You may not know her name, but chances are, you’ve seen Philomena Kwao‘s stunning face. The Ghanaian-British beauty, who now resides in Brooklyn, is a popular plus-size model. She has worked for a wide variety of brands like Swimsuits for All, Lane Bryant, MAC and Nordstrom, and appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan UK and the New York Times.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” says Kwao in her charming British accent. And that’s an understatement considering it was a friend who got her into the industry while she was in college, living in London, and focused on being a student.
“There was an agency, which is still my agency right now, they’re called Models 1, and they held a model search competition to find their next plus model,” she says. “And she actually thought I would win so she submitted my pictures, and then they called me and I went in. I actually ended up winning the competition and winning a contract with them.”
That was almost eight years ago. And since then, she’s gone from modeling for brands in the UK to booking all sorts of gigs here in New York. And while many models don’t use their fame and influence to do much other than create fabulous social media profiles, Kwao uses hers to stir conversations about issues impacting Black women and men around the world. Her speaking voice may be agreeable, but she isn’t afraid to use it to step on a few toes.
We talked to Kwao about the importance of speaking up, also about the ups and downs of opening doors as a plus-size Black female model, protecting her natural hair, the “Lupita effect” on her career, and why we as the Black community have to start embracing diverse bodies and shapes before plus-size Black women can win in the industry.
MadameNoire: I know you said you now live and work in New York. What are the differences between the New York and London markets when it comes to plus-size modeling?
Philomena Kwao: Oh, there are major differences, which is why to further my career, I had to move to New York. In London, I worked consistently at first, I guess because I was a novelty. People were interested in the novelty of this Black, dark-skinned, plus-sized model with a shaved head. There was a lot of buzz and a lot of media coverage. But at the same time, the plus market in the UK consisted of only two brands, which were Evans and Simply Be. So in order to get more work, I had to move to New York. And then when I first got to New York, I didn’t work for an entire year, which was one of the worst years of my life because it was torture. I came from a discipline where I knew that if I did x plus Y, I would succeed, and so it was only hard work that would get me there. However, the modeling industry is, I would say, 50 percent luck, 50 percent preparation. It’s one of those industries where a lot of things are out of your control. So sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how prepared you are, you don’t always see the results that you want.
It wasn’t until Lupita [Nyong’o] became famous and was recognized as one of PEOPLE‘s most beautiful that the plus-size companies started saying, “We want a plus-size version of Lupita because that’s now an addition to the beauty standard.” So I went from working zero to working almost every single day almost overnight. It was quite incredible and it was a lot different. Lupita got famous, and I followed after her.
Yeah. I guess it’s just the industry. They always wait for trends and I guess Lupita made dark skin and short hair the hot trend to an extent. And yeah, it benefited me.
And speaking of your short cropped haircut, how much control do you have over the hairstyles that you get to wear for shoots?
In a way, I’ve been very, very fortunate actually. I’ve been blessed because my hair texture is unique. This African curl that I have, which I guess is 4C, has become my defining look. And whether because of fear or because of a fear of backlash or just general ignorance, a lot of clients, they stay away from my natural hair. So they don’t actually do my hair. It is as it comes and that’s always what they’ve done. But on the flip side, it stifles my creativity. Sometimes I feel they’re too scared to try different textures on me or they’re too scared to try maybe different partings or different haircuts.
But it also allows me to afford protection for my hair as well. So when I did start growing out my hair, this TWA that I have now, I did speak to my agents and I said I have very fragile hair and very fine hair and it cannot take, you know, a lot of manipulation. So I have a no-heat rule and I have a no-comb rule, and clients are briefed about this before I even get to set. If they do want wigs, I am open to different hairstyles, but they have to give enough notice. So usually when I get on set, no one comes at me with a hairdryer, nobody attempts to comb or straighten my hair. And if they do, I’m very, very confident and I’m not hesitant at all to tell them that, no, you can’t do this to my hair. If it wasn’t discussed, I just won’t do it.
That’s dope that you have that clause in your contract.
If you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it. And sometimes a lot of Black women are afraid of asking for things or demanding things, for fear of being seen as, “Oh, this model is difficult. This model is a diva.” But at the end of the day, it is your craft. It’s your image and it’s, you know, it’s a part of you and you work with it so you have to protect it.
Speaking of that, have you ever had the experience that some other people talk about where you go to set and they don’t have the foundation or the makeup that matches your skin?
