Beauty brands want diverse faces, not diverse voices

Beauty brands want empowered, outspoken faces who don’t actually say anything.
Beauty brands want empowered, outspoken faces who don’t actually say anything.
Image: L'Oréal Paris
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Earlier this month, when L’Oréal Paris UK hired British beauty blogger Amena Khan to be the face of its new hair care line, Elvive, the cosmetics company—the largest in the world—was celebrated for choosing a model wearing a hijab to front a hair campaign.

“How many brands are doing things like this? Not many,” Khan told Vogue UK at the time, noting that just because you don’t see someone’s hair doesn’t mean that they don’t take care of it. “They’re literally putting a girl in a headscarf…in a hair campaign.” It was an important step towards representation on the brand’s part.

But less than two weeks after that Vogue UK interview, Khan found out that L’Oréal Paris didn’t want her voice after all. She was asked to step down after tweets in which she condemned Israel resurfaced from 2014. Khan made the announcement personally on her Instagram:

L’Oréal Paris UK also released a statement:

We have recently been made aware of a series of tweets posted in 2014 by Amena Khan, who was featured in a U.K. advertising campaign. We appreciate that Amena has since apologised for the content of these tweets and the offense they have caused. L’Oréal Paris is committed to tolerance and respect towards all people. We agree with her decision to step down from the campaign.

This is not the first time that L’Oréal Paris UK has severed its relationship with a model because of personal views expressed on social media. In September 2017, the company dropped British transgender DJ and activist Munroe Bergdorf, who was the face of their YoursTruly True Match campaign. Bergdorf, it seems, had expressed controversial views on race and privilege.

“Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more,” she wrote in August on Facebook. “Most of ya’ll don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour.” The post was deleted shortly afterwards.

Like with Khan, L’Oréal Paris released a statement explaining their diversity policy upon firing Bergdorf:

We support diversity and tolerance towards all people irrespective of their race, background, gender and religion. […] We believe that the recent comments by Munroe Bergdorf are at odds with those values, and as such we have taken the decision to end the partnership with her.

Beauty brands claim to celebrate diversity—but they often want to pretend that that diversity doesn’t come with diverse political views. This month, Revlon announced Israeli actress Gal Gadot as their new Global Brand Ambassador, a decision that could easil alienate the lucrative Arab Middle Eastern cosmetics market. There is precedent: Gadot’s film Wonder Woman was banned from theaters in Lebanon due to her past as an Israeli soldier. And Gadot has made pro-Israel political statements on Facebook before. Revlon said the Gadot partnership is part of “a broader representation of women because we are a brand that represents women all around the world,” said Anne Talley, global brand president of Revlon to WWD.

But contrary to what Talley says, not every woman feels represented by Revlon. When Gadot’s new campaign was announced, Amani Al-Khatahtbe, who founded the MuslimGirl blog in 2009 as a teenager in New Jersey, declined the Revlon Changemaker Award. “I cannot accept this award from Revlon with Gal Gadot as the ambassador,” Al-Khatahtbe wrote on Instagram this month. “Her vocal support of the Israeli Defense Forces’ actions in Palestine goes against’s morals and values.”

Beauty brands need to do their homework before they appoint their public faces. Because while they seek the benefits of being committed to diversity, they’re still unsure how to manage spokespeople who are influential precisely because they have diverse political views. “Beauty touches on so many interesting topics: it’s not just how to apply eyeliner,” Condé Nast beauty magazine Allure editor in chief Michelle Lee explained to Makers in 2016. “Beauty touches on sociology, psychology, gender and political issues, race, business, there’s such a wealth of topics when it comes to appearance.” In July 2017, under Lee’s editorship, Muslim American model Halima Aden covered the “American Beauty” issue of Allure, making her the first hijab-wearing model on the cover of an American fashion magazine.

But as L’Oréal Paris and Revlon’s decisions have shown, beauty brands don’t get the privilege of being both apolitical and committed to diversity at the same time. The brands don’t want to risk controversial stances, but their spokesmodels are making political statements on social media anyway. Gadot, Bergdorf, and Khan were chosen explicitly because they “weren’t just another pretty face.”  And yet they are reduced to just pretty faces when they’re asked to take the fall for their political beliefs. It’s not the faces that need a voice—it’s the beauty brands that don’t have one at all.