Name: Ashley Chew
Agency: Crawford Models
As a freelance production assistant for Fashion Week Indiana native Ashley Chew had a rare view of the process that eventually places women on the world’s runways. Later when she sought out a place as one of them, she was further introduced to the elements that result in a deliberate lack of inclusion.
In an exclusive interview with Hello Beautiful the artist and model shared how her dual perspectives inspired her to create the #BlackModelsMatter movement.
“I would come up here and work a few shows a day, and this was 2012, 2013. This is before I was modeling,” she explained. “I noticed the lack of diversity. Eventually I got an agency and still noticed the lack of diversity.”
Chew, who famously told Vogue “I shouldn’t be the “darkest” model in the room”, reported that her first agency was unsupportive when she tried to speak up about what she had witnessed during her time in production.
“I have a wonderful agent now but my previous agent she was she would send me to castings that were completely just off, made no sense to be going. And then the ones that I should have been going to for maybe I don’t know Covergirl Queen or Iman cosmetics she wasn’t sending me to those. I went to multiple castings and they were shows that didn’t hire black girls, and I know that because I worked production for them. So, I was telling my agents like ‘Why are you sending me here? They literally don’t hire black girls!”
Despite her protests her agents refused to engage with the information she provided them. Instead they insisted that she spend her time, effort, and money to make it to castings where she would endure endless microaggressions.
“That’s literally frustrating when you’re telling your agents that they’ll make you still go across town,” she said.
She didn’t believe that her agents meant to subject her to emotional harm but their lack of connection to her concerns showed up in their treatment of her.
“It was more like indifference, even to this day girls have agents like that. Because they don’t want to lose money, sometimes they just want to be like ‘Well I’m sending you on a casting so go, basically like you should be grateful.”
Gratitude was absent from Chew as dealt with the side effects of being the only black girl in the room, including receiving vulgar comments about her natural hair.
Her paychecks did nothing to do her soothe her as designers, casting agents and productions not only routine discriminate against black models they undervalue them.
“A show might pay Kendall Jenner 80k to walk their show and the rest of the models will get tee shirts. That still happens.”
Feeling like she couldn’t change the industry Chew opted to create something instead.
A fine arts graduate who was used to expressing herself visually Chew chose to express the emotions that stemmed from being surrounded by people who did not represent her experience through an accessory. She walked into a show with a black handbag bearing the worlds “Black Models Matter,” on the side.
“I made the bag because I kept getting sent to castings that clearly there were no black people in the room no black casting directors in the room no black bodies in the room to make the decisions.”
Today a model might expect an instant avalanche of attention after making such a bold statement but with Instagram still in its infancy at the time Chew didn’t think the decision had the potential to be a life-changing one.
“I definitely wasn’t trying to go viral. This was when things were just starting to go viral on Instagram there weren’t any check marks or analytics or anything everybody was equal on Instagram, so I definitely wasn’t expecting it to take off.”
As the Huffington Post began sending her 3am emails, and Vibe began to repost her photograph she grasped the scale of the impact she was having. The sudden interest in her point of view was so intense it began to frighten her.
“As an artist I’m always expressing myself but when it took off, I was really, really scared.”
Part of what was scaring her was the inevitable backlash she knew was coming. Having grown up in Indiana she knew how small-minded people could be about the topic of race. She had dealt with ignorant and unwelcome comments about her appearance throughout her childhood. “I’m black with green eyes and I understand that privilege to this day but in Indiana you were black, or you were white. And so, I never thought I would be a model. I always thought I would be a designer because I was always told ‘This isn’t black enough; you aren’t white enough.’ Like I’m way lighter than my sister- people used to say that I’m adopted and just like be crazy. Which is weird to accuse somebody of being adopted that’s a weird thing to say.”
She wasn’t surprised when some of the people creating the divide in her home state lashed out at her and blamed it on her.
She was prepared for criticism thanks to a lifetime of love and encouragement from her mother. “Luckily my mom always let me be myself, always. She never told me ‘Well there’s no money in fashion. There’s no art in fashion. A lot of people’s parents do that. And I’m the oldest of 5 so she was always like ‘You gotta be toughest, so I think that’s why I could handle this world.”
“I got a lot of ‘You’re racist! You’re causing more problems.’ It was mostly people from Indiana a bunch of white women said that I’m racist that I’m causing more segregation, saying ‘Well Naomi Campbell models’ ‘Well Tyra Banks is black.’”
Disinterested in the concept of being an exception (she purposefully avoids ever using the term in the press), Chew’s artistic statement and the activism she has participated in since focuses on the average working model not the sporadic superstars.
“That does nothing for the rest of us,” she stated.
Since her bold statement went viral several models (including Chew’s former roommate who was told ‘We have enough black girls’ at Miami Swim Week) have used social media to highlight the industry’s inherent racism.
“Fashion has no HR when something goes wrong nobody gets in trouble Nobody gets reported to. You get publicly dragged or end up on DietPrada or something but there’s no HR and I feel like Instagram has been the HR. That makes me hopeful because people are speaking out. I feel like now people are holding each other accountable and they’re using their voice.”
It’s not quite a paint brush but it’ll do.