SMILE, DON’T SPEAK
L’Oréal Loves Its Diverse Models—as Long as They Don’t Have Opinions
The cosmetics company laps up positive press for hiring inclusively—but has now bid farewell to two trailblazers who dared speak their minds.
L’Oréal Paris, the world’s largest cosmetics and beauty company, appears to be having difficulty finding diverse faces that aren’t attached to complicated, opinionated human beings.
In recent years, L’Oréal has made a deliberate effort to move away from the homogeneity of traditionally white, cis beauty spokeswomen. These efforts are simultaneously progressive and a reminder of just how little progress has been made. Two models, Munroe Bergdorf and Amena Khan, were both firsts for the company—the first trans woman to feature in a L’Oréal Paris UK campaign and the first hijab-wearing woman to star in a major hair campaign, respectively.
The fact that these women broke down barriers at all marks a complicated victory, as they doubtlessly would have preferred to go about their work without being heralded as symbols of inclusivity. But heralded they were, earning some positive press for L’Oréal in the process.
A Vogue UK interview with Khan earlier this month found the beauty influencer effusively praising the cosmetics company, gushing, “How many brands are doing things like this? Not many. They’re literally putting a girl in a headscarf—whose hair you can’t see—in a hair campaign. Because what they’re really valuing through the campaign is the voices that we have.” Khan continued, “I always wanted to be somehow in television or in media but it felt like a pipe dream and that’s why I didn’t pursue it, because I didn’t think there would be anything for me. Which is a shame. I think seeing a campaign like this would have given me more of a sense of belonging. I trusted L’Oréal that they would communicate the message well. If the message is authentic and the voice behind it is authentic, you can’t deny what’s being said.”
The Vogue reporter wrote that, “L’Oréal Paris has transformed its ‘Worth It’ messaging in recent years in an attempt to democratise those words, making a diverse range of people feel celebrated rather than limiting it to the Doutzens, the Karlies and the Cheryls of this world.” But L’Oréal’s mission in that regard has recently missed the mark.
Last August, Munroe Bergdorf was celebrated as the recently-announced face of L’Oréal’s True Match campaign, which The Guardian described as “a campaign that marries makeup to social justice.” Just days after the news dropped, the 30-year-old model and DJ was fired over a post-Charlottesville social media post. In the post, Bergdorf wrote, “Honestly I don't have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people. Because 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. Your entire existence is drenched in racism. From micro-aggressions to terrorism, you guys built the blueprint for this shit.” She added, “Once white people begin to admit their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth … then we can talk.”
Bergdorf told The Guardian that L’Oréal subsequently called her to discuss a Daily Mail story about the post. She recalled, “I kept explaining the context and the full post and they wouldn’t listen.” After L’Oréal fired Bergdorf, they released a statement saying, “We support diversity and tolerance towards all people irrespective of their race, background, gender and religion. The L’Oréal Paris True Match campaign is a representation of these values and we are proud of the diversity of the Ambassadors who represent this campaign. 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. L’Oréal Paris remains committed to the True Match campaign and breaking down barriers in beauty.”
In response, Bergdorf told The Guardian, “I don’t regret what I said,” continuing, “I’m an activist. Being an activist means calling people out, not just saying what everyone else is saying and what everyone else wants to think and upholding the common consensus. L’Oréal knew that when they hired me.”
L’Oréal’s increased focus on diversity, as highlighted by its True Match campaign, “pushed sales and led people to reappraise the brand,” according to a March article in Marketing Week. The brand’s UK general manager stressed to the publication that recent inclusion efforts were not an aberration at the company, insisting, “It can’t be an isolated campaign. L’Oréal Paris is one brand [within L’Oréal], but we need to make sure we walk the talk in everything we do.”
Their decision to fire a black trans woman for perceived intolerance begs the question of just how dedicated L’Oréal really is to diversity as more than just a sales strategy. As Bergdorf pointed out to the BBC after her firing, “I shouldn’t be sacked for calling out racism when I was in a campaign that was meant to be championing diversity…Especially when I was speaking about the violence of white people, but they’ve got Cheryl Cole on the campaign and she was actively convicted for punching a black women in the face.” (Cole, who is one of the “23 inspirational individuals” that L’Oréal recruited for its True Match campaign, was convicted of assault over a decade ago after attacking a nightclub bathroom attendant. In the wake of the assault, Cole insisted that she was not racist, citing a black friend and her “little one-and-a-half year-old cousin who is Caribbean.”)
In a separate statement reacting to her L’Oréal stint, Bergdorf wrote, “Sit still and smile in a beauty campaign ‘championing diversity.’ But don’t actually speak about the fact that lack of diversity is due to racism. Or speak about the origins of racism. It’ll cost you your job.”
“Sit still and smile but don’t actually speak” appears to be the unstated condition of a L’Oréal contract. In a remarkable mirroring of Bergdorf’s sacking, Khan has also stepped down just over a week after announcing that she would be starring in a “game changing” new hair campaign for the brand. Khan’s premature retirement was a response to recently unearthed, now-deleted tweets from 2014 condemning Israel as an “illegal state.” She wrote at one point, “Israel = Pharoah. Both are child murderers. Insha'Allah, defeat also awaits the former; it's only a matter of time. #HopeForGaza #SaveGaza”
After the tweets elicited criticism, Khan addressed her 39.7K twitter followers in a lengthy statement: “I deeply regret the content of the tweets I made in 2014, and sincerely apologise for the upset and hurt that they have caused. Championing diversity is one of my passions, I don't discriminate against anyone. I have chosen to delete them as they do not represent the message of harmony that I stand for…I recently took part in a campaign, which excited me because it celebrated inclusivity. With deep regret, I've decided to step down from this campaign because the current conversations surrounding it detract from the positive and inclusive sentiment that it set out to deliver.”
A L’Oréal Paris spokesperson confirmed to the BBC that, “We appreciate that Amena has since apologised for the content of these tweets and the offence 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.” There’s no word yet on whether L’Oréal has severed all of its ties with Khan, who was signed by the company in 2016 and is an ambassador for its three-year collaboration with The Prince’s Trust charity. On their website, the “blogger and business woman” is still featured alongside her fellow ambassadors.
In Khan’s case and in Bergdorf's, L’Oréal has communicated that it is unwilling to contend with the full personhood of the women whose diversity they’re so proud to feature. In this light, L’Oréal’s inclusive mission feels more like a search for palatable diversity; for representatives from historically underrepresented groups who aren’t too outspoken or opinionated or, god forbid, angry.