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Naomi and Tyra: A Reflection of Us

By Evette Dionne

African-American women are bombarded with media images that glorify and degrade, empower and offend, and present prominent women that can be perceived as either positive or negative representations depending on the medium and context.  Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell are two African-American supermodels who have achieved grandeur exposure, wealth, and influence.  It would be ideal if both of these phenomenal black women could be admired for their accomplishments, but the media dictated that during the peak of their success in fashion, only one African-American woman could be the dominate force in modeling.

After more than a decade of rivalry, Banks utilized her position as the host of a syndicated television show to reconcile her relationship with Campbell.  Essayist Hawa Allan recounts this powerful episode of The Tyra Banks Show in her essay, “When Tyra Met Naomi: Race, Fashion, and Rivalry.” As Banks and Campbell conversed, they referred to the media formulating this rivalry between them.  However, Audre Lorde’s essay, “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger” provides alternative reasons for this continuous anger and rivalry between African-American women.

In the epilogue of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel, The Bluest Eye, it states that, “black beauty doesn’t need wide public articulation in order to exist.” Though this statement is extremely profound because it indicates that African Americans define their own beauty, black models must not only adhere to the aesthetics determined by the designers and the modeling firms that they are employed with, but they are also obligated to represent their culture in their work.

Though there was an enormous surge of African-American models on the global stage in the 1990s with not only Campbell and Banks, but several others, including Tyson Beckford and Alek Wek, there existed the need for rivalry to determine who the dominate African-American female model would be.  That competitive nature has existed in the fashion world for decades, but the deliberate division between Banks and Campbell may extend past fashion and into the anger that separates African-American women and causes them to resent each other.

Campbell and Banks were deemed as rivals before they were ever formally introduced and this caused immediate division between them.  The continuous referral of Banks as “the new Naomi Campbell” when she entered the modeling world at 17 sparked the rift between the two and it only escalated from there. According to Somali model, Iman, purposeful rifts between black supermodels have been occurring for decades.  In fact, she claims that the media attempted to create a similar conflict between her and another prominent supermodel, Beverly Johnson, in the 1970’s.  This purposeful destruction of the solidarity of African-American women in the fashion industry stems from a need to “reduce one another to our lowest common denominator, and then proceed to try to obliterate what we most desire to love and touch, the problematic self, unclaimed but fiercely guarded from the other.”

With African-Americans models being demanded for spring and summer collections since their complexions contrast well with the vibrant colors of designer collections, work is slim. But the media is active in ensuring that only one African-American female model can be prominent during one era.  Unfortunately for Campbell and Banks, the rise of one model threatened the foundation of the other which caused unnecessary rivalry, resentment, and anger.

This concept is discussed in the essay “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger.”  Due to the hatred that African-American women must contend with in their youth and continue to endure as they mature into adulthood, cruelty and anger is the result. This is often communicated through the interactions that African-American women have with each other.  Often, African-American women have greater expectations for other black women than for their Caucasian counterparts because of this unbridled self-resentment.  Tyra Banks is infamous for these harsh critiques towards aspiring African-American models on her program, America’s Next Top Model, but when confronted with similar expectations and anger from Campbell, she was confused.

In an era where Black women are influenced by media images that empower and offend them, the rivalry between these two prominent individuals and their eventual reconciliation on Banks’ syndicated television program, The Tyra Banks Show was a sign of solidarity of sisterhood among African-American women.  Though the media deemed that only one out of ten top models was to be Black and the threat of two dominant African-American models challenged the infrastructure of this unwritten rule. Nothing is more powerful than that.

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