kid who was bullied, chased home, and beaten up every single day. So I watched movies like Mahogany with Diana Ross and read Ebony, Jet and Black Debutante. I realized there was a world out there that was very different from what I was going through. I was supposed to live and die on the South Side of Chicago, but fashion took me all over the world. I worked with a million art directors, editors, and photographers.
The interviews in the book are fascinating. How did you decide whom to interview?
It was happenstance. Many people didn’t want to talk to me. I tried a million different ways to talk to Naomi, Jourdan Dunn, and Joan Smalls. I tried to talk to basically everybody I could. Unfortunately, agents were like, “No, I’m not letting you talk to this person.” A lot of people I got through Instagram. I was direct messaging every single model ever. Multiple times.
Instagram is surprisingly effective for dialoguing with celebrities, I’ve found.
It really is. It was only when people get their agents involved that it went awry.
Christy Turlington says very nice things about Naomi Campbell in the book.
Christy introduced me to Naomi, who wrote a beautiful back cover quote and said, “I’ll help you publicize the book when it comes out.” I’ll tell you something not a lot of people know. There’s a lot of bad press out there about Naomi. But once I got to Naomi, she was cool as hell. And the girls in the book tell stories you never hear about Naomi and her kindness and generosity.
Among those conversations you had for the book, which were the most poignant?
Beverly Johnson’s grace and her heart are right there on the page. The way she speaks about Naomi is beautiful. Beverly loves other models. She has this reverence for them. I love that the first black woman on the cover of Vogue, one of the first black supermodels, is a fan.
I’ve always had this love for Karen Alexander. She has beauty and class, and brings it to every photo. She has reverence for history and the talent it takes to be a model. When I interviewed her, she said she loved Peggy Dillard, the second black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue, one of its highest-selling issues. I said we weren’t able to interview Peggy because we just didn’t have enough pages. Karen said, “Take me out of the book, and put Peggy in.” I was like, “I will do no such thing.” She said, “How can you have a book about black models without Peggy Dillard?”
So a lot of these models actually like each other?
People think modeling is competitive and every model hates each other, because of that whole Naomi-Tyra myth. But that’s not true. These models love each other, and they support each other. Kersti Bowser talks about when Veronica Webb got the Revlon contract—she was just happy that one of them got it. Every single model wanted that contract. Veronica got it, but Kersti was just happy that a black woman got it, because it made history. They were rivals because there are only so many jobs, and there’s only one space for a black person. But they also respected each other.
You have experience as a model, but was there anything you learned about the industry, or what these women went through, that shocked you?
This shocked me: I learned from several models that the myth of Tyra and Naomi feuding is very one-sided. That was literally photographers, agents, and magazines trying to control Naomi. She was a black woman who had a lot of power. And they pitted other models against her to control her: “Don’t ask for too much.” “Don’t ask for this amount of money.” “Don’t ask for this cover, because you can be replaced.” It was never Naomi versus Christy [Turlington]. It was Naomi versus Tyra, Naomi versus Liya [Kebede]. It’s always the black woman versus the black woman.
But if you speak with the girls who were there, Naomi was giving other black models jobs. If clients would come to her and say, “Can you do this?” and she was busy, she’d say, “No, but what about Stephanie Roberts? She’s new, and she needs a break.” She got her the Katharine Hamnett show, which she did two years in a row. But you never hear that.
How are female models of color treated today? Is it better?
Oh, no, no. I’m in the trenches as a stylist every single day. I am usually the only black stylist. I’ll be honest, I’m often the only black person. Sometimes there’s not a black model on set. This is the shock and disgrace of fashion. Veronica Webb told me a story about this, but it’s happened so many times. You are a black model. You turn up to do your job. You’ve worked out, you had your teeth bleached, your skin is perfect. You sit down in the chair, and the makeup person says to you, “Oh, I don’t have the right colors for your skin,” or “I don’t know how to do your hair.”
And so often, that black model—who was so happy to get this job, because that’s going to pay her rent, pay her bills, or feed her kids—is sent home because the hair and makeup person doesn’t know how to do her. And the client sides with the person who doesn’t know how to do their job. Black hair and makeup artists could never see a white model and say, “Oh, well, I don’t know how to do your hair right.” They would be sent home. But I’ve seen—day after day, year after year, decade after decade—that white hair and makeup artists get to say that, and they continue to be booked.
Why is the industry not more inclusive after all this time? What’s behind it?
If you went to a black high school and told boys they could be a fashion stylist or a hair and makeup person, everybody would think, Well, that’s girly, that’s feminine. Who wants to be a fashion stylist? What real guy wants to be a hair and makeup person? I’m always amazed there aren’t more straight guys who are stylists. I have seen some of the most beautiful women in the world in their underwear.
But there’s a stigma. There are no black people entering these fields because they don’t know about it. If they don’t know about it, they can’t walk in, they can’t try. There’s just one photo in this book—which has over a hundred photos in it—by a black photographer, and I tried my damndest to find a picture by a black photographer. We need more photographers of color allowed into this world—hair and makeup also. And the existing people who are already in the game need to go back and re-up their skills.
What’s your favorite photograph in the book?
My absolute favorite photo ever in the history of fashion is the Steven Meisel photo of Naomi Campbell that ran on the cover of a supplement to Italian Vogue. This was Naomi at her most Naominess. This is Naomi when it was Naomi, Christy, and Linda [Evangelista]—the triumvirate. They were Valkyries; they were the fashion omniverse. If you didn’t have the three of them, you didn’t have a show—you didn’t have a magazine. In this photo, her body is insane. Holding that pose, she’s in complete control of every atom of her existence. She’s just so strong and beautiful and elegant, and her skin and the tone and her blackness, it’s all right there. It’s like, damn—that is a black woman.
Supreme Models is out October 8 through Abrams.