Top model Olivia Sang speaks loud against bias on world stage
An African girl is standing in a field of green grass herding cows and goats. She hears a sound in the sky, looks up, squinting at the sun and the clouds to catch a glimpse of a plane. She waves and smiles at the plane so far in the sky, a plane she thinks she will never step into.
Adverts use these images all the time. Yet, at one time in the 1990s, this girl was Olivia Sang, in a village near Eldoret. For the 26-year-old model based in Istanbul, Turkey, the idea of modelling was not anywhere near the reality of her world back then.
“I was always taller than my peers, and I looked more like a boy than a girl. In fact, I thought that there were pretty girls, and then there was me – tall, ugly, awkward, clumsy and dark skinned,” she says.
Other children teased her about her dark skin. But she fought back, never letting the teasing put her down.
On her own, she was tough, but it wasn’t enough. Her parents helped. They taught her to believe in herself and gave her the strength to withstand the mean children. But that’s not where their help ended.
“My relationship with my parents has always been wonderful, including the occasional beating that my brother and I got from mum back then if we did something stupid. And, as a teenager, I got all the answers to the changes that my body was going through; both physical and psychological. I was lucky that my mother was a nurse – she still is. So she explained everything to me, each change, what it meant and what I should expect.”
Her parents reminded her that there was no better thing than doing what she loved.
Her modelling career started in 2014, when she went to the Fashion Awards academy auditions at the Kenya National Theatre. When she saw a picture of herself during the auditions, she realised she could give modelling a shot. She did and never looked back despite many challenges.
A few weeks ago, Olivia Sang was interviewed by the BBC.
‘TRADE MY SKIN”
“I would not trade my skin for anything in the world. If I have to come back in another life, I would still choose to come back as a black girl,” she told BBC.
She was responding to a question on colourism, discrimination based on the tone or shade of one’s skin.
When not doing cover shoots for Marie Claire or Vogue magazines, or making an appearance in a continental music video or collaborating with an international artist on a project, or strutting the catwalk; she fights discrimination. It is a fight that she is known for in the modelling industry.
Her work and childhood experiences have pushed her into the fight. But it has not been easy.
“I had an experience in South Africa where a photographer said that she wanted to take my photographs from the back because she didn’t want to see my face. I got sent home half-way through my job and I cried a bit,” she says.
Since 2015, when the #OscarSoWhite campaign took the world by storm, the issue of diversity and inclusivity in the entertainment industry has remained a hot topic, and models of colour have not been left out of the discussion.
“We have definitely seen the shift in the inclusion of models of colour in major campaigns, fashion shows, international magazine covers. I was featured on the cover of a Swedish magazine called Damernasvard (Women’s World). We can access these opportunities now.”
However, there are times when the make-up team or hair stylist on set does not know how to properly handle a black model’s hair or times when the result of the make-up is an ashy face, giving them ridiculous looks and an angry client.
Her outspoken nature on colourism and how it affects models has earned her a lot of praise, and some enemies. But she feels that speaking about these issues in a calm and respectable manner is the only way to achieve lasting changes.
Inclusivity is not the only issue plaguing the entertainment industry. #MeToo movement ripped Hollywood apart last year when allegations of sexual harassment cases surfaced against some movie executives. Sexual harassment in the modelling industry is as old as the trade itself.
Having worked as a model in Nairobi, Cape Town and now Istanbul, Olivia knows a thing or two about dealing with unwanted sexual advances.
“The key is to speak up for yourself. If something feels wrong, don’t do it. To young models who are trying to build their careers, be patient with your growth. Look out for the people promising a career in return for sexual favours, do not dance around the issue hoping they will change their minds. Walk away and do not look back.”