Wesleyan graduate Gail O'Neill is a model whose face I remember seeing quite a bit when I was younger. At age 20, she was "discovered" on a flight from San Francisco by photographer Chuck Baker. Baker's wife, a stylist, sent Gail to Click agency where she was persuaded to leave her job at Xerox and become a model full-time. She enjoyed success very early on and because of her strong family ties and slightly anti-social personality, feels that she avoided the pitfalls that many young models find themselves in.
She said to Barbara Summers in "Skin Deep" that when Elle magazine emerged, it changed things for black models. "A whole new thing was happening there: the first time you had two Black models in the same issue of a magazine, and maybe in the same spread. It was a really exciting time, no other magazines were doing that."
She went to Paris a few years after her start but didn't enjoy it initially. She found the designers to be pleasant but hated going up the runs and rubbing elbows. She found people to be very nasty in the industry. The success she found there wasn't worth the "emotional expense and its toll."
Of her once trademark long hair. Gail, who is Jamaican (with one Chinese/Jamaican grandparent,) remarked that it took her a long time to appreciate her hair. "I sued to think that unless my hair was was washed and set and 'tamed'...that is was a mess." It wasn't until later in her life, after meeting stylists that taught her how to care for her natural hair that she learned to love it.
"And this is where the role model thing comes in. With models like myself coming in who are portrayed with their natural hair, little Black girl began seeing images that reflected themselves. Roshumba coming in with her own short hair, unprocessed. I think that's so beautiful. I'm not putting down people who have weaves and everything. Having a range is what's important."
The following quotes about representation in the fashion industry were given by Gail back in the 90s but they still hold true today:
"There's a lot involved in putting on that pressure [on the industry.] It's got to be a united, group effort, not only individuals. If we pay attention to designers with our dollars but never hold them accountable for their decisions, why should they spend the extra money? They'd be fools, or Gandhi, and people who are [like] Gandhi don't make it on Seventh Avenue."
Currently, Gail hosts "Mission Organization" on HGTV and was also featured in the July issue of Italian Vogue.
Photos: Simplylovely and Omifan