It’s actually a constant. In the beginning of my career when I first stared working, I had some horrible makeup mishaps. The client would actually look at me coming in, and my skin would be radiant and smooth and even. And then after I’d been in the makeup chair, they would look at me and nobody would want to say anything because they’re too scared to talk about my skin and they were too scared to say anything. I don’t know if it’s because they’re scared they’re going to be labeled as racist. So they wouldn’t say anything. They would just carry on, knowing that I looked like a ghost. Knowing that it doesn’t look okay, but just too scared to say anything. And my agent actually called me in and told me, “Listen, this is your face and this is your brand. If they don’t provide it, you need to provide it. So you need to get together a complexion kit, your foundation, your concealer, your powders, you need to have these and give it to them. Don’t be afraid of giving it to them because when you don’t book that sort of job again, all they’re going to say was that ‘She took an ugly picture.’ They’re not going to say the makeup artist was off, it’s always going to be your fault.” And I was really fortunate to work with a makeup artist based in L.A. She actually took me to different stores and bought my first complexion kit for me and sat me down and taught me how to do my face. That’s how I learned in the beginning. And then ever since then I’ve taken my kit with me to every single job. And in a way it’s been a blessing. My skin hasn’t suffered as much as it could have because I’ve kept the product consistent on my face. I don’t switch between different companies and different brands and so my skin has gotten used to my complexion kit, and I guess my skin has benefited from having that stability.
Based on what you just shared, it sounds like there are people working in the industry who are too afraid to tell you what’s real for fear of coming off as racist. Can you kind of speak on that as an issue, as well as a possible remedy for it? Because it sounds problematic.
It really, really is. I think one of the solutions is at the actual creative level, there needs to be more diversity. Most times, I would argue almost all the time, apart from with one client, I am the only Black person on set. There is no Black person in the creative team. There’s no Black person in the casting team and there’s no Black people giving an insight into what Black beauty means or what Black beauty means to the the Black woman. So they’re using their own minds and formulating their own vision of the Black woman as they see fit without actually consulting Black women on how we like to do our hair or how we like to do our makeup. There’s no consultation, and so often times if the client is familiar with me enough, or I’ve been working with them a few times, they will call me and ask me, “Do you think that this is okay or do you think that this is not okay? What would you like to see?” And even though we try different things, like there are clients where we’ll try different wigs and sometimes natural wigs but longer, it gets back to the corporate offices and then there’s a roadblock and they don’t want to use it. They’ll scrap the idea. They would rather stick with what’s safe for them rather than suffer backlash or be “canceled.” I just think more diversity is needed higher up in these companies, in these advertising agencies. They need Black people. And I like to say Black people are not women of color because women of color basically means everything that’s not Black. And sometimes I’ve been in jobs where they’re like, “But we had a woman of color,” but the woman of color was an East Asian woman. I’m like, “But I and an East Asian woman cannot relate, so no, you need Black women.” We need more diversity at all levels.
Another topic that I do want to bring up is that when you are classified as a plus-size model, you’re automatically seen as a body positive advocate. So I’ve noticed that when plus-size models share their workouts or they lose some weight, they’re criticized by people who say they’re saying it’s something wrong with being big. Have you encountered that?
I myself, sometimes I’ve appeared smaller, because you know, angles, clothing can really make you look bigger or smaller depending on how you pose. I have been subjected to a lot of criticism from plus-size woman saying, “Oh she’s not plus-size. She’s too small to fit into these clothes. She doesn’t represent us.” And so I do take that on. And also when I was a brand ambassador for Torrid, I had to do store-to-store visits. And I actually went out to meet the customer. And in speaking to them, it really helps me understand a different level of privilege that I hadn’t previously realized that I had. The fact that I can go into normal stores and I’m a 14, sometimes 16. So my shopping experience is not as limited as somebody who is a size 20 or 24. So I do believe it’s a very, very dangerous road to take that because somebody is a plus-size model, they’re automatically a plus-size advocate. That shouldn’t be so. I guess the media these days has made it that way, but I don’t think it’s a good thing to promote because, honestly, plus-size modeling in the industry starts at about a size 10 and goes to a size 14. That’s just the size the samples come in, and there’s an awful lot of pinning and padding that goes on. Most models have a padding bag, bags that make our hips and boobs bigger, and that’s a dangerous thing as well. And so to have someone who doesn’t have those experiences represent a size 20 or an 18 and up, they don’t really know what they’re talking about because they’ve never been big like that. Sometimes they can come off as very dismissive. Sometimes you would hear some models saying, “Oh, we need to get rid of the ‘plus.’” I don’t think that’s a good thing because there are women out there who use that word to navigate safe spaces. If we get rid of words that so many women see as a safe place where they find community and sisterhood, then we’re only perpetuating the idea that “plus” is a bad thing. If you call somebody big plus-size, it’s seen an insult and that there’s a negative connotation attached to the word. But it is what it is. Some women are bigger, some women are smaller. We just need to celebrate ourselves as we are and not demonize the word “plus.”
In terms of influential “plus” models, obviously Ashley Graham has had a lot of success. She has said that she feels like white privilege has allowed her to have the type of fame she’s had. And there are many other plus-size models of color working who don’t get the shine because they don’t have that advantage. Does that bother you in any way or do you just like to kind of keep your head down and focus on the impact that you can have?
I’m a very vocal model. I do talk a lot about this issue. I do talk a lot about the white privilege that exists in the industry. I talk about how the plus-size industry really is an affront to diversity because most of the models are white and most of those that are white, have a certain type of body shape and they are allowed to express themselves in ways that perhaps Black models aren’t allowed to because we get put into a different box. The Black female body, it’s already hypersexualized and commercialized and it has never been seen as an unattainable standard of beauty. It’s never been seen as classy or high fashion. We’ve always been described as ghetto, you know, like we’ve never been “beautiful.” Add the plus-size curve to that as well, to see someone who’s plus-size and curvy, they’re just relegated to the video vixen.
There really hasn’t really been a good representation of a non-skinny Black woman. We have Naomi, we have the Tyras, we have the Alek Weks, but they all are all a certain body type. I think Ashley Graham has definitely benefited from that, but the reason I think that she is not deserving of criticism is because she actually openly admits it. She has put in a lot of hard work, but she also uses her platform to say, “I am here because I am white. I have these opportunities because I am white. I am granted these privileges and forgiveness of certain behaviors because I am white, and the same isn’t for black models.” Myself, and another plus-sized model Precious [Lee], we’re deserving of that because we work consistently and we work hard. But until the world in general moves to a place of true racial diversity, we’re not going to get that privilege and we’re not going to get that shine. Because the Black plus-size body is very, very, very demonized. It’s hiding, and it’s not seen. And when it is seen, it’s not looked at in a positive light. Hence, you have movies like Precious and the caricature of the big fat Black woman who eats all the time and is unhealthy and lazy. In our own communities as Black people, we demonize that body. We need a cultural shift towards what acceptable standards of beauty are in our communities and in the Black community. And I think once we as Black people start to celebrate different shapes and different sizes, then the western advertisers, they have no chance. They have no choice as well but to really pay attention and say, “Okay, this is what’s happening. This is the reason. This is what the customer wants.” But I do feel like non-plus-black models, I feel like they should speak more on this topic because it is a shame when they have diversity issues and they’ll have a white plus-size model but they won’t have a Black plus-size model. Or they’ll do an all-Black issue of models and there’s no Black plus-size models. I think we need allies in our community before we even start to look outward.
As you said, on social media, you’re very outspoken about serious issues, and many models aren’t. Why is it important for you to use your platform to speak on things that affect everyday Black people?
I would argue that I have a sort of privilege in my accent. I’ve only worked alongside another Black plus-size model once and I noticed how she would say something, but as an African-American plus-size woman, she would automatically be seen as being snappy and rude and then I would repeat the same thing in my accent and it would be well-received. People are more receptive to me because of my British accent. And it’s something that I’ve experienced in my whole entire eight years in the U.S. So I’ve always felt a sense of duty. If I can get away with it, to an extent, I should speak on these things because it seems that people receive me more warmly because of a British accent. I don’t know why. But people do and I just feel sometimes compelled. It’s really hard to sit down and watch your brothers and sisters be degraded and be typecast and be abused and not say anything. So far, it hasn’t really been too negative. There are some topics I will stay away from because they are more controversial, and if I don’t feel like I have the place to speak on something I won’t. But generally, there is a privilege in having a British accent that I will happily use to support and defend my brothers and sisters. Always.