Interviewed by Sasha Sarago
Ascension Magazine speaks to Debra Ojumu, Agency Director of Skin+Pepper Model and Film. A former teacher, model scout and catwalk choreographer with a passion for equality and diversity Debra Ojumu decided to put her knowledge of the modelling industry to good use by creating Skin+Pepper Model and Film, an international boutique agency which represents black models and actors of the African Diaspora.
We find out what’s behind Debra’s determination to challenge the status quo that skin colour is a barrier to a successful career in the fashion and film industry.
There has been so much discussion over the years concerning the lack of diversity in the fashion and film industry. It is a discussion as prevalent today as it was so many years ago.
I have always been inspired by those who speak out about change needing to happen, whether in fashion, film or any other industry. People like Bethann Hardison who have been trying to educate those in the industry for so long; Naomi Campbell, Iman, Alek Wek and as even as far back as Donyale Luna. All have had a hand in paving the way for those who have followed in their footsteps. Most recently we have the likes of Jourdan Dunn, Ajak Deng, Joan Smalls and Linesey Montero. As black models, they are still facing the same challenges that have plagued the industry for decades and yet they refuse to surrender to the ideals of beauty.
In 2014, I was approached by Thirdrow Films, who were looking to cast a black female for a short film they were producing. They had been struggling to find someone suitable and so had contacted me to enquire whether I might know of someone within my network. In short, they accepted one of six females I had put forward for their consideration. The co-owner of the film company suggested that an agency representing black talent was needed in Australia and encouraged me to be the one to do it.
As a former model scout and catwalk choreographer, the decision to launch the agency was to first represent black models from the African Diaspora and then gradually incorporate representation of black actors too.
The vision for Skin+Pepper is to achieve success and recognition for its talent and to become a global collaborator, helping to affect change within an industry that has been lacking in diversity for far too long.
Ultimately we would want our legacy to be that the agency has successfully challenged the status quo that skin colour is a barrier to a successful career on the runway. Many more industry professionals including casting directors, fashion designers, photographers, stylists, modelling and casting agencies and indeed the media, need to speak up. Too few are prepared to adopt a zero tolerance to racism in fashion and film and yet if we had a collective approach to fighting the lack of diversity that exists, I believe change would be inevitable and swift.
In early 2015, we began to schedule open calls to recruit talent, both professionals and those in development. Our open calls have in the past been advertised on our social media platforms but we will be promoting details in other ways in the future to expand our reach.
Last November, we launched our website and now receive applications from those who apply online.
There is a strict criterion for applying to become a Skin+Pepper model and we will always meet with those we are interested in signing a few times before we complete the process.
But being signed to our agency isn’t just about having the right face and body. We are looking for talent who can positively represent the brand and conduct themselves with dignity in what we know is an extremely competitive industry.
They must also have the right attitude, professionalism, determination and resilience to succeed and more important than anything else, they must be proud of their skin colour.
We are now an agency that is fully staffed and we all share in the commitment and vision to see our talent succeed. Our priority is in providing them with as much exposure and development as possible, and securing bookings on their behalf.
Skin+Pepper will host its official launch event later this year to showcase our talent and promote our brand.
But we are also very keen to collaborate and partner with others in the industry who share our vision for greater diversity in fashion and film. Challenging the status quo cannot be done alone. Working with others both here in Australia and around the globe is the only way we can truly affect change. It just isn’t going to happen any other way and Ascension Magazine should be acknowledged for shining light on the lack of diversity that exists in the fashion industry here in Australia. As the magazine’s creator and editor, Sasha Sarago must be applauded for being a champion for change.
Challenge and optimism.
The first person that comes to my mind is former model and now advocate, Bethann Hardison. She has been relentless in her quest to see more diversity on the runway and has kept the dialogue going for decades. Bethann has asked the questions that are awkward and shaming to some but questions that must be raised nonetheless. Do we dare to even consider what the fashion world would look like without Bethann’s passion and advocacy over the years? I feel proud to speak her name because I know how much she has done and the positive impact she has had on the careers of many black models of the past and present, and on those who are just starting out.
Well, that would be for our talent to become the face of an international campaign and one of the first brands to come to mind is Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. I would simply love for Skin+Pepper to have an association with her brand.
Her products and her passion to create and supply cosmetics for women of every shade and tone resonates with me a great deal. Coupled with her inspiring success as an entrepreneur, she is definitely someone who I look forward to meeting in the future.
As for my dream team? I think I have a great team working for me now and an amazing freelance Graphic Designer in Edem Badu of Edem Badu Design. But if I could add to it, Naomi Campbell would be at the top of my list.
I have always admired women with spunk. Talented women who don’t take nonsense from anyone and who are champions for others.
To me, Naomi Campbell is the epitome of beauty, determination and resilience.
That I could make a mistake and forgive myself for it.
Doing something you love that has a positive impact on other people.
Sasha Sarago is the editor of Ascension Magazine. She is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans ‘Rainforest People’ of Cairns, Far North Queensland. She is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish descent. Sasha’s dream is to savour the breathtaking views of Positano; Moscato in hand as the founder of a globally inspiring lifestyle and media company.