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Model Ebonee Davis on Speaking Up in Hollywood

In her first TED Talk, the supermodel gets candid about race in fashion and Meryl Streep

Ebonee Davis has covered a lot of ground since appearing in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Not much has changed in terms of her continued success, but what has changed for her,  or rather, what has finally captivated the attention of the masses,  is fashion’s role in the issue of racial inequality and how Davis plans to play a part towards the solution. Upon learning of Alton Sterling’s tragic death in the summer of 2016, Davis penned an open letter for Harper’s Bazaar in which she detailed how fashion has not only contributed to how black people have been misrepresented and perceived in culture, but why the industry has an even bigger responsibility to be a part of the solution. This same letter caught the eye of University of Nevada Professor Bret L. Simmons, which eventually led to her booking her most exciting job yet: a presentation for the prestigious TEDxUofNevada program.

With a topic this dense, Davis decided that to successfully zero-in on her point she had to make things personal. Specifically, to share moments like a simple trip to the beauty store with her grandmother. Back then, ‘90s beauty options lacked the even mediocre diversity that they do today. Upon seeing the store’s shelves lined with products that were meant to represent her (models with silky straight hair), Davis remembers her first feelings of not belonging.

“It made me feel like I couldn’t wear my hair [naturally],” she recalled, “Like it’s not beautiful.” Instances like these gave way to an equally exclusive experience breaking into the industry as a black woman and facing obstacles not uncommon to all models of color had to experience. She was intimidated to suggest that a shade of makeup wasn’t quite right or that her hair shouldn’t be damaged beyond repair.

“There’s the stereotype of the angry black woman that you’re trying to compete with,” she said, “So any time you speak up, even if it’s in the most respectful way possible, it’s often seen as a threat and not just as a constructive comment.” 

Although now, at least whenever she can, that narrative is slowly starting to turn around. Continuing to use her platform and joining forces with fellow models like Cameron Russell who shares an equally large following, Davis looks to inspire other players in the fashion industry to act, or to at least speak up.

“To me silence is violent. However you feel, take a stance. It doesn’t have to be political,” she said. Although soon after saying this, Davis hit a roadblock familiar to most when trying to think of anything remotely affecting that doesn’t turn bipartisan.

As Davis mentioned, just a few weekends ago Meryl Streep took the stage of the 2017 Golden Globes to accept the lifetime achievement Cecil B. DeMille Award and gave a speech entirely dedicated to the current political climate. The ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hilton felt Streep’s message loud and clear, but without fail, the opposition to her speech pierced through from homes across the country. Amongst those who didn’t feel as moved by Streep’s message one questioned permeated the night’s social channels: Why should an actress, or anyone in Hollywood for that matter, have a say in politics at all? To that question Davis couldn’t help but chuckle, albeit incredulously. “Actually no one has ever really asked me that,” she continued, “but why not?” 

Ebonee Davis will indeed speak up because inequality still exists, and because she can tell you first hand how success doesn’t make one immune.

“I think it’s a cop out when people say ‘oh, I’m just a model.’” She continued, “You’re not just a model at this point, you’re not just an actor at this point, you’re an advocate. You’re sending a message to society. What we create is ultimately a reflection of the state of our democracy.”