It’s a vibrant summer day. A young mother is in a park lying on the hunter green grass carpet. She is holding up her smart phone with her giddy daughter, Bryse, attempting to capture this moment of carefree life and motherly joy. But this pose is a little too perfect for Bryse. So she clamps mom’s lips together like a clam and they try to contain their laughter. Together, they stare upward with their brown bold eyes — imbued with the impish joy of living in the moment.
This is what photographers live for – the unspoken library of fleeting moments in the narrative of our lives.
Welcome, Devyn Abdullah, to the world of modelling.
– Sometimes We Must Disrupt The Image In Order To Truly See It –
Not since supermodel Naomi Campbell graced the cover of Vogue has there been an up-and-coming fashion model quite like Devyn Abdullah. This winning contestant from season 1 of “The Face” — produced by Naomi Campbell — created a stir in 2013 when during an interview on the Wendy Williams show she was quoted as not viewing herself as a black model and that she doesn’t believe in labeling herself by race.
There was a disruption in the racial circuitry that day. A tectonic shift in the socio-politics of being Black. Suddenly, it became a slight against the African-American community to NOT declare her ‘blackness’.
But being a struggling single parent who was once on the verge of homelessness forged Devyn’s emotional resiliency against such criticism. While being interviewed on a panel for Women & Fashion FilmFest in December 2014, she responded with a singular maturity and wisdom beyond most of her peers in the fashion and entertainment industry:
“During the interview Wendy is very cut-throat as we know,” Devyn says as several panelists smile. “She get down in there. She gets her hands dirty. She asked me how I feel about being an African-American woman in the industry, how I feel as a black model. And my response was ‘I don’t feel like a black model. I’m sorry.’ Naomi took offense to it. She blew up about it.”
There was a serenity about Devyn as she spoke to the predominately black female audience. There was no bitterness or vitriol — only an earnest explanation:
“My answer was my answer. I feel like an international person, an international woman. Regardless of my skin, my culture, where my family is from, where I’m from. It doesn’t matter what skin you’re in. I hate when people say ‘African-American model’ or ‘Asian model’. No matter what you are, modeling is a profession, it’s a talent. In my eyes that was putting me in a box. I’m not just a black model. I relate to all women. No matter what skin color. And you’re going to recognize that I am a woman that loves modeling. Whether I have a ‘fro or whether I have my hair permed down to my back, whether I have a weave, no matter what color my hair is, that’s who I am and you’re going to recognize me for that.”
Then Devyn added a defining example of why Wendy Williams’ question and the over-reaction of the media to the answer was petty and antiquated:
“When you go see a dentist you don’t say ‘I have this great dentist. His name is Dr. Philips and he’s black.’ Why would you describe him in those terms? Being a black doctor has nothing to do with his talent, it has nothing to do with his profession.”
But her passionate and thoughtful explanation was not as popular as the negative hype. Some media outlets exploited her openness by taking her statements out of context and attempting to portray her as rejecting her racial heritage. Even iconic figures like Wendy Williams and Naomi Campbell may have, intentionally or unintentionally, muted Devyn’s personal voice and actually marginalized her experience by focusing on the label ‘black model’ and not on Devyn’s racial autonomy — her right to define herself as a human being. It is disheartening that more members of of the African-American and multicultural community didn’t stand behind Devyn and supported her courage to speak honestly, assert herself, and declare her identity as a woman of color without limiting her individuality. To put it another way, Devyn upgraded her social operating system while many of us are still running Race version 1.0.
– An Amazing Grace –
And what about the lucrative modeling contract promised to the winner of The Face? Devyn Abdullah was contracted by Direct Model Management when she appeared on The Face in 2013. After winning the first season, she was slated to become brand ambassador for Ultra Beauty cosmetics. Sadly, as many reality show winners have come to realize, what is promised doesn’t always materialize. Devyn was forced to file a federal law suit against Direct Model Management claiming the owners “wrongfully withheld at least $13,000 of her prize payments”. The suit, brought by The Dugger Law Firm, PLLC, included violations of federal and state wage and hour laws, as well as breach of contract. Devyn left Direct Model Management, which is defunct as of the date of this article.
It would have been easy for Devyn to lose faith in the modeling industry after her legal battle. But, instead, it was with a graceful spirit and an uncommon maturity that led Devyn out of that exploitive situation with her old management company. She learned how to hold her representatives accountable for their professional commitments. This new-found empowerment allowed her to forging a better relationship with her new modeling agency, One Management. Instead of harboring bitterness, distrust, and resentment she responded by setting better expectations and asking the right kinds of question at the beginning.
“Before you get into this industry,” Devyn advises, “you should take a business course. Otherwise you may become a slave to the industry.” She never had mentoring to help her. She’s learning on her own.
Unlike many others in the industry, Devyn doesn’t hide her daughter from her career — she incorporates her into the fold, they embrace the world of fashion as a power duo. Devyn’s daughter is able to see her mom is constantly redefining herself. She brings her daughter to fashion shows to see people from all walks of life doing what they love. “You’re letting your cup overflow into theirs,” Devyn adds. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. [Being] a creative is what we’re meant to do.” Devyn’s view of modeling is that new opportunities can be hit-or-miss and she must always be ready. “I wanted people to understand being a model is more than just your looks. Being a model is a 24-hour job and so is being a mother. “ For Devyn, being a full time mom and model “is difficult but it’s manageable”.
– A ‘Parting Shot’ –
Against a red background, we see Devyn’s left profile; she is smiling with her bright eyelids closed as she touches her forehead, wearing a rainbow-striped jacket, golden flowing earrings, and beaded necklace. Even with the cornucopia of fashion colors and textures, the focal point is Devyn’s face, her demure smile.
This is what makes Devyn an artist – it is her ability to obscure her internal myriad of thoughts and feelings, becoming a model of what the photographer envisions in that instant. In this case, she projects a stylistic luxury with gentle humility. She is confident and bold while still exuding a silent, fashionable grace. She represents a visual disruption in our expectations. Her physical beauty, race, ethnicity, and gender are all on display but not as labels or boxes. Nothing about her is reductive. She appears to us not merely as a model of fashion but of intersectionality. Devyn is clothed in a racial identity and self-worth of her own design.
Another unspoken moment in the narrative of life.
– End –
Follow Devyn On Instagram @Devyn_abdullah
The Disruptors! (A Multi-Part Series)
People who break convention and disrupt the status quo have always fascinated me. So ever since I became a writer, I dreamed of telling the world about these brave individuals, unsung heroes who we meet everyday. I hope you join me on this journey — you may find you have more in common with these people than you ever realized. Perhaps YOU are a disruptor, too!