The worlds of fashion, beauty and cinema are becoming increasingly more diverse and inclusive. Yet, while it's commonplace to see people from across the globe – irrespective of race or nationality – on billboards and movie screens today, there are some sections of society that still remain woefully under-represented.
This is why Bareface, a modelling agency in Dubai, has launched its new Talent of Determination division. Its aim is to represent people with disabilities, disorders and alternative appearance in campaigns across the UAE.
Vera Nur, head of agency, says she wanted to start such a division for years, because she has family members with autism and has seen, first-hand, how representation in advertisement campaigns can be a game-changer.
“This should have always been the standard – there shouldn’t be people who can and can’t model, as long as they are photogenic and passionate about it,” she says.
Bareface, which launched in 2001, has been at the forefront of talent development in the UAE for years, but Nur is candid about the fact that people of determination still do not get equal opportunity in the world of modelling – something she hopes this initiative will change.
“There is no demand right now, but we are going to create the demand."
The initiative will invite people of determination to sign contracts, just like other models. At the same time, it will ensure their individual needs are catered for, be it by having a carer on set or ensuring dietary or environmental requirements are looked after.
The division already has 15 adult and child models signed up, with more in the process of joining.
Changing the face of fashion and beauty in the UAE
In 2020, Huda Beauty added more shades to its FauxFilter Stick Foundation, and its campaign featured a number of diverse models. That included Dubai resident Iman Somani, 17, who has albinism.
The Canadian pupil has been interested in modelling since she was 14 and signed up with Bareface years ago. However, she says she had "little castings and no jobs".
“I lost hope and was thinking of moving back to Canada [to pursue modelling]. But then in July 2020, I received a call from Bareface for a job for a make-up company. I had to tell myself not to get my hopes high, as I love that industry. But a few days after the audition, I was told I got the job.
"It was the experience of a lifetime – to be a part of the product line. I even got the opportunity to meet Huda Kattan. I was nervous, but she was very kind and welcoming. I really commend what she's doing in the industry and hope more companies follow suit."
Somani says growing up with albinism brought its challenges. "With time, I've learnt to accept myself physically – the only challenge is my vision. I have a vision impairment and I'm light sensitive, and that affects everything I do."
Growing up, she did not see any models or celebrities with albinism, something she describes as “demotivating”. “So when I was invited to be part of an alternate appearance campaign, that promotes a high standard of beauty and changes the way beauty is looked at, I agreed.
"I think the fashion and beauty industry has changed a lot over the past few years in becoming diverse, but there's still a long way to go," she says. "I hope with this [new Bareface initiative] I can be part of a bigger change."
'Normalising' Down syndrome
Dubai resident Johanna Said heard about the initiative through a WhatsApp group for parents of children with Down syndrome – and immediately thought it was a brilliant idea.
"I had just been talking to a friend about how the UAE is so supportive of people of determination. But the one thing that seemed to be missing was really putting a face to it – seeing these people in campaigns," she says.
The mother of Emilio, 3, wanted to highlight how "undifferent" her son was to the rest of society by signing him up. His reaction to the first shoot, which was for his portfolio with the agency, was "very much like any other child his age", Said says. "He was a bit wary about the flashing camera at first but then warmed up to it."
Said hopes her son's involvement will help to change how people with Down syndrome are perceived in the country.
“When you see a child who is different, people tend to have a sympathetic reaction. I used to have that, too, but now I know that they’re living full lives. Emilio lives in abundance, and I think that’s what people need to realise.
"Sure, there are challenges, but all of us have challenges and that just makes us all even more similar. If we were able to see all types of people fronting campaigns, maybe we will start seeing them as perfectly normal.”
Lucy Davis, an Abu Dhabi mum of three, agrees. Her daughter, Tallulah, who turns 4 this month, also signed up with Bareface. “I think there’s a lot more representation these days, we are seeing more faces of people of determination on television and in adverts – so there is a shift. And Down syndrome is naturally a great one to advocate, because it’s visible to see. I’m proud that this division is advertising their own kind of beauty.”
She says Tallulah was over the moon to be a part of the initiative, although Lucy admits the portfolio shoot wasn’t particularly easy. “There was a lot of bribery involved. She wandered round the studio during the set-up as she likes to know where she is, but then she got around to it.”
The end result was worth any effort, though. “Talullah was very pleased to see the pictures of her. She loves her grandparents, who she hasn’t been able to see in a long time, but she immediately wanted us to send the pictures to granny. She was pretty happy, as were her siblings; now her sisters want photos, too!”
Creating a sense of identity
Emily Ray, whose son Sam was diagnosed with Angelman syndrome four years ago, has been keen to raise awareness about the rare genetic condition ever since.
Sam, 5, is non-verbal and has cognitive development delays, but he's a happy child, who loves meeting people and going out, so there's no reason why he can't model, Ray says.
“My daughter, who is 6, had been modelling, but when I looked at similar opportunities for Sam, it wasn’t part of mainstream culture." So when she heard about Bareface's new project, she thought it was “fantastic”.
“When the lights were focused on him during the shoot, he was a bit restless, so he went to the other side of the room and sat in a sofa, and that’s where he was happiest. Sam does what feels comfortable and it’s up to the adults to adjust – and he has a lovely time. You just need the photographer to understand that this is not a stereotypical shoot.”
No matter what challenges they come across, Ray says it's imperative that people such as Sam are seen on billboards and across other media.
“When a person of determination sees someone who looks like them being represented in society, it immediately gives them a sense of identity. It makes them see that they are an important part of society. Meanwhile, it’s also important to remind people who don’t know any people of determination that these lovely individuals exist and are very much part of society.”