In Conversation with Mahalia Handley

January 1, 2020

Mahalia Handley (@mahaliafromaustralia) is a Sydney-based curve model and activist from Darwin. With 46.3k Instagram followers and years of industry experience both nationally and overseas, I sat down to ask her about her future predictions about the modelling industry, how it's changed in recent years, and where she hopes to go with her latest project, ‘Shine4Diversity’. Co-founded and self-funded with fellow model Shareefa J, ‘Shine4Diversity’ is a non-profit social awareness campaign that aims to promote racial representation and inclusion in both the media and the fashion industry. You can access their exclusive photo shoots, interviews, and behind the scenes content on Instagram @shine4diversity

Source @mahaliafromaustralia

Why is it so important for everyone to be able to see themselves represented in the media and since moving to Sydney at age seventeen, what are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the fashion industry?

We’ve definitely progressed with our plus size and curve models. In Australia, when I first started modelling there were literally four clients that you would work with. There’s been an array since I’ve come back here and just seeing that grow, I think there are a lot more people being aware of policies and standards and I'm seeing a change in Australia. 

I wanted to start [modelling] because not seeing any representation growing up affected my mental health and self-confidence. I couldn't see where I fit in […]. The only person I had to look up to is Tyra Banks, who is American and the complete opposite to me. My only relation to her as some sort of supermodel was because she shared the same skin colour as me which is a big thing. That's why we need role models who are standing up for positive reasons over self-promotion, who talk about important things, that was a big thing for me. I thought, no one's doing this so I should and there's going to be younger girls who grow up and now have at least one other person to look up to.

Have you experienced or witnessed tokenism or colourism in the fashion industry?

There have been so many times I've been on set and you're clearly the one who's there to help it be ethnically palatable. You've been there and you're the girl who's like in the background, not quite there. Or you were included in like one group shot. There was like one outfit for you that you've stepped on set in and it was like multiple outfits for the other person because the brand wants to be like, "oh well, we did have her, did you not see her here?". It’s rampant, but I think London is leading at the moment [in terms of racial diversity]. The US is coming in close behind.

Even just doing Shine4Diversity, I was like, “There are 15 people on the set, you can’t give me any excuses anymore that you couldn’t find anyone, that it was too hard.” I didn’t even have a budget. The lip service is rampant. It’s, “Oh we did a curve collection two years ago” and it’s like “All the curve collections just don't sell." I heard that a lot and it's because you don't change the stock! Of course, it's not going to sell. But Australia just can't move past the idea of what they think is correct and who they think their audience is. It's outdated.

Mahalia and I post-interview in late 2019

Why do you think it is that London is leading? Because they have a greater diverse population? But then again Australia has an ethnic population and they don’t utilise it.

Australia banks on being multicultural and yet we only see a percentage of those people in the Media. I’ve called ‘Love Island’ out for that or ‘Home and Away’ and ‘Neighbours’ right now, there’s like four people of colour on the entire set and crew.

I think London is at an advantage because they've been open to the European scene coming through because of show clothes, they have influenced models coming through because of that. I just feel like we are now where London or England was 10 years ago […] In total Vogue UK has had 12 models of colour on the front cover and they have 12 copies a year. They've been going for 50 years. You know, things like that. But in Australia we, I dunno, I wouldn't even know. I know that Rebel Wilson was the first curvy girl we've ever had and that was last year.

For those who are unfamiliar with Shine4Diversity, could you maybe explain how it came about, how it’s been received, and how we can help support it?

Shine came about when I was having a conversation with an old agency that I'm no longer with, we were talking about race. I spoke to them and said, "I think we should be using my PR standing a lot more [concerning race]. I'm not Indigenous to Australia but I'm Indigenous to New Zealand, I'm European and I grew up in Darwin. That's a great selling point!" 

I was told in this meeting that race had found its equality already in fashion, which made me so mad. I left, went straight to Westfield and like walked around and within 15 minutes I was able to have a really big example of what I was [talking about] and how race hadn't found its place. So, I did this little Insta story. I put it up on my highlights. It's still there today. Then Shareefa approached me. We wanted strong imagery cause that's what we were very used to. But we also wanted the documentary to walk people hand in hand and say “This is what it's like for me. Do you understand?”

