For 25-year-old model Ebonee Davis, her breakout moment was a 2016 TED Talk titled “Black Girl Magic in the Fashion Industry.” This was not your typical advice on beauty or how to get into modeling but, rather, a scathing indictment of the fashion business and its soul-crushing standards of beauty with regard to black women.
At the tender age of 23, Davis was a precursor to the current wave of feminist outcry for truth in beauty and social justice currently dominating our zeitgeist. This year, she broke barriers by being named a 2018 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Rookie.
By the time #TeamNatural stormed the runways in 2018, Davis was already an outspoken maverick in the now-swelling ranks of model-activists like Adwoa Aboah, Leomie Anderson and Cameron Russell, the latter arguably the model-activist godmother of her generation. Russell’s 2013 TED Talk called out sexual exploitation of minors and white privilege, questioning a system that Russell herself says unfairly benefits her own career.
Top models get to the top these days by tackling colorism, body image and addiction in the same breath as spring color trends, new hemlines or brandishing the latest “it” bags. It is as much a part of their duties as a stroll on the red carpet.
The rise of social media has given this generation of models a personal media footprint larger than any other; in this new age of modeling, activism is who you are and modeling is what you do—not the other way around. With dignity and aplomb, Davis is taking full advantage of the platform that can cut both ways in terms of fame and self-exploitation.
Sports Illustrated Rookie of the Year is one of the top honors of modeling, an accolade that helped propel the careers of past winners like Chrissy Teigen and Kate Upton into the stratosphere. Potentially, it can mean millions of fans and that much again in endorsement money—if you play the game.
Voting for the winner takes place on the Sports Illustrated website, where Ebonee was nominated along with 11 other models. Eventual title winner Alexis Ren campaigned for the crown via her Instagram page, striking the typical pouty and provocative poses that made her a social media star and that the SI Swimsuit Issue is known for.
By contrast, Davis relied on her fresh-faced beauty and professional pedigree in order to place in the SI Winner’s Circle. By standing her ground and still capturing major advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein and Gap, Davis has proven over and over that sometimes what it takes to win in the moment is not what it takes to win the long game.
So what turned this young girl from an up-and-comer into a leader? Davis was devastated by the news of Alton Sterling’s 2015 murder by police in Baton Rouge, La.—yet another case of a human life taken based on skin color.
After suffering years of constant rebukes from agents and photographers solely based on the color of her skin and the natural texture of her hair, Davis was racked with self-doubt, as she told me when I spoke with her on behalf of The Glow Up: “It was a lot of unpacking; letting go of bad habits and destructive beliefs ingrained in us as black people when it comes to acceptance of our own beauty.”
For Davis, who was raised by a single dad with whom she lived from ages 5 to 13, images of models in the media became her example of femininity, even more so than for most girls. “Everything I saw in magazines told me that I wasn’t enough,” she said. “Even in my family, what was celebrated as a kid was when I got a relaxer and had long straight hair.”
What’s more painful as a black woman: encountering shame from your own kin or from the industry you’ve always dreamed of being a part of? “To become your authentic self requires walking away from a lot of situations,” Davis said.
But with all the rejection and humiliation from agents and clients “who already had a black girl,” why did she never give up? “I didn’t really have anywhere or anything to go back to,” Davis explained. “Modeling is my passion. I only had a plan A.”
Now, 174,000 Instagram followers later, it looks like plan A is panning out for this model-activist, whose next move is to pursue acting—Davis says she’ll land in Los Angeles come September. In her TED Talk, she said, “Black Girl Magic is rising from the ashes and creating our own media.” I ask how she’ll put that magic into action in the next phase of her career.
“What that means to me is not being dependent on anyone else’s money, production company or established channel,” she says. Unsurprisingly, Oprah is Davis’ role model when it comes to Black Girl Magic in business. Why? “I’m powerful when I’m in my own lane.”