When I was little, like most children, I spent hours with my head in a book. I would go on adventures with a princess who slept on 20 mattresses, follow a young girl who lived out of a suitcase and explore the world of a girl who used her magic powers to orchestrate acts of revenge against her family. I would find my escapism in the lives of fictional girls, but it always felt like there was a barrier between myself and these female characters. I would have to imagine myself with paler skin, straighter hair and eyes a lot lighter than mine if I was going be a princess or a young heroine who was going to make the world a better place, like the characters I idolised.
So, when I saw the Pirelli calendar, my inner child came alive and was skipping on cloud nine. Here is the classic fairytale of Alice In Wonderland – a story that I read and watched a thousand times and suddenly I could see myself in Alice, who is portrayed by Australian-Sudanese model Duckie Thot. Young black girls will see the images of this beautiful black woman and have the experience of feeling visible – something I was denied while growing up. By having a black girl front and centre as Alice, the calendar will help all children, regardless of their race, normalise the idea that not all protagonists are white.
Yet, the great thing about the Pirelli calendar’s approach to diversity isn’t that it has just one black model in its line-up. It features an all-black cast that is an eclectic mix of famous black figures who represent different intersections of black identity.
The calendar stars the drag artist RuPaul as the Queen of Hearts, which helps magnify the conversation around the intersection of race, sexuality and gender, and Whoopi Goldberg, who, in her own words, says, “When you think of the Pirelli calendar, I’m not the face that comes up.” Her words no doubt allude to the calendar’s previous lack of racial diversity, but for far too long the calendar has excluded women of a certain age and women who don’t necessarily fit into the supermodel body shape. By having Whoopi Goldberg star as the Duchess, it is clear that Pirelli intends to play a meaningful part in the conversations around diversity and inclusion.
As I scan through the pictures, I can’t help but applaud how the calendar has even gone so far as to touch upon class ideals within race. By having current British Vogue cover girl Adwoa Aboah, who, according to ex-British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, is “Notting Hill royalty,” appear alongside American rappers Slick Woods and Lil Yachty, it speaks volumes. Rarely when fashion brands and media outlets address about race do they even think about the intersection of race and class, but Pirelli understands that real diversity must be more than a token black face among a sea of whiteness.
We must remember that it took 100 years before we had a black editor at Vogue and the truth is that is not something to be proud of in a nation that is founded upon multiculturalism
So, while my inner seven-year-old felt spoilt for choice, looking at Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Campbell and Duckie Thot take centre stage in one of the most anticipated editorials of 2017, I couldn’t help but wonder who brought this vision to life. The creative genius behind the shoot is Tim Walker and, while many will be in a hurry to to applaud the photographer’s foresight for an all-black line-up, it raises the question of when diversity will take place in front of *and* behind the camera. Yes, we know British Vogue editor Edward Enninful styled the shoot, but the truth is that his role was to help make Walker’s idea become a reality.
While many of you reading this might be screaming that Edward Enninful has just released his first issue of British Vogue as editor-in-chief, the fact is that Enninful is the exception and not the rule when it comes to people of colour being in positions of power in the creative industries. How many black British or British-Asian editors can you name? How many black or Asian photographers have the privilege to shoot esteemed editorials such as the Pirelli calendar?
Just because we have Edward Enninful, a black, gay man as the editor of British Vogue, it is no reason to not keep pushing for diversity behind the scenes. We must remember that it took 100 years before we had a black editor at Vogue and the truth is that is not something to be proud of in a nation that is founded upon multiculturalism.
So, yes, Pirelli is a win for diversity, as it features not just one person of colour but an entirely black cast who represent different identities within blackness, due to their age, gender, sexual orientation and class. And the little child inside me will be forever grateful to see so many women who look like me in one place, but the actions to make industries more inclusive require a multi-layered approach. Now, as an adult, diversity isn’t just about the people you see – it’s also about questioning how diverse the team that is hidden behind the words, camera and clothes is.