Agency: Self Represented
When Gabriella Bernard started connecting with professional photographers and catching the eye of reality show casting judges she thought all of her childhood dreams were coming true. In an exclusive interview with HelloBeautiful she opened up about what was on the other side of her childhood ambitions.
“From a really young age I always wanted to be a model,” said Bernard.
Her aspirations were inspired by an aunt who saw her as a shoo-in. “She said you know you’re so slim and you have long legs and you’re gorgeous, you should be a model.” A toddler at the time Bernard asked, “What’s a model?”
More than a decade later after convincing her mother that she could balance her university studies and follow her passion Bernard was fully ready to embrace her fate. However, she was disappointed to find that the experiences she was subjected to weren’t as empowering as the life she had envisioned for herself.
Instead of a space where she could exercise her creativity and challenge herself she found the Caribbean modeling world to be a series of unbalanced power dynamics where people unlearned common courtesy as soon as they crossed the threshold of success.
Discomfort and disillusionment were practically job requirements and as someone who was determined to speak up for herself Bernard was unqualified.
“Sometimes people know that they’re doing the wrong thing and because you are speaking up against it and you are speaking up for yourself they will tell you that you’re being unprofessional you can’t be in this industry if you want to be like that. To me in Trinidad it’s like a power move that they do, that because ‘I’m such and such you need to do what I say’,” she said. Throughout the #MeToo movement women have claimed the label ‘unprofessional’ was lobbied as a threat by offenders.
“That happens with photographers and designers,” She continued.
During a shoot with a photographer who touched her inappropriately she was told that she was “ruining” the shoot by shielding herself from his touches and speaking about feeling uncomfortable.
“I got my makeup done for two hours and then he put a welders mask on my face and the first thing I said was ‘Why are you putting a welders mask on my face? I just spent two hours doing my makeup, like that doesn’t make any sense.” While this choice seemed strange she remained cooperative even when the photographer refused to acknowledge her questions.
Moments later she had to speak up to protect herself.
“I was in a bikini and a welders mask and I’m posing and then all of a sudden I feel his hands on my breasts and I jumped and I took off the mask and I’m like ‘What are you doing?’ he’s like ‘No, no you ruined the pose!’ I was like “No, but you’re touching my breast and he was like ‘Yeah but that’s because I’m fixing your top it had a crinkle’ and I was like, ‘Are you crazy?!”
She credits her mother with making sure that she had a firm foundation before being placed in such a trying situation. When she wanted to start modeling at 12 her mother pleaded with her to wait out of concern for her personal safety.
“She really shielded me from the industry and being in it for some time. I see why because there are perverts and had I been younger I don’t know that I would have been able to handle myself accordingly because these men use some very underhanded tricks to try and get you to sleep with them.”
She understands why people don’t report such incidents but she has hope that increased transparency will lead to more women coming forward. “I think that the more that we stand up and speak up about it the more support that other people have because the fear is always ‘I don’t wanna come out and then people don’t believe me’ or ‘I don’t wanna come out and then people bash me’.”
She thinks that “by all of us having a voice every single voice adds to our strength.”
She was able to stand firm with predatory practices from independent entities but unfortunately, she didn’t feel as empowered on the set of Caribbean’s Next Top Model where Fitzwilliam the woman she had once idolized was now one of many people passing judgment on far more than her appearance.
Constantly aware that she was there to be evaluated, and that every interaction on camera and off was apart of the competition, she was forced to try and be agreeable even when she felt like some things happening during filming were unjust.
“I did experience colorism and a hint of prejudice and discrimination behind the scenes,” she said. “The first time I spoke up about it we had a whole two hour conversation about it, it was back and forth and I ended up having to apologize to the person because I saw that it wasn’t going anywhere again I was the one in the competition not them,” she continued.
In a clip from the show that went viral viewers can see her losing the composure she worked so hard to develop and sobbing when being told that she had to relax her natural hair to remain in the competition.
She was then even more shocked with Fitzwilliam berated her for crying because it was unprofessional even though she eventually gave in and taped a scene where she pretended to be happy so that the judges wouldn’t be upset. The producers showed her crying in contrast to other contestants crying about their boyfriends to equate the two things in viewers eyes infuriating Bernard.
“I feel like the motive of the entire episode was to humiliate me on reality television.”
The identity that producers and judges wanted to challenge by straightening Bernard’s hair was difficult for her to build up after years of denying herself to try and “fit in”.
“I told them how important my hair was to me not just for cosmetic reasons but it was self-love reasons too because growing up I had predominantly white friends and I wanted to look white. I wanted to fit in so I would use high flash on my camera and all sorts of weird things just to not have my features. It’s crazy I would put ice on my lips to try and get them smaller just small crazy things that I look back at now and I’m like ugh.”
Despite giving in on set she isn’t letting the experience defeat her. In fact she went home inspired to get involved in production and contribute to change in the media landscape. She developing a short film called “Black Hair” to encourage others to have their say and not be intimidated by outside voices even if they are in a position of power.
She says, “Aside from all that drama because I’m not even trying to focus on that I just want people to know that they shouldn’t be afraid to be who they want to be however that looks. They should be comfortable in their skin if they want to have a weave, they can have a weave, if they want to have their hair natural, they should have their hair natural. You should do whatever you want to do with your body and be comfortable in your skin and live out of fear of being discriminated against and I think that that’s something that we should all work towards.”