Model Whose Lips Spurred Racist Comments Speaks Out

By the time New York Fashion Week wrapped up late last week, the model Aamito Lagum, 23 years old and a native of Kampala, Uganda, had walked the runway for J. Mendel, Tadashi Shoji, Kanye West’s Yeezy line and Ohne Titel, even winning a coveted spot as the show closer for Zac Posen.

It was a triumphant week for Ms. Lagum, who broke into modeling about three years ago as the winner of the debut television season of “Africa’s Next Top Model.”

But as she raced between final fittings last Thursday, she received a message from a friend alerting her to a post on the Instagram feed of MAC Cosmetics, whose products had been used by the makeup artist Kabukion models like Ms. Lagum who walked in the Ohne Titel show.

The photograph that MAC posted was a close-up of Ms. Lagum’s lips, painted purple and shown in profile. Many of the comments accompanying the image, posted mostly by anonymous Internet trolls, comprised racist, derogatory remarks about the shape and size of the model’s lips.

“At first, I was flattered because I absolutely think my lips look beautiful in that photo,” said Ms. Lagum, reached by phone. “But when I started to read the comments, it was quite unsettling. Horrible things were being written, and I was not very surprised, which is itself very disheartening.” She posted a photo of a blog post about the incident, adding the caption: “My lips giving you sleepless nights.

Instagram is the favored social media tool of the fashion and beauty industries because it is all about pretty pictures, with nasty rhetoric usually relegated to Twitter and the comment sections of YouTube and blogs. But suddenly a beauty company found itself at the center of Internet ugliness, with its gloss-focused social media feed turning into a platform for anonymous hate.

This posed a quandary for MAC. “Our MAC fans are very opinionated, generally speaking, and we encourage that dialogue,” said Karen Buglisi Weiler, the brand’s global president. “But abuse and cruelty are not something we tolerate.”

Ms. Weiler and her team monitored the comments piling up and a few hours later decided to act. They contacted Instagram and began flagging for removal the remarks that were racist and incendiary. The next day, the company followed up with a post showing a graphic that reads, “All ages, all races, all sexes.”

The model Aamito Lagum walking in the Ohne Titel fall 2016
runway show this month.CreditSlaven Vlasic/Getty Images

After Alexa Adams and Flora Gill, the designers behind Ohne Titel, saw that a photo of Ms. Lagum taken backstage at their show was being tarnished by racist comments, they posted to Instagram their own backstage image of Ms. Lagum to show their support. It has generated more likes than any photo they have ever posted. “That response has been so affirming,” Ms. Adams said.

But she added: “It was so shocking that on a visible site like MAC’s Instagram, people were spