Congolese Model Challenges China’s Love For ‘Tall, Light And Skinny’

As a young black woman modelling in Hong Kong, Harmony Anne-Marie Ilunga rarely saw anyone who looked like her in the magazines. Now the 22-year-old is trying to change that, one model at a time.

While the Black Lives Matter movement fuels debate and change in the fashion worlds of the United States and parts of Europe, industry figures say Asia’s beauty and body expectations remain dominated by an ideal that is pale, thin, and unrepresentative of the region.

As a young black woman modelling in Hong Kong, Harmony "Anne-Marie" Ilunga rarely saw anyone who looked like her in the magazines. Now the 22-year-old is trying to change that, one model at a time. As a young black woman modelling in Hong Kong, Harmony “Anne-Marie” Ilunga rarely saw anyone who looked like her in the magazines. Now the 22-year-old is trying to change that, one model at a time. Photo: AFPTV / Matthieu VERRIER

“I would walk into an agency and they told me that they prefer white models to black models,” Ilunga, who moved to Hong Kong as a child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told AFP.

“I remember just being shattered. I was 17, it just broke my heart.”

Again and again, she saw that models in the wealthy global finance hub — home to roughly 600,000 people of non-Chinese descent — were expected to be “tall, light, and skinny”.

Harmony Anne-Marie Ilunga opened a small agency in Hong Kong to champion models of all skin tones and sizes Harmony Anne-Marie Ilunga opened a small agency in Hong Kong to champion models of all skin tones and sizes Photo: AFP / Anthony WALLACE

The same was true of the massive fashion market in mainland China.

“I started lightening my skin, using lightening products… Just so that I could fit into society’s norms,” Ilunga explained.

While the Black Lives Matter movement fuels debate in the fashion world in the West, Asia's expectations are dominated by an ideal for pale and thin bodies While the Black Lives Matter movement fuels debate in the fashion world in the West, Asia’s expectations are dominated by an ideal for pale and thin bodies Photo: AFP / Anthony WALLACE

After rounds of rejections, in 2018 she opened her own small agency to champion models of all skin tones and sizes.

“Representation matters so much,” she said, adding she believes fashion is an accessible way to change minds — and prevent other young women from feeling they have to change.

Harmony Anne-Marie Ilunga says there is still resistance to black women in Hong Kong's modelling industry Harmony Anne-Marie Ilunga says there is still resistance to black women in Hong Kong’s modelling industry Photo: AFP / Peter PARKS

Ilunga’s agency now has 32 male and female models on its books from places such as Rwanda, Burundi, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines.

Harmony Anne-Marie Ilunga (L) moved to Hong Kong as a child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo Harmony Anne-Marie Ilunga (L) moved to Hong Kong as a child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo Photo: AFP / Anthony WALLACE

They have enjoyed some successes — though she admits changing attitudes is hard.

One of her most booked models, she said, is an 18-year-old Burundian.

“Most are not local brands, but they are brands that are trying to promote internationally — that’s the thing,” she said of the kind of clients willing to look beyond white or Asian models.

Asia's beauty and body expectations remain dominated by an ideal that is pale, thin, and unrepresentative of the region Asia’s beauty and body expectations remain dominated by an ideal that is pale, thin, and unrepresentative of the region Photo: AFP / Anthony WALLACE

Ilunga said she has found male black models are more sought

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