The Black Barbies Of Instagram
How former “Instagram models” like Lira Galore and The Clermont Twins are building careers in an industry consumed with white beauty.
In January, Lira Galore posted a video to Instagram of her unbound hair: all 28 mesmerizing inches of it, slipping past the model and self-styled influencer’s heart-shaped backside like ink. The caption: “Hair Slay Of Life” punctuated by two fire emoji. The video featured no music, but Galore’s measurements — 36 x 26 x 44 — rang as clear as any song. Still, the post was not without its share of critics: one user commented, “Keep walking them streets to get that money.”
A couple of hours before Galore posted this video for her 3.3 million followers, we were on FaceTime. “I think a woman should be able to do what she wants,” she told me. “Black women are sexy. Our hair, our skin, our bodies. We’ve always been classy enough.” Her skin is poreless, with high cheekbones and a chiseled jaw — features you’d see in a high-fashion magazine. Her frame is another matter. Curves on black women are almost never praised in mainstream magazines like Vogue or Elle. Galore’s proportions shift her out of mainstream respectability, and she finds this division reductive. Increasingly, photos and videos like the ones she posts, featuring young women of color parading their beauty as a way of seeking agency, are the subject of condemnation from conservative outlets, internet trolls, and people who believe women should subscribe to a particular kind of respectability politics. “That’s the biggest criticism I receive. The way I dress. The content I put out and who I choose to date. They love to pick those things apart.”
Along with women like India Love and Karrueche Tran, Galore has been pigeonholed into what has become known as the “Instagram model” — a derisive way of referring to the many young women who have built, or are hoping to build, careers using the social platform.
Galore and I went to middle and high school together in Houston, Texas nearly nine years ago. I knew her then as Tylira Mercer. She was a bold girl who stirred controversy wherever she went. Then, like now, there were constant debate about her looks: Was her hair really hers? Did she wear padded jeans, or was she just blessed by puberty? She never gave into the chatter, instead we’d sit in class and talk about our dreams and goals. There were stipulations she was expected to adhere to, but she never did. She inspired me, disciplined and focused, choosing to create a life she loves. She worked in a strip club as a dancer, graduated with honors, and purchased her first car with cash. “I promised my mom I wouldn’t get lost in the sauce,” Galore said. “I had a goal: to make a certain amount of money and then get out. When I reached that goal, I was done.” Within two years she’d transitioned into music videos for artists like Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and modeling for publications like BlackMen magazine. But as she built a following on social media off of legitimate work where she was paid to look good, the phrase “Instagram model” was attached to her name.
“Color is always going to be a factor in what brands see. But black women inform all forms of media.” —Lira Galore
Galore believes that the distinction between “regular models” and “Instagram models” is class-based, and reaffirmed by delusions of superiority. For her, there’s no separation. “Modeling is modeling. I think it’s stupid to try and separate ourselves because we might use Instagram exclusively. [Instagram] is the avenue we have,” she told me, refuting the label but aware of the platform’s power. “Other models use it to promote themselves and their brands — why can’t we?”
Shannon and Shannade are known as The Clermont Twins. After their appearance as sirens in Future’s “Real Sisters” video, shoots with Terry Richardson and Rony Alwin, and a short-lived stint on Oxygen’s Bad Girls Club, their Instagram holds nearly 400,000 followers. “We’re actually so picky when we post stuff on Insta,” said Shannade. When I met the twins at Motherburger in midtown Manhattan, we were cushioned near a window seat against the wall. Despite our position, the twins still seemed to be the center of attention. They were dressed exquisitely in lush fur and glossy leather, a hefty Birkin bag in tow. “Sometimes we go weeks without posting because we pick out every flaw.” Shannon added, “Instagram has made it easier for models to show their portfolio. You don’t need a contract to get work anymore.” But neither of them are naive about the racial barriers placed in front of them. “When it comes to visibility though, I do feel like the majority of the time, women of color do not get the same amount of exposure as a non-ethnic woman,” Shannon continued.
Social media has regurgitated its own tropes about Instagram models to reinforce society’s supposed beauty standards. The narrative on Instagram is that at some point white women “evolved.” Enhanced by stance or surgery, women like Rosie Roff, Iskra Lawrence, and Alexis Ren use Instagram in the same way as Galore or the Clermonts, but are more often rewarded with lucrative contracts with agencies like IMG or Wilhelmina and major endorsements (Ren’s modeling clients include Calvin Klein, L’Oréal, and Express). These women can strip on subways in the name of “body positivity” or wear tight-fitting rompers and tanks by Fashion Nova and still be called modest. It’s the same game that Galore and the Clermont Twins perfected, but with drastically different rules and outcomes.
The containment of black beauty, in all of its variation, has historical roots. In 1786, New Orleans was a melting pot of beauty. Free black women were able to do as they pleased, but the anxiety of white women over this perceived “danger” informed a series of restrictive laws that made up the Edict For Good Government. An order passed by Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro declared: “Free Negresses, mulatresses, and quadroons were indulging in an idleness that was prejudicial to the good order of the Providence and leading them into lives of licentiousness and incontinence.” To white women and white men, black women were symbols of moral looseness that could shift conventions of beauty and power.
Eventually more legislation was passed that prevented black women from wearing finery or allowing their hair to be free. In June of 1786, Miro implemented tignon laws that rendered any “excessive” attention to dress or hair a criminal offense. “Luxury in dress would be proof presumptive of their guilt and would lead to an immediate inquiry, perhaps an expulsion from the government.” And so: the black woman was not allowed to wear her liberty in attitude, or as attire. To be dressed was an incendiary weapon.
Though no such laws exist today, the liberties allowed to black women on Instagram have been limiting. In a 2014 Vanity Fair spread, fitness Instagrammer Jen Selter was credited as the creator of the “belfie” — a backside selfie — in a story that claimed how her “derrière extraordinaire has made her a member of a rapidly rising subset of Instagram stars: young women unafraid to share their deeply bronzed, sculpted figures in neon spandex.” Selter, who has a very small frame, was photographed wearing an exquisite Louis Vuitton bodysuit and held up as an emblem of sophistication. Along with Iskra Lawrence and others, Selter performs the entrepreneurial modes created by black women, but profits under a veil of whiteness. Add to this: our growing reliance on social platforms has only made this form of cultural and financial co-optation more widespread. It has allowed for white women to take ownership of a cultural aesthetic that black and brown women have always worn with pride despite the world’s reluctance to accept them.
“Color is always going to be a factor in what brands see,” Galore said. “But black women inform all forms of media.” So when will black women profit?
In the coming months, Galore plans to launch a makeup line and the Clermont Twins told me they have a handful of “special projects” on the horizon. In doing so, they are on a path to join women like Keyshia Ka’oir, Blac Chyna, and Amber Rose — entrepreneurs who were able to flip their allure into an empire. “We determine our own destiny,” Shannade reaffirmed. “If we want it, and it’s meant to be, in due time. We don’t think there’s any door that isn’t open for us.”