Photography Keith Oshiro

How Salem Mitchell became the model and mouthpiece Gen Z deserves

“I don’t know about race relations from an academic perspective. I’m just me: a 20-something navigating the world.”

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
|
14 December 2020, 2:00pm

Photography Keith Oshiro

Not long after graduating high school, Salem Mitchell was traveling alone across the country for the first time. She would be appearing in a magazine editorial, alongside industry trendsetters like Barbie Ferreira, Lexie Smith and Okay Kaya. Salem’s grandfather was there at the airport when she arrived, but he didn’t pick her up. Instead, he convoyed behind the car sent to collect the young model, following her all the way to her hotel because he was doubtful of the legitimacy of the opportunity. When Salem’s mother informed him his granddaughter would be in New York to be photographed for Vogue, wearing Gucci, he’d replied: “I didn’t know people thought she was pretty like that.”

Salem Mitchell, herself, was also surprised to find people thought she was “pretty like that.” She was interesting looking, sure. Her lips are the kind women set aside thousands to emulate, her snub nose is implausibly symmetrical, with an erratic smattering of freckles coating her caramel skin. Photography students would cite the uniqueness of these freckles, when they pulled Salem out of dance classes at her performing arts high school in San Diego, to model for their projects. When Salem was 15, she had curated herself a distinctive Tumblr presence and by 17, she arrived on Instagram to fanfare and critique. Her following was growing steadily, but the peanut gallery had pitchforks at the ready. Almost everyday fellow content creators found ways to put Salem down for her appearance, often comparing her face to various edible items — drawing parallels between her mottled complexion and rotting bananas, specifically. 

“I’d never experienced any bullying growing up,” Salem explains, “and it felt like everyday people were making the same joke to gain followers. It wasn’t the joke itself that bothered me, it was that people were capitalizing off me.”

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Salem’s first viral moment would arrive in the form of her comeback. It was a self-effacing selfie, a pair of bananas whose speckles resembled her own positioned next to her cheek. “I wanted to make the joke too, and I didn’t want anyone to think they were breaking me down,” she says. 

As the photo circulated social media, it found its way onto the feed of photographer-director Mayan Toledo, who promptly drove from Los Angeles to Salem’s family home to photograph her. Before long Mayan cast Salem in her first fashion editorial. Brands like Urban Outfitters then became regular clients and she and her family were recruited for a GAP holiday campaign. Suddenly Salem Mitchell, from Southeast San Diego, was on a billboard in Times Square in a turtleneck. 

Though it seems no success can be enjoyed without the endemic plight of the creative industries: imposter syndrome. Over the next few years, Salem realized there would always be another model who booked a bigger job one scroll away. Any commercial job she landed would only further fuel a craving for editorial. She was entering fashion when the right tag at the right time could launch a career, there was the easy-street chip on her shoulder. Salem hadn’t lived in a six-person model apartment or run around town lugging a portfolio to be discovered — she wondered if any model could be exalted to superstar status, without first having suffered in the trenches. 

“I’ve had to let go of this ‘charge it to the game’ mentality, where we feel we need to struggle or go through negative things in order to succeed,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to do high fashion, [but it always seems to come at a cost]. In this industry there’s always going to be blood, sweat and tears, but I don’t understand why everyone needs to be unhappy to make it.”

Thankfully, the power of her social media platform means that Salem is rarely uncomfortable on set — but it’s also made her as much a personality as a model. Not only is she often cast to fill a client’s unjust “quota” (it doesn’t sit right for her as a “light-skin, conventionally skinny” model), but because she’s young and outspoken, she is often identified as an “activist.” Salem notes that while her white peers just show up and take pretty pictures, she and other models of color are inadvertently required to be their race’s sole representative in the industry — often speaking on camera as to their background or hardships for fashion campaigns as a testament to said company’s commitment to inclusion. 

“It’s very telling that dark skin models and plus-size models are always asked to explain why they’re there, whereas traditional models or celebrity models do the glamorous shoots and leave. There’s so much performative work that takes place that it’s hard to gauge what is for the future and what is to please.”

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This leaves it up to Salem to actually forge the future she wants to see. Throughout her career, there have been a myriad of events that prompted her to appeal to and activate her fanbase directly. There was the time she was forced to explain the harmfulness of words like “ghetto” after a commenter described her as such; or when she was so disappointed by the silence of her white friends — many of whom, she reveals, frequently called on her to promote their own projects — at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, that she took to the app to explain how social media informs and rallies. Instagram itself reshared her words, and TIME Magazine called her for an interview. 

“I don’t wake up and say, ‘I’m going to be an activist today,’ because while I’m informed I’m not well-educated. I don’t have a college degree,” Salem says. “I don’t know about race relations from an academic perspective. I’m just me: a 20-something navigating the world.”

Which, regardless of cyber hecklers, seems to be going pretty well. Her latest accomplishment is a partnership with Wildflower, a cult electronic accessories brand helmed by LA ‘it’ sisters, Devon and Sydney Carlson. While anyone else might pause when an iPhone case of their own design is on sale throughout the country, with each new accomplishment Salem sets her sights that much higher. She has more magazine covers in mind, a big beauty campaign, a standalone billboard. She sees herself exploring creative direction, writing and public speaking. Online or off, Salem knows she’ll find her audience. 

“I think that everyone has a niche,” she says. “There are so many influencers that have created so many opportunities for themselves or their families, when they might have never had that otherwise. The Internet is a way to make money without having a college degree or generational wealth.”

Nowadays, the term ‘influencer’ has become a catch-all to describe beautiful people who make their income online, but it’s a model like Salem who perhaps embodies the word in its truest sense. Because she won’t recommend a beauty product she doesn’t swear by, because her brand collaborations could double for nationwide campaigns, because Salem is fluidity and individuality personified. The poster girl for Gen Z’s hyper-liberalism and organization, you’re likely to find Salem Mitchell’s eloquence etched into every corresponding corner of the Internet.

Still, what remains most important to Salem is not what’s on a Times Square billboard or an iPhone screen, but what’s reflected in the mirror. Salem can look hard at her own reflection, and still like what she sees — and not just because she really is “pretty like that.”

“I’ve learned my work doesn’t equate to my worth — what’s most important is your community, how you’re interacting with friends and family, how you feel about yourself when you’re alone. Because, when this is all said and done, that’s what’s going to matter.”

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