Name: Aubri Ebony
Agency: BMG & CLICK
Most people walk away from their high school sweethearts with nothing more than a really good story, Aubri Ebony snagged a whole career.
“When I was 16, my high school boyfriend worked for a teen magazine in Chicago,” the model and counselor told HelloBeautiful.
“I was super awkward back then, and I didn’t think I was cute and he loved me. He was like, you know, I’m going to send your pictures to the magazine and see if they pick you up.”
Ebony did not share her boyfriend’s confidence about her potential but teenage BAE was not taking no for an answer.
“And I was like, they’re not going to pick me up. And he was like, okay, well, I’m still going to try,” she said. He was successful and she was chosen to appear in a feature spread.
The publication was, “pretty popular at the time and in our little school community.”
“That’s, that’s kind of how I got started being in front of the camera at the photo shoot that I did for the teen magazine,” she continued.
Shocked that she had been chosen at all, Ebony thought the shoot would be a one time thing but like her young paramour, the creative director saw potential lingering behind her insecurity.
“The creative director or coordinator for the shoot was like, do you want to do more shoots? And I was like, for sure,” said Ebony.
Soon she found herself beginning to learn the business of modeling.
“She started teaching me how to book my own trade, how to time for punch shoots,” she said.
A few years later she was signing to an agency in Florida after starting an organization for models on the campus of Northwestern University as a student there.
“It was called Embrace Models. And it was about embracing your culture, embracing your image, embracing just who you want to be, because it was the era of social media. And, um, I just wanted an outlet where people can be comfortable being themselves and still models,” she said.
Together she and her fellow students could express all of the fears and insecurities women pursuing a career where confidence is a requirement are never supposed to say out loud. “It was more about just like, supporting people,” said Ebony.
The organization held weekly support groups. “Then we would do fashion shows and, you know, little photo shoots. It was kind of like a training for how to be a model in the real world. Also, I was learning myself, so it was all like a trial and error,” she added.
Practicing with her peers paid off. Ebony would eventually land major campaigns for brands including Creme of Nature, Kate Spade, and Walt Disney. She would also go on to appear in magazines including ESSENCE and Maxim and land a slot in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
“My very first job was like a billboard in Orlando, Florida. And it just skyrocketed my confidence, and I was like, I could totally do this,” said Ebony.
“Sports Illustrated picked me up and I got invited to New York to do their open from search and open call. And that got me a lot of other opportunities to where I signed with my agency here in Atlanta, I click models. And then with that I landed Cream of Nature. I was the face of their ‘Pure Honey’ campaign and that was awesome.”
Despite being one of the few Black agency models in Florida, she did not isolate herself from young women working to get signed. She continued to work with aspiring models, sharing information and resources. She also transformed Embrace Models into a post-graduate project while pursuing a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling.
Her experience in the ivory tower mirrored the one she was having in the modeling industry. She was surrounded by white people in the classroom the same way she was surrounded by white women at agency only castings.
“There was probably three people of color in a program of forty people. And that was probably the most challenging time of my educational journey because they didn’t understand the microaggression,” she said.
Carrying a full course load while working, dodging microaggressions and experiencing the trauma of seeing people who looked like her routinely murdered on social media was not easy. She would often arrive to class dejected. When she would express what she was feeling in class discussions she was routinely dismissed.
The lack of institutional support for Black students reinforced her mission to offer counseling in the workplace. “As a counselor, you want to be effective. You have to be aware, but you know, my colleagues were mostly whites. They just weren’t understanding when I would see these triggering videos on, on Facebook or on Twitter, why I was so bothered because I didn’t know the person, but it’s interesting because Pulse happened, which was a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida that happened to the LGBTQ community. And my school just like, freaked out,”she said.
“They gave time for students to grieve, even if students didn’t know the LGBTQ community or anybody related to that community and they allowed time and resources.And I’m just here as a woman of color, like the police are killing us left and right, there are videos of us getting shot. Why am I not allowed the same, the same grieving respect? And I would talk to my professors, they had no answers.”
As usual a Black woman stepped in to help. Her classmate backed her up with the faculty and administration but they were unsuccessful.
“She kind of stood by me and some of these issues, but it was hard because we, it wasn’t the movement that it is today. You know, we were still silenced and we didn’t have the same resources, which was tough, but it just made me a stronger student. It made me a better, you know, advocate for these kinds of injustices,” she continued.
Her formal education helps her offer guidance and support to women suffering from the same lack of confidence, and feelings of isolation she had when starting out in the workplace. Ebony does not simply offer career advice; she directly addresses the mental health of her clients and mentees using her familiarity with the modeling industry, and experiences as a Black women to treat them appropriately.