Source: Carlo Fernandes Photography

We wanted the campaign and the video at the end to at least be a way of breaking the ice or the conversation in board rooms and having them say, “Are we doing enough? Did you see this? They look beautiful. Right? We could do that too.” We have really seen some changes since then. We've seen other campaigns pop up. I've seen a couple of Australian brands almost doing exactly the same thing with the backgrounds, with the clothing and that's what it's there for. 

Before I started Shine, I wanted to leave the industry. I had enough coming back to Australia. I was so done. And if I'm going to go, I might as well go with a big bang. And then while doing it all, it really like reinspired why I was modelling and why it meant so much to me and how I can start to shift my career of continuing in the fashion industry, but by being a louder person about issues that means something.  

One of your favourite ways of practising self-care is to exercise for the endorphins. Have you always approached fitness this way? 

All these little steps of reading and sleeping and eating have just changed my body structure, and that was the learning lesson for me. There had been the installation of exercise prior, but knowing what it gave to me other than just the way I looked, that was a turning point. And that's why I think it's important and I liked to wear sportswear as well. But it's also an important thing of why I never speak about my diet to girls because I believe when young women or people are trying to advise other people about their diet? It's like to be triggering someone and you have absolutely no idea. Like those fucking tea's man or those people doing those shakes. I'm like, yeah, you've just, you've not eaten anything for a week. Of course, you're gonna lose weight. It makes sense. If you think about it, your body's like, “Hmm, if you've not got any food, I'm going to drop all the water weight and drop a little bit but you're going to get it back twice as fast”. 

If you had to predict what the fashion industry will look like in the next five years, what do you envision and what do you hope for? 

Australia I'm on weird terms with, but I would say globally there's going to be a bigger rush of plus models. I'm hoping in the next five years we will have at least two more top [Australian plus size] models. Weirdly, we've got 15 like straight-size models and just Ashley Graham. There's definitely going tp be more mixed race diversity, but I think we're being thrown, so forwardly propelled into “This isn't acceptable or this needs to be changed” and that's happening from a political point of view as well as it is economically and environmentally that we're gonna have to change. I would hope that the fashion industry in five years has worked out a way of being more sustainable because they are a huge contributor to the ozone layer through gas admissions through preproduction as well. 

I think in five years at least the industry will have policies, regulations, and legislation for the treatment and behaviour, like equity. We currently have no legislation or laws. The only law that has been finally set in place in Australia is that that was set in this year was that models could have change room at fashion week.

Source @mahaliafromaustralia

I think we are gonna see a lot more diversity. I think a lot more brands are going to have to shift, like Victoria's Secret, like Australian brands that are still stuck in this idea. I think they're going to help the ones who are at least attempting to try and do things, they're gonna have to realize they can't just have a quick fix and it's going to be okay because we have a lot of younger people like yourself who are going, hello, like no, and we, you know, you can't do that anymore. We need to talk about this. And I think that's gonna drive the audience because now millennials outweigh the baby boomers, they definitely outweigh them in the voting scenario. So why aren't they're the ones who are going to restructure the way we see the world and brands have to accommodate towards that? Because we're the ones who are buying and the ones who are driving the attention of what's happening. So, I hope that that's where we are, more inclusive. If this is what we've had in the last five years, then we'll step forward globally. I hope Australia has some sort of speed notation and we catch up 10 years in five but it's not going to happen until we see some changes in the high fashion industry here because it filters down. Hopefully, by then, I've done every single cover in Australia and New Zealand.

I hope with things like Shine4Diversity that it inspires more people in Australia to propel the industry here forward. We have supporters. I definitely know women in brands who are not standing for it anymore who want to talk about it, who are supporting it and they helped push it forward. I'm hoping to be the person, but Australia needs like a champion who is opposite to who they've have had as champions. Like Miranda Kerr and Megan Gale, no, I'm talking about Australian representatives like Duckie Thot, a great example of people of Australia. I hope to be the person for curve in Australia because at the moment it's just blonde beach girls who look absolutely nothing like me and they'll never know what I've had to go through or anyone else of mixed race has had to go through growing up. We've been teased about our lips and then all of a sudden it's a thing! We've been teased about our hair and our butts and then everyone wants a tan. It's like, wait, I've been ridiculed about this for years. What do you mean? I hope that's what gets through. I hope I'm the person who can push that forward and be like, it's not all the same. We need to have different representatives in Australia and they need to make an impact in Australia. 

DISCLAIMER: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The words of Mahalia Handley have not been altered. You can find this interview originally published in Vertigo (2019) volume six: RETROGRADE.

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