by Michelle Newton
Tall and striking, with the delicate features and full lips of a young Naomi Campbell, Juneth Ndele is often asked by strangers if she is a model.
If it were up to her, that is exactly what she would be doing – stalking the catwalk or staring down a camera lens for fashion spreads in the glossy magazines.
However, waif-like, wide-eyed blondes dominate fashion’s editorial pages and Ms Ndele’s skin colour has proved to be a major stumbling block.
“I have approached agencies before and they told me I’m old now, and my skin colour, it’s hard for dark-skinned models to succeed in Australia,” she says. “The last agency I went to see, the guy said ‘if I were you I would just give up’.”
Ms Ndele believes the agencies have a certain look they are after but, because of her skin colour, she does not have it.
However, Georgia Douglas, of Platform Models in Sydney’s Bondi Junction, says the Australian modeling industry is showing more diversity than ever before.
Ms Douglas says advertising typically shows more of Australia’s diverse cultural mix with Asian faces being used more and more, but this hasn’t filtered through to the fashion pages.
At the very top levels of fashion, there are some Chinese super models such as Liu Wen, one of the faces of Estee Lauder, and male model Godfrey Gao, the first Asian man to front Louis Vuitton’s campaigns, but Ms Douglas says “they’re still a bit token”.
“Black models have been accepted more worldwide for various reasons – they’re naturally tall and slender, depending on what country they’re from and, they’ve been around in Europe for ages,” she says.
This, of course, reflects a country’s cultural mix and the United Kingdom, France and the United States have a higher proportion of the population with African origins than Australia.
But we are a country built on the migrant experience – the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in its 2010 Year Book that more than 270 nationalities were separately identified by Australia’s population in 2006.
People who identified themselves as having Chinese ancestry made up 3.4 per cent of the population, 2.2 per cent identified with North African and Middle Eastern ancestry, and 0.8 per cent identified with Sub-Saharan African ancestry – numbers that are sure to have increased over the last few years.
While Ms Douglas would like to pioneer the use of models from Middle Eastern backgrounds here, she says if there’s a prejudice at large in society, it’s more directed at Middle Eastern-looking models.
For Ms Ndele, giving up on her dream is not an option. She has been selected to represent the Democratic Republic of Congo, her country of birth, in the World Super Model Pageant in Fiji in November, and next year she will be a contestant in the Top Model Worldwide contest in London, part of the Next Top Model franchise created by American model Tyra Banks.
She wants to use her profile as a model to raise awareness on issues faced by women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women live with the fear of rape, often used as a weapon in the country’s ongoing civil war.