The modeling world failed the trans woman of color L’Oréal hired to promote diversity

Munroe Bergdorf was promptly fired for speaking up about systemic racism.

Munroe Bergdorf in the True Match campaign. Credit: L'Oréal Paris
Munroe Bergdorf in the True Match campaign. Credit: L'Oréal Paris

L’Oréal UK last week fired the brand’s first ever trans spokesmodel, Munroe Bergdorf, after the Daily Mail published a Facebook post written by Bergdorf out of context that the company considered too incendiary. Bergdorf, a London-based DJ and activist, held the title of the first trans woman of color associated with the brand’s True Match campaign — a foundation product with over 20 skin tones that promotes diversity — for just four days before she was ousted.

But in an industry where models — who have historically been chosen for their ability to communicate another person’s vision — have social media platforms to galvanize followers and direct their own narratives, can we still expect them to be apolitical blank canvases?

“They are like another color for the canvas or picture. Whatever the person is trying to paint, convey, for the visual is how the models are seen.”

Bergdorf’s post, which was removed from Facebook because it violated the social media platform’s hate speech guidelines, was in response to the violence in Charlottesville. She wrote: 

Honestly I don’t have the energy to talk about the racial violence of white people anymore. Yes ALL white people. Because most of y’all don’t even realize or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of color. Your entire existence is drenched in racism.

From microaggressions to terrorism, you guys built the blueprint for this shit. Come see me when you realise that racism isn’t learned, it’s inherited and consciously or unconsciously passed down through privilege. Once white people begin to admit that their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth… then we can talk.

Until then stay acting shocked about how the world continues to stay fucked at the hands of your ancestors and your heads that remain buried in the sand with hands over your ears.

A former classmate of Bergdorf’s snapped a picture of her post before it was removed and sold it to the Daily Mail. L’Oréal officials decided that, due to the nature of the post, Bergdorf no longer fit within the company’s ideals of diversity — which L’Oréal says it champions.

This is not unheard of. Corporations often boast moral clauses and guidelines, and firing employees based on how they conduct themselves while associated with the brand is typically well within their contract (an official copy of Bergdorf’s hasn’t been released).

Nonetheless, news of Bergdorf’s firing was met with social media backlash and lots and lots of interview requests for the activist. Several sided with Bergdorf, finding it hard to see where she faltered in her comments. Another True Match ambassador, Clara Amfo, quit in solidarity.

The product’s tagline — #YoursTruly, updated in the U.S. to “your skin, your story” — feels painfully ironic now.

As the brand’s first trans woman of color spokesmodel, Bergdorf was representing what could have been seen as the beauty and fashion world making an attempt toward progress.

“Being that Munroe was L’Oréal’s first black transgender model, she’s already broken down barriers that have been cemented with extreme corporate prejudices,” Los Angeles based publicist and music producer Jonathan Hay told ThinkProgress over email.

But pushing the boundaries on what society deems acceptable to discuss regarding systematic racism was just too much for the makeup brand — which is a major corporation that makes hundreds of millions of dollars from selling its products to white women.

“Historically, when it comes to spokesmodels and those who represent a major company, there can be constraints and pressures on them to uphold a certain image for the company,” Hay added. “It’s usually all politics and bullshit with businesses at the highest level.”

Bergdorf, who has spoken up to tell her side of the story and defend her comments, told the Guardian that she still has a handful of promotions lined up. Still, she may go down in history unfairly construed as yet another “angry black woman.”

It’s only recently that members within the fashion and beauty industry have started to speak up about social justice issues.

Last year Ebonee Davis, when modeling for Calvin Klein, penned a strikingly honest open letter to her industry calling out the ways systemic racism festers within the fashion world. “We sit in silence for fear of being labelled “a diva” while being inflicted with pain, or watching our faces turn grey,” Davis wrote. “As artists in the fashion industry, we are the embodiment of free speech. We set the tone for society through the stories we tell—fashion, the gatekeeper of cool, decides and dictates what is beautiful and acceptable.”

Do models have a direct hand in dictating the society’s social form? Or are they merely the vessels?

Models are literally seen and not heard. They are communicating what the designer, magazine, or campaign is trying to sell — and if they can’t do it cleanly, as we’ve seen with Bergdorf, those companies will find someone else who can. They are expected to be blank pages. 

“They are like another color for the canvas or picture. Whatever the person is trying to paint, convey, for the visual is how the models are seen,” said Hay.

Companies like  L’Oréal seek to hire figures like Bergdorf to say, “look we did it, we are champions of diversity.” But the catch is that a model is supposed to project the brand’s narrative, not the other way around. They’re expected to be apolitical and uncontroversial.    

A trans woman of color’s body can arguably never be entirely apolitical. Bergdorf, whether she writes Facebook posts calling out systemic racism or not, will make some people mad simply by existing. Issues of racial and gender justice just aren’t abstract concepts to a figure like Bergdorf. They are her everyday reality.

We can’t turn these parts of ourselves off for a campaign that’s supposed to celebrate diversity and inclusivity — the very things Heather Heyer died for in Charlottesville.

“L’Oréal shouldn’t have severed ties with Bergdorf due to her personal feelings on the Charlottesville violence. She has a right to express her opinion and she did,” Hay said. “I feel that L’Oréal should have taken the more professional route and spoken to her quietly with constructive criticism, reminding her of her influence and reach. But I believe the way they handled the situation is extremely telling.”

L’Oréal UK had a choice. The company could have stood behind Bergdorf and given her another shot to explain herself — which she admits she’s had to get better at with each interview and each appearance on the matter — and truly stand by what they say they’re about, which is championing diversity. Diversity runs deeper than making foundations for every skin tone.  

“I don’t regret what I said. I’m an activist. Being an activist means calling people out, not just saying what everyone else is saying and what everyone else wants to think and upholding the common consensus. L’Oréal knew that when they hired me,” Bergdorf told The Guardian. “It puzzles me that my views are considered out of touch and extreme.”

Bergdorf doesn’t need to change her position. It’s the rules of the game that need to change.