Lineisy Montero rose to supermodel stardom against steep odds.
To start with, she was not interested. She’s timid. She does not like to wear makeup. She used to trip on high-heeled shoes. And in her native Dominican Republic, girls like her were not generally viewed as beautiful.
Montero was 14 years old, skinny, dark-skinned, much taller than her friends in school. She wore her hair in an Afro or pajón style, as frizzy hair is disparagingly referred to in her country. But one day, a mysterious man who had scared her by following her through an amusement park in Santo Domingo turned out to be a talent scout for a modeling agency.
“He told my mother, ‘Look, your daughter is tall and pretty, and can be a model,’ ” Montero, now 19 years old, recalled during a recent interview from New York, where she lives when she’s not working in Paris. “Mami and I looked at him like he was crazy. Mami gave him her phone number, but we didn’t pay much attention. The truth is, we didn’t believe him.”
Five years later, Montero has turned into one of the favorites in the fashion capitals of the world, walking the runways for important haute couture houses. After her debut with Prada, just nine months ago, she became the most popular model in the New York and Paris spring shows that ended this fall. She was the subject of articles in magazines such as Teen Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar because she was the only model in the Prada show who sported an Afro, not seen for years. The newspaper The Guardian reported her photos “unleashed a wave of enthusiasm in the social networks.”
Montero is one of a group of Dominican young women rising in the world of international modeling even as they challenge the Euro-centric standards of beauty in their own country and the much criticized lack of diversity in the modeling industry in general.
Vogue, regarded as the bible of fashion, reported in October that the most popular models currently come from the Dominican Republic. The headline read, “Forget Brazil — The Models Everyone’s Talking About Now Are All From the Dominican Republic.”
And of the five women mentioned in the article, four are black.
“Sadly, there’s still a lot of racism in our country, and in many cases these girls have been denied opportunities, have been discriminated against,” said Carlos Lamarche, a Dominican journalist and fashion expert living in New York.
Putting women like Montero on the international runways has been a years-long project of a small group of model company agents that Lamarche describes as “visionaries” — among them Sandro Guzmán, Socrates McKinney and Luis Menieur. The latter discovered Arlenis Sosa walking down a Santo Domingo street eight years ago. Today she is the most recognized Dominican model, showing up in campaigns for Lancôme, H&M and Victoria’s Secret.
“They had the vision of searching for a type of beauty that was not appreciated,” said Lamarche, who is producing a documentary, Dominicana, about the successes and frustrations of the country’s top models. It is to make its debut in 2017.
“This movement is just beginning to gather strength,” Lamarche added. “I would compare it to the baseball industry in the Dominican Republic, but with a more interesting dynamic because baseball is masculine, strong, and so the image of the baseball players is not that important.”
Guzman, with the Ossygeno Models Management company that discovered Montero, said that one of his most difficult jobs is to persuade the young women that they are beautiful.
“You can’t imagine how hard we have to work to make them understand that their characteristics, the color of their skins, their natural eyebrows, their Afro hair, are beautiful and that they should keep it that way,” Guzmán, a veteran of 20 years in the fashion industry, said in a phone interview from Santo Domingo. “Many of them come to [modeling] classes with their hair gathered up and then let it loose here. When I ask them why they do that, they tell me that they can’t leave their neighborhoods looking like that, because they are shouted and laughed at.”
Rose Cordero was 14 years old when Guzmán saw her coming out of the Olympic Center in Santo Domingo, where she played volleyball. Guzmán parked his car and ran after her, shouting for her to stop and talk to him.
“I grabbed a rock, put it in my backpack and figured I’d see what this guy wanted,” Cordero recalled between laughs during a phone interview from her home in New York. “He told me I could be a model, but I did not believe him.”
Noting Cordero’s hesitation, Guzmán gave her a business card and told her to talk to his mother and call his agency.
Cordero called Guzmán’s agency, but only one year later, after an aunt saw the talent scout on a television interview.
“My aunt said, ‘Girl, it’s true. Let’s call, because this can change your life,’ ” said Cordero, who is now 22 and has a 3-year-old girl. “We went to a neighbor who had a telephone, and the next day we went to the agency.”
COVER OF VOGUE
Just a few months later, Cordero walked down a runway in New York. And at the age of 16, in March 2010, she made history when she hit the cover of Vogue Paris. She was only the fourth black woman to appear alone on the cover of the most important fashion magazine in the world.
“I saw them editing my photo and they put the word ‘Vogue’ over my face, but it didn’t mean anything to me at the time,” Cordero said. “After the shoot was over, I called my agent in New York and he told me that was the most important magazine and that my life would change from then on. I was going down some stairs and I fell, because my knees buckled from the nerves.”
Cordero said she feels that she has achieved all her goals in the world of fashion and now wants to study medicine in New York and bring her family from Santo Domingo.
Montero is the oldest of three siblings; her mother, Enercida Feliz, cleans homes in Santo Domingo. Feliz cut her university studies to subsidize her daughter’s career, and now Montero wants to fulfill her dream of building a home and opening a restaurant for her family.
Guzmán said that although modeling agencies provide scholarships to young women with few resources, their training represents a sacrifice for families dreaming of seeing their daughters succeed abroad. Sometimes the families become frustrated when the daughters do not succeed.
“When I tell a family that their daughter has been signed by an agency, they believe we’re going to get a check, because that’s how it is with baseball players,” said Guzmán. “But this is not baseball. In modeling, that means we found an international agency willing to represent her and arrange a work visa. In reality, they don’t start to earn money until they have been signed to various contracts.”
Getting experience in modeling is a challenge in part because of discrimination in the Dominican Republic.
“There are magazines that don’t dare to put a black model on their covers, or that put them only once a year,” said Airam Toribio, head of the Multimedios El Caribe magazines and editor of Pandora, one of the few publications that regularly features dark-skinned girls on its pages. The magazine was the first to put Montero on its cover, before her international breakthrough.
Toribio emphasized that discrimination in the fashion industry is not exclusive to the Dominican Republic. “If you look at international fashion shows, the majority of the models are white,” she said.
During the spring season when Montero made her debut, 79 percent of the models booked for the shows were Caucasian. Barely 1.6 percent were Hispanic, according to a report in businessoffashion.com. Some industry members have been pushing for more inclusion, such as former model Bethann Hardison, an African-American activist who launched a campaign to push for the hiring of more black models.
Despite that under-representation, the splash black Dominican models can make in a country where about 80 percent of the population is Afro-descendant is promising.
“It can have an impact on the appreciation for the diversity of beauty in our country. In fact I do think that things are improving,” Toribio said. “If what’s happening right now does not start to change things, the truth is I don’t know what would do it.”
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