Aishwarya Rai to Sue Elle Magazine Over White-washed Cover + Darkening of the African Model Skin

I have been sitting on this story for a minute. It got very busy for me and I wanted to be able to give it the attention it really deserved. So, Bollywood actress Aishwarya is reportedly upset at her December 2010 shoot with Elle Magazine India. So much so, she is allegedly considering suing Elle. What fashion injustice/crime could Elle possibly have committed? Elle failed to get the memo that Indian women are gorgeous and comfortable with their brown skin they have no desire to be anything but their true skin color. In missing the memo, they portrayed a white-washed Aishwarya on their December 2010 issue above. The result? An allegedly vexed Aishwarya who is allegedly considering suing.

I truly appreciate this story because it allows me to show the intersection of fashion, law and media all at the same time, while drawing from personal industry experience. NICE! *Rubs hands together and prepares to dig in.* First, let’s look at the view of a media/publication. Isn’t the publication entitled to create the artistic expression of what it wants to portray to the world about a subject it interviews and shoots? So what if Elle decides it wants a lighter Aishwarya Rai? What is the big deal? It has a right to do so. It is doing Aishwarya a favor by featuring her on the cover of its prestigious magazine, not so?

On the fashion (model/subject) end i.e. the flip side, just because Aishwarya grants an interview to Elle does not mean Elle has the right to distort her image and make her look white! Does it? Either way, it raises so many issues on race and class within and outside India.

The African in the mix. Of late we are seeing black celebrities speak against their skins being white-washed in magazines or ads. One case in point was Beyonce in the L’Oreal ads. That was a boiling point among blacks as resentment against how whites portray blacks in media seemed to crescendo. Of course what informs this viewpoint are the historic race relations among blacks and whites in the USA. We just finished celebrating Martin Luther King Junior’s day and head into Black history month. Of course blacks remain sensitive, as they should be, to the whitening of the skin color of their black superstars.

Now let’s throw another mix into it. The African side.  The darkening of African skin, particularly the skin of African models, in the Western fashion industry has been ongoing for so long. In fact it is an accepted norm. No one seems to raise an eyebrow. It’s like, “Oh, they are Africans.” The first ever main outcry we saw from both the Black and African communities towards the darkening of the skin was when Supermodel Alek Wek was introduced to the world. She was already dark but made to look even darker. Over time, we continue to see more of such images. What is the fascination in fashion with extremely dark African skin? Is it artistic or is it playing on stereotypes? The dark continent? The wild bush scary African people? There are no easy answers to this, I don’t think. On the one hand, it can truly be artistic. I guess that, in an of itself, depends on the beholder? On the other hand, it can be a play on stereotypes.

Having said all the above, here is where I put my legal hat on and we get to the heart of the matter, after all the headline did say Aishwarya is considering a lawsuit. I am not sure it makes sense to touch on the merits of such a suit as there would be too much speculations. The stories reported are silent as to whether a legal agreement existed. So, why waste time? Let’s get to prevention. Prevention they say is always better than the cure.

PUBLISHER: If you are a publisher, get a release that allows you to do whatever you may please with the photos you and your team take. This will prevent a law suit. It, however, will not stop public backlash and possible drop in sales, and of course bad brand reputation. Either way, as to the legal end of things, you at least can get a lawyer to draft an agreement for you and help protect you from such situations (there is no guarantee you won’t be sued despite your agreement. It just reduces the chance you will be sued and in the event you are sued, your agreement serves as Exhibit A).

PHOTOGRAPHER: Also get a release from the model/subject. If you are hired by the publisher, you might also want to get a release from the publisher where publisher shoulders the responsibility i.e. liability where they go in house and photoshop the images to be what it is not.

MODEL/SUBJECT: For most fashion models, you don’t have much of a bargaining power neither do you know what the publisher (magazine) will do with your images. You do not want to sign a release that throws in the kitchen sink. You want to sign one that limits the scope of how your image and likeness will be used. For the subject i.e. celebrities, you have a high bargaining power. Use it. If you are particularly big on not wanting a distortion of who you are because you want Black, Indian, Spanish, African or Asian girls to feel they can be whatever they want to be, i.e. their true colors, then get it in writing, nothing complicated. A simple agreement that in exchange for your image and story, the magazine is free to be creative with editing but such editing/photo shop does not include the whitening of your skin.

Okay we are done here.

Why do I feel like I want to hear Phil Collins’ song “I See Your True Colors?” I love Phil Collins. Couldn’t resist this people. 🙂

Photocredit: Aishwarya Rai Photo/