“Race problems are not only on the international circuit but also here at home”…Althea Laing
In 1985 the modelling industry was not as diversified as it is today. The standard of beauty was defined as blonde or brunette, chiseled cheekbones and the classic European look. Of the ten listed supermodels of the 80’s era, 8 were white, 2 were of darker hue, Iman and Karen Alexander. The odds were not in favor of darker skins and add to that someone from an unknown corner of the globe, the Caribbean, it was even more remote.
Althea Laing, tall, elegant and intelligent had three things against her: her skin color, her location and her age. She was 28 at the time, an age no fashion house would even consider for a go see. She was from Jamaica, an island only associated with fun in the sun and an exotic location for fashion shoots and most importantly she was dark, and not just dark, but too dark for industry standards. It was precisely those reasons that she embarked on her journey into the fashion industry.
With friends and mentor Weston Haughton, she entered the Miss Jamaica Fashion model contest and won. Now placing herself on the industry runway, she had no time for fears or what ifs. She was in the spotlight , and she had to perform despite the glaring lights of subtle racism and unwanted favors that were associated in the industry. It was not easy.
She had many of those callous and cold favors thrown in her face, but her strong belief in her abilities and her undaunted strength said NO. That one word propelled her not only for her natural talent but for what she believed in and stood for. She would be hired for her ability or not at all. In the end she won. In 1985 when Jamaica woke up to the Gleaner headlines that one of our girls was the face of Essence Magazine, it was equal to Usain Bolt at the 2008 Olympics, it was nation moving, it was euphoric. Never had anyone, certainly not from Jamaica ,had earned such a feat. The nation felt proud, young girls saw hope and a local industry was launched.
That was the impact of Laing to the fashion industry. She went on to grace many other covers, Essence in 1990, Ebony, Chic, Black Elegance and Caribbean Lifestyle. Althea’s sheer determination to re-write the standards of beauty and fashion has placed her amongst the icons of the industry. It is for this reason she is our first female icon. It is for this reason why we chose her to speak in her own words.
Ms. Laing, I read that your first love is teaching. Why did you go into modeling when at the time teaching was a more acceptable profession?
I needed to fulfill my childhood dream as my father nick named me star girl. In essence I grew up in the shadows of my brothers and sisters and wanted to have my own identity.
Many parents in the 80s would have modeling as the furthest goal on the totem pole. Do you think this stigma has changed over the years?
The stigma has changed as parents regard it as an avenue for the education of their child. It does in fact provide a great income in recent times.
Do you think you have played a change in this perception?
I do believe that persons have realized that modelling is a social responsibility and a platform for one to expand their horizons. As a teacher extraordinaire persons do understand that there is life after modelling.
It has been over 2 decades since you stood of the top of Mount Everest in the modeling industry and a new generation now look towards the industry for their livelihood what can you tell them?
Get an education as all that glitters is not gold.
Modeling is not for everybody or is it?
No it is not,modelling is an industry that focuses on perseverance and high self esteem. If an individual looks great and fails to understand who they are they will be crushed by the personalities within the industry.
Kate Moss was quoted saying..” nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” do you agree with her?
I do believe all types should be represented on the runway hence any size works.
I love being skinny lol This is the body God has given me . Ultimately it is your problem should you describe me as “gaunt” as has been done previously. I will not call any names Thank God I do not have to worry about dress sizes as I still wear what I wore as a teenager so there lol . They are probably jealous lol
What is your personal style ?
My personal style has changed over the years but I have been regarded and referred to as sophisticated and elegant, I have maintained a conservative approach even now as I am a role model for my students and grand daughters.
Your style is so impeccably presented when compared to the millennial generation it can be described as aloof or even conservative. Do you think the present choice of the millennial generation to show skin is style or even fashion?
There is no need to be an exhibitionist and I do believe that this is a vulgar display. I have no need to exhibit my wares for the public and I do believe no woman should this borders on insecurity.
So what is fashion to you ?
Fashion is making a statement subtly.
How do you think race problems should be handled in the industry and have you ever had personal experiences?
Race problems are not only on the international circuit but also here at home. Interestingly I was never casted for a commercial here and when I was by Lennie Little White for the Seabreeze commercial ., the response was it will be difficult to light here. My Essence cover was also three lighter and I was startled however my look could only be appreciated three shades lighter.
WoW….It’s that bad ? How did you get over the stigma?
I have always been someone with great self confidence and I in turn have the ability to turn my negatives into positive. I have been embraced by the Italians as I dated one for at least 18 months. I was treated like a queen despite his claustrophobic nature. Let us just say I was smothered lol…
Who in your belief is a fashion icon?
A fashion icon is someone who has launched an industry….. and I have lol..
Lol no complaint about that….you have done a lot , not just modeling but numerous charitable work especially for children. What gives you the motivation to go on doing this work of charity?
I believe in charity my mother is charity in action. I have learnt that giving back refines your spirit and adds a new dimension to your purpose and the will that God has for your life. I will continue to do this as long as I continue breathing.
How do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a free spirit who spends time molding the lives of the youth. I want to be remembered as the sound of laughter and tears.I want to be remembered for the life I have lived turning sadness into joy and embracing self through it all.
Do you consider your accomplishments in fashion as your springboard for what you are presently doing?
Modelling has provided the avenue for talent visibility and has aided in the avenue of corporate training in which I am involved.
My greatest regret is being married so young if not I do believe that my career may have been longer in the field. However, our life is ordered by the Lord so where I have been and what I have done was for that moment in time. I am moving towards self actualization and loving it.Thanks to Jamaica for the positive and negative comments which have molded me into the superwoman of grandmother, mother, teacher, motivator and friend.
Althea made Jamaica proud. Grace Jones , another Jamaican who graced the fashion pages can be regarded as technically the first Jamaican to break the glass ceiling . But Grace , although of Jamaican heritage does not live here. Althea does. She is the embodiment of what it is to be a brand, a brand that not only stood the test of time, but also one that is distinctly and elegantly Jamaican.
…….Althea Laing opened the show. for those shivering seconds she captured the audience in her chantilly lace pencil skirt and silk grosgrain peplum jacket with red floor length taffeta cape. the younger models failed to match her grace and power on stage……. Corve Dacosta