Photography Katie Levine
Mamé Adjei is late for our phone interview, but for good reason. She’s on a call with the CEO of the luxury beauty concierge app Bonnti to discuss the Black Beauty Roster, a database of hairstylists and makeup artists equipped with the skills to work on models of color. With its launch, Adjei hopes to rid production companies and agencies of any excuses not to diversify their staff. The Ghanaian-American model knows all too well what it’s like to show up to a set where the staff is not prepared to work with her.
“I’ve done my own makeup on set, in South Africa for example, for a five-day campaign. Why didn't I get paid [the makeup artist’s] rate? I should have gotten her rate. She just came to set, sat there, and looked at me,” she discloses. “Are you a professional if you really only know how to do people that look like you? No, you're not.”
Adjei is well-prepared to be a catalyst for change in the modeling industry. She grew up travelling the world with her father, a Ghanaian diplomat, who inspired her initial desires to study law, work with the United Nations, and affect change on a policy level. Prior to becoming a full-fledged model, she earned her degree in political science and African-American studies with a business minor at Virginia Commonwealth University. She was applying to law schools when she received an opportunity to join the pageant world, which she took by the reigns, going on to land the title of Miss Maryland USA in 2015.
Later that year she became a top-five Miss USA finalist amid a controversial year for the pageant then-owned by Donald Trump. As he fired off racist statements along his presidential campaign trail, major networks and sponsors pulled out of the event. His unabashed alienation of people of color even bled through to his personal interactions with contestants, Adjei recalls of an event he attended.
“He literally looked me up and down and sneered,” she says. “[He] only gave a handshake to the white girl next to me––Miss Rhode Island Teen, and totally just dismissed my existence like I wasn’t even there. I was like wow, he is fucked up.”
Such experiences have taught her to approach jobs with caution. She timidly joined Cycle 22 of America’s Next Top Model, worried she’d exit the show viewed as a reality star rather than a serious model, but Adjei’s experience was ultimately positive. Her second-place finish further launched her into a flourishing career that has since included campaigns with Fiorucci, Urban Decay, and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty.
Despite her success, Adjei still finds herself in professional situations where she’s treated differently due to the color of her skin. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police and the subsequent explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, she decided enough is enough. On June 13, she published a powerful open letter asking the fashion industry to do better. She calls on brands, agents, photographers, and casting directors to hire more Black people in all areas of the modeling field and to ensure that they receive equitable treatment.
So far the letter has been effective. Through an employee of her agency, Models 1, she’s heard that it might be making its way to the chair of the British Fashion Council. “I hope that’s true and that they weren’t just gassing me up,” she laughs.
Industry-wide change, unfortunately, doesn’t come overnight, and unfavorable situations are still going to arise until it does. Luckily Adjei’s academic background comes in clutch to educate others on a case-by-case basis, as she had to do in response to a major beauty brand’s recent casting call.
“They asked for Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, and dark-skinned Black girls––‘Adut Akech coloring’...as if she were a color from a crayon box,” she recalls. “[The casting director] might not have known that what she was saying was a microaggression and racist, but by me bringing it to light, she sent me an email like, 'I'm so sorry that they worded it that way. They just wanted to make a point that they wanted dark skin.' And I was like, then say you want a dark-skinned girl, because then you're also adding to the colorism in our community.”
“If there aren't Black people on the marketing team, the ad agencies, and the production companies that are producing these advertisements, then I just become tokenized as the Black girl needed for this campaign, versus the Black woman who has a voice, and a platform, and can contribute to this campaign,” she details. “My skin is not a trend, and it's not to be tokenized.”
Adjei has already gone to great lengths with her activism in the modeling industry, but she wants to keep the momentum going. She also recently launched Victory Over Circumstance, a platform for all types of women, especially women of color, to share their stories. She wants to showcase the tenacity of women in all walks of life whose stories may otherwise go unheard.
“I believe there’s a lot of freeing through storytelling, so I really want to uplift and empower us to be vulnerable with ourselves, and to share what we’ve been going through, and to build a camaraderie that way, so that we can really help each other out,” she elates. “I've heard the craziest stories from some of my friends. I'm like, you went through what? And you're still this happy, abundant, beautiful person? And you're able to pour into other people?”
As she shares her own stories, uplifts those from others, and continues to speak up against injustices, Mame Adjei is not only making the modeling industry a better place for herself, but for generations of Black models to come––and she’s not stopping anytime soon. “I’m not afraid of the industry, because they didn’t make me. They can’t take it away.”