“I find a lot of the girls that I work with in my model counseling, my model coaching, they have a lack of self esteem because of the industry’s lack of diversity and inclusion,” she said.
She see the slow reckoning of systematic racism as a way to validate models’ experiences.
“With people speaking out, in calling these brands out, calling these people out, it allows them, or doesn’t even allow, it kind of makes these brands say, ‘Hey, we need to make room for more different types of people, more people of color, more just diversity overall,” she continued.
One of her goals is to make models see rejection is not about who they are, it’s about the climate, so they won’t give up due to short-term career stalls.
“I encourage my girls to don’t get super down or super discouraged because the industry is always changing, you know, before, you know, two, three years ago, plus-size curve models weren’t as trendy as they are now. And so I like to see this, the transitions,” she said.
“Because it’s necessary, you have to call people out in order to, to see change. And so I encourage girls to stay, stand still, you know, hold tight because things are gonna change. And, and there’ll be so many opportunities for different types of people.”
She does not just coach models, she also educates those hiring them on how systematic racism is affecting their choices.
“My education and my communication skills allow me to speak up when something isn’t right,” she said.
“I was at a shoot and they told this African American male that his Afro wasn’t professional and that he had to change it. And even things like that, I speak up on. What do you mean his natural hair is unprofessional? What does that mean,” she added.
The shoot was for a commercial airline promotional campaign, a job that unsigned Black models are often unaware is available because of a lack of representation. When they secure them they arrive with no agent to serve their best interests. Ebony steps into that friction.
“They apologized and they were able to kind of tailor their mindset, at least for the remainder of that shoot. But I do not play because it’s, I mean, we just get tired of it. I just get tired of it. I’ve been black all my life. I’ve been dark skin all my life.”
Ebony admits that the COVID-19 pandemic has stripped models of several traditional avenues for building solid careers, but she is intrigued by the way it has opened doors for models who might otherwise get left behind.
“I was concerned about the lack of work because of quarantine and smaller budgets and smaller groups but after the last week and, and people of color really speaking out about the lack of representation and the industry and in these campaigns and, you know, the content you see for modeling I feel that there may be a really big opening for models of color. I’m interested to see what that looks like. I don’t know yet, I’m excited about it,” she said.
“COVID has allowed for more self-tapes and like eco-casts which is awesome,” she continued. Casting sessions where models or actresses are permitted to virtually engage with the designer and casting professionals are sometimes referred to as “eco-casts,” because they don’t require the heavy emissions of preliminary travel.
The industry might favor this option for the reduced carbon footprint but models appreciate its impact on their wallets.
“I can just do stuff, tapes and video calls for auditions. And I kinda like that it allows for more opportunities without having to, you know, kind of dish out money and expenses,” said Ebony.
She wants more models to feel comfortable discussing how finances impact their career prospects.
“I think we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money. I think that as, Black influencers and Black models, you know, we’re always afraid to ask or even, you know, know what the other models who are not of color are making or what their contracts are. But I feel like if we’re open and honest, so we know, ‘Hey, this bracket of people are making this and we’re making that…’ We need to figure out why that is and change that. So there is more equality,” she said.
She thinks Black women should be paid equally for their skills and compensated additionally for using their cultural competence to translate to those who lack it.
She does believe “that they should provide free emotional labor to pursue injustice.”
“It’s hard because, we’re still fighting for equality out here, especially, women of color, you know, when it comes to men of color, there’s a little bit, yeah, there’s a difference in like hierarchy, but when it comes to women, I feel like we have to, we try so hard for the equality piece. And we do give a lot of our services out for free, which is, you know, it’s, it’s not okay because we are educated. We are. We should be valued. We should be respected. And it just sucks because we’re not there yet, but I’m hoping that as time goes on, we move towards more inclusiveness with women of color and our expertise being in the forefront and being compensated for, because we deserve that. We went to school, we got grades, we did what we needed to do. So pay us what we should be paid,” she said.
“It starts with speaking up, it starts with saying, ‘Hey, I have value. If you don’t see my value, I will go to a place where they do see my value. And then you lose out on that.’ But I think really speaking up about what’s going on and showing that you have the expertise to create solutions is step one. But if nobody speaks up, then the company might not even know that they have that resource there,” she continued.
With the fashion industry slowly lifting its culture of silence more models are feeling empowered everyday.
“Speaking out when something doesn’t feel right, it’s the first step because in the industry we’re taught to keep quiet, but now we’re at a time where it’s like, hey, no, there’s an issue here and it needs to be addressed.”