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QueerCurrent speaker to explore impact of LGBTQ+, minority models on industry

Elspeth Brown, an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, will discuss the diverse sexualities and races in the modeling world in the second lecture in the QueerCurrent speaker series Thursday. (Courtesy of Elspeth Brown)

“Work! A Queer History of Modeling”

Thursday

YRL Presentation Room 11348

Free

By Vivian Xu

Jan. 22, 2020 11:10 p.m.

Elspeth Brown examines the history of modeling with rainbow-tinted lenses.

In the second lecture of the QueerCurrent speaker series hosted by the LGBTQ studies program, Brown, an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, will trace the industry’s transformation through a queer eye Thursday. Her discussion is influenced by her most recent book “Work! A Queer History of Modeling,” which focuses on the significance of those with nonnormative sexualities and people of color in the modeling world.

“It is a nonnormative history of the industry in the sense that it’s not focusing on well-known, usually white, models,” Brown said. “I’m partially looking at the history of people with nonnormative sexualities and genders and their relationship to the dominant norm.”

[Related: Alumnae produce absurdist rom-com to reflect queer experiences in dating]

Brown predominantly analyzes the 20th century, which is characterized by beauty ideals revolving around whiteness, she said. Such a standard stems from capitalistic and economic pressures, Brown said, like advertisers’ need to sell commodities. The model’s presence with the commodity serves as a selling point, trying to entice the viewer to purchase it, she said. Advertisers at the time were concerned that white consumers would associate the product with a person of color, decreasing sales and thus resulting in an uphill battle for models of color, Brown said.

Although models of color have historically struggled with breaking into the profession, Brown said queer models have been prevalent since its very beginning. Not only that, but queer – used in the contemporary sense of the term – models, photographers and bookers have been and continue to be integral to the industry’s functioning. Photographers like Baron Adolf de Meyer, who is thought to be the father of fashion photography, and models like Rose Dolores, one of the first couturier models in the United States, shaped the nature of modeling, she said.

“It’s one of those industries where its queerness has always been hiding in plain sight,” Brown said. “Anyone in the industry knows lots of queer people are a part of it and make it work, make it run … but people just didn’t talk about it or showcase it.”

However, Brown said that, in the past 25 to 30 years, the reception to LGBTQ+ models and models of color has significantly changed. Decades earlier, many people lived distinct professional and queer lives, she said. Now, the phenomenon of people being out in multiple contexts, like professional athletics and Hollywood, in addition to the modeling world, has resulted in a different reception to their work.

Publicly queer models influence not only the modeling world, but also those who observe it. Julian Angat, a second-year sociology student and intern at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said once queer models infiltrated the mainstream media, they redefined beauty standards by forcing viewers to question their preconceived notions of glamour. By breaking stereotypes of traditional gender roles and appearances in the modeling world, they are able to represent the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community, he said.

“When people see people in glorified positions that look like them, they feel good, they feel empowered,” Angat said. “But also, when people see people in glorified positions that look nothing like them at all, (it’s) intriguing. It forces you to accept something as beautiful that maybe you haven’t seen as beautiful before.”

[Related: Guest lecturer explores the interpretation of video games through a queer lens]

Behind the image a model broadcasts to the world are their own intentions for that presence. Skylar Kang, a fourth-year communication student and transgender model, said despite facing some challenges in the industry – like typecasting – she still strives to use her identity as an Asian transgender model to empower others. Through her work, Kang said she hopes that those who are struggling to find their own identities will be able to relate to her experience and feel represented.

“I hope that by being the best at my craft, … I am able to inspire other people who look up to me,” Kang said. “Whether it’s because I’m trans, whether it’s because I’m an Asian model, whatever it may be, I hope that my modeling experience may (help) someone who’s looking at me, thinking, ‘Wow, I see myself in her.’”

Though the initial emergence of modeling revolved around selling commercial items, the role of a model in today’s world is much more than that, Brown said. Issues such as class and wealth inequalities still affect the industry, but she said today’s LGBTQ+ models possess the ability to significantly influence society.

“Models provide avenues or possibilities for self-thinking one’s relationship to the world,” Brown said. “They have a tremendous power to create modes … that help viewers, people who are observing them, to understand new ways of being in the world and the queer side of things.”

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Vivian Xu | Arts editor
Xu is the 2021-2022 Arts editor. She previously served as the music | fine arts editor from 2020-2021 and was an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a third-year neuroscience student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Xu is the 2021-2022 Arts editor. She previously served as the music | fine arts editor from 2020-2021 and was an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a third-year neuroscience student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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