how nikia phoenix is changing the beauty game for black women
The outspoken beauty activist of gets real about race in the beauty and modeling industries, including what the hell Kanye was thinking when he called for “multiracial women only.”
"As women, we've always had to be over-prepared to get noticed, and we still don't fit in." It's creeping up to 100 degrees in Los Angeles and Nikia Phoenix and I are huddled in the bedroom of her sun-drenched apartment as close as physically possible to the cranking fan. We're here to talk Black Girl Beautiful — the industry-upending beauty and shopping experience for women of color conceived of by Phoenix, arriving October 15th in Los Angeles — still, the conversation turns to sexism in the election. Blame the heat, or the rosé, or that our meeting takes place the day after the first presidential debate. The model, founder, and longtime activist (and her signature freckles) broke into the beauty and fashion world in 2005 while getting coffee and bagels with a friend, who asked if she'd model for his basics brand. It wasn't long before industry politics inspired her first blog, Model Liberation, and later, Black Girl Beautiful, a website and now event devoted to empowering and uplifting black women while offering the best in beauty and self-care. Here, we talk bullsh*t casting calls, the road to self-acceptance, and how Nikia plans to change the world.
Was the lack of diversity within the modeling industry something that struck you right away?
Yes, immediately, it almost slapped me in the face. You get to a casting or audition and you realize most of the time you're the only person of color — and if you get picked for the job, you're supposed to be representing everyone. That's impossible. There's also been a number of castings and auditions where you arrive and hear from a friend, "They're not looking for us," meaning they're not looking for black women.
Even though they won't come out and say it?
The casting breakdown will still say, "all ethnicities," but when you keep reading the description, they're clearly not looking for us. It's very disheartening. Even recently, when I've auditioned, they're still only looking for one of us. We're so diverse, so that's not going to work. It would be like if you picked just one woman for a campaign. You have to pick multiple of us, because we all have different voices, different backgrounds, and different experiences. I think that it's so important for the consumer to see themselves represented in advertising.
What was your take on Kanye West's controversial call for "multiracial women only"?
That really got under my skin. The first thing I thought was "this mother bleep bleep bleep! I can't believe he bleep, bleep, bleep!" I was so frustrated, because, yes, I am a lighter skinned African American woman, but I'm still an African American woman, and I can't go to that casting. But I did read something that said he was trying to figure out how to say that he was looking for all shades of black women. If you're looking for all shades of black women, then just say that. And even when I did see photos from the show, it still felt like the darker skinned women were extras in the background, and that rubbed me the wrong way.
When did you begin writing and blogging about your experiences and observations as a model?
I started my first blog, Model Liberation, about eight years ago, to vent my frustration about the casting calls, being left out, the ridiculous things that models have to do on shoots that we're not really mentally prepared to do. I needed to vent. I needed to talk about it. I kept thinking. 'I know this happens to other people, it can't just be me. So why aren't more people talking about it?' Writing has always been very therapeutic for me. A way to release without going off the way I want to. It's that buffer between sucking it up and doing the job, and 'Okay, this is some bullshit.'
Have you always been an activist?
I say that I've been a freedom fighter my entire life. My stepfather is part of a civil right's organization, and had me marching and protesting since I was a little kid. Meeting a great like Rosa Parks when you're six or seven years old — even though you don't fully understand the impact that someone like that has had — you can feel it from her presence alone. Since then, I haven't been able to shut my mouth with all of the injustice happening.
How do you perceive the beauty industry and identity to be connected?
I have struggled with anxiety my entire life. I have struggled with my identity my entire life. I have struggled to accept myself. I probably would have stopped this whole journey a long time ago, but I knew that I'd always wonder what changes I could have made if I'd just kept pushing. I know that if I keep pushing and being transparent about my struggles, then I will eventually be able to change the conversation we have about beauty and self-acceptance. I say that I'm an open book — if you ask me a question I'll answer it. There have definitely been moments when I've looked in the mirror and thought 'I'm ugly, I wish I could just roll up into a little ball and disappear.' But, I can't do that. So, by continuing to fight and work it shows other women that there are people out there who look like you doing well and persevering.
Talk about the evolution from Model Liberation to Black Girl Beautiful.
Black Girl Beautiful happened because I was having conversations with friends about the lack of representation of African American women in mainstream conversations about beauty. At the time, I was working with friends on Simone Digital (which used to be Kis For Kinky), a natural hair blog that has since evolved into so much more. We realized that the topics we were writing about weren't being covered by anyone else. There was a void, and we wanted to fill it. For me, Black Girl Beautiful only makes sense. You see these other conferences and expos, but they're not specifically for us. Maybe it's a hair show, but not for black beauty as a whole. I wanted to create a safe space to discuss that.
What have been some of the challenges of getting the event off the ground, specifically pertaining to sponsorship?
I looked through all of these reports about beauty and black buying power, and when I saw these reports — which just affirmed what I already knew — I was astounded. There's a huge demographic that is spending big dollars and we're not being catered to? We have to fight for representation when we're spending all of this money? Wait a minute. Are you kidding me? According to Nielsen Consumer Reports, we outspend everybody across the board, not just on beauty or hair. It's entertainment, it's automobiles, it's buying houses, it's travel. It's mind-blowing. Yet, when I approached some brands or potential sponsors with my idea, there was so much pushback. I was like, "Wait, I'm showing you these numbers, but you barely respond? You're not interested. You don't see the value." This is why it's so important, not just for African American consumers but all American consumers in general, to be a lot more conscious about where we spend our money.
How do you think beauty and social issues can intersect and drive one another forward?
We are now able to have conversations that we may not have had before. The conversations about cultural appropriation, beauty and style really hit home for me, because there have been so many instances when we are not represented. Our style is there, but not being accredited to us. I love the fact that through social media we have a voice, and our voice can be heard. I appreciate that people who have an influence outside of celebrity are using their voice and becoming agents of change. It's very refreshing to know that even if I don't speak up, someone else will. I don't have to say anything and this person has my back. There's so much power in our voice and now we're starting to realize it.
You give off serious "I'm going to change the world" vibes, so what's your master plan for Black Girl Beautiful?
I want black women to understand that we are amazing creatures. We are resilient. We are beautiful. We are strong. We are complex. And that our beauty does deserve to be celebrated. That doesn't mean getting the scraps, that means getting first dibs. We deserve that. Besides the fact that we spend all this money, we are human beings just like everyone else. We need that love. We need to be around each other and encourage one another to continue to love and grow. We've historically had a very difficult time being accepted and accepting ourselves. I hope that, not just women of color, but everyone can take away from Black Girl Beautiful that we are all unique in our own way, and all of that deserves to be celebrated.
Black Girl Beautiful goes down Saturday, October 15 at Siren Studios in Los Angeles.
Text Jane Helpern
Photo Rick Rodney