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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Vague Is Vogue: Face Of Ethnic Chic
By Ruth La Ferla
January 7, 2004
Each week, Leo Jimenez, a 25-year-old New Yorker, sifts through a mound of invitations, pulling out the handful that seem most promising. Wherever he goes, Jimenez himself is an object of fascination. "You get the table," he said. "You get the attention."
Jimenez, a model, has appeared in ads for Levi's, DKNY and Aldo, but he is anything but a conventional pretty face. His steeply raked cheekbones, dreadlocks and jet-colored eyes suggest a background that might be Mongolian, American Indian or Chinese. In fact he is Colombian by birth, a product of that country's mixed racial heritage, and he fits right in with the melting-pot aesthetic of the downtown scene. It is also a look that is reflected in the latest youth marketing trend: using faces that are ethnically ambiguous.
Ad campaigns for Louis Vuitton, YSL Beauty and H&M stores have all highlighted models with racially indeterminate features. Or consider the careers of celebrities such as Vin Diesel, Lisa Bonet and Jessica Alba, whose popularity with young audiences seems due in part to the tease over whether they are black, white, Hispanic, American Indian or some combination.
"Today what's ethnically neutral, diverse or ambiguous has tremendous appeal," said Ron Berger, the chief executive of Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners in New York, an advertising agency and trend research company whose clients include Polaroid and Yahoo. "Both in the mainstream and at the high end of the marketplace, what is perceived as good, desirable, successful is often a face whose heritage is hard to pin down."
Ambiguity is chic, especially among the under-25 members of Generation Y, the most racially diverse population in the nation's history. A Teen People issue devoted to beauty features makeovers of girls whose backgrounds are identified on full-page head shots as "Puerto Rican and Italian-American" and "Finnish-German-Irish- and Scotch-American."
"We're seeing more of a desire for the exotic, left-of-center beauty that transcends race or class," said Amy Barnett, the magazine's managing editor. It "represents the new reality of America, which includes considerable mixing," she added. "It is changing the face of American beauty."
About 7 million Americans identified themselves as members of more than one race in the 2000 census, the first time respondents could check more than one category. In addition, more than 14 million Latinos -- about 42 percent of Latino respondents -- ignored the census boxes for black or white and checked "some other race," an indication, experts said, of the mixed-race heritage of many Hispanics with black, white and indigenous Indian strains in the mix.
The increasingly multiracial American population, demographers say, is due to intermarriage and waves of immigration. Mixed-race Americans tend to be young -- those younger than 18 were twice as likely as adults to identify themselves as multiracial on the census.
"The younger the age group, the more diverse the population," said Gregory Spencer, who heads the Census Bureau's population projections branch.
It is no surprise that the acceptance of a melting-pot chic is greater in places such as downtown New York, where immigrants and young people flood in. On a recent evening Pedro Freyre, 26, an artist of French, Mexican and Spanish heritage, was strolling there with his cap tilted to accentuate his cheekbones. "We are the new mix," Freyre said. "We are the remix."
But some multiracial twentysomethings view their waxing popularity with skepticism. "Back home in Minneapolis, I sometimes feel like a trophy," said Ryoji Suguro, a 28-year-old lighting director of Sri Lankan and Japanese descent. "When you're introduced, it's sometimes like, 'Oh, here is my exotic friend,' " said Sugoro, who shared cocktails with his girlfriend, who is Korean and Caucasian.
Carrie Hazelwood, 30, an art dealer's assistant who is Welsh, Swedish and American Indian, is put off by advertisers' efforts to exploit mixed ethnicity. "They are just trying to cover their bases -- casting as if they were solving a math problem," she said.
Among art directors, magazine editors and casting agents, there is a growing sense that the demand is weakening for P&G (Procter & Gamble), industry code for blond-haired, blue-eyed models.
"People think blond-haired, blue-eyed kids are getting all the work, but these days they are working the least," said Elise Koseff, vice president of J. Mitchell Management in New York, which represents children and teenagers for ads and television.
Instead, Koseff said, actors such as Miles Thompson, 13, who is Jamaican, American Indian and Eastern European, are in demand. Miles has appeared on the television show Third Watch and will be in ads for Microsoft's Xbox video game player.
As evidence of the trend, Koseff exhibited a selection of "casting breakdowns," descriptions from television producers of roles to be filled. "Sarah, 16 to 18 years old. Light complexioned African-American. Could be part Brazilian or Dominican," read one request from CBS for its daytime serial As the World Turns. "Zach, 12 to 14, African-American. Zach's father is Caucasian," stated another, from the producers of Unfabulous, a pilot for Nickelodeon.
Ethnically ambiguous casting has been slower to make inroads in the fashion world. The casting of multiracial models "is just beginning," said Nian Fish, the creative director of KCD in New York, which produces fashion shows. "Fashion is taking its lead from Hollywood."
One who typifies the trend is Ujjwala, a model from India and the new face of YSL Beauty, a prestigious cosmetics brand. "Ujjwala is a woman of color," said Ivan Bart, the director of IMG Models, which represents her, "but look at her and begin to play a guessing game: Is she Mexican, Spanish, Russian? The fact you can't be sure is part of her seductiveness."
Such is the power of ethnic ambiguity that even megastars such as Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé Knowles have, from time to time, deliberately tweaked their looks, borrowing from diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
Thus, Beyoncé, an African-American, sometimes wears her hair blond; Lopez, who is Puerto Rican, takes on the identity of a Latina-Asian princess in the latest Louis Vuitton ads; and Christina Aguilera, who is half Ecuadorean, poses as a Bollywood goddess on the cover of the January Allure.
Their willful masquerade reflects a current fascination with the racial hybrid, according to Linda Wells, Allure's editor-in-chief, a fascination the magazine does not hesitate to exploit. "Five years ago, about 80 percent of our covers featured fair-haired, blue-eyed women, even though they represented a minority," Wells said. Today such covers are a rarity. "Uniformity just isn't appealing anymore," she said.
Global marketers such as H&M, the cheap chic clothing chain with stores in 18 countries, increasingly highlight models with racially indeterminate features.
"For us the models must be inspiring and attractive and at the same time, neutral," said Anna Bergare, the company's Stockholm-based spokeswoman.
The campaigns contrast notably with the original marketing strategy of Benetton, another global clothing chain, whose path-breaking 1980s ads highlighted models of many races, each very distinct. These days even Benetton's billboards play up the multiracial theme. In a typical campaign, a young man with Asian features and an Afro hairdo is posed beside a blue-eyed woman with incongruously tawny skin and brown hair with the texture of yarn.
Such a transition -- from racial diversity portrayed as a beautiful mosaic to a melting pot -- is in line with the currently fashionable argument that race itself is a fiction.
This theory has been advanced by prominent scholars such as K. Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton, and Evelyn Hammond, a professor of the history of science and Afro-American studies at Harvard. In a PBS broadcast last spring, Hammond said race is a human contrivance, a "concept we invented to categorize the perceived biological, social and cultural differences between human groups."
More and more, that kind of thinking is echoed by the professional image makers. "Some of us are just now beginning to recognize that many cultures and races are assimilating," said John Partilla, the chief executive of Brand Buzz, a marketing agency owned by the WPP group. "If what you're seeing now is our focus on trying to reflect the blending of individuals, it reflects a societal trend, not a marketing trend."
"For once," Partilla added, "it's about art imitating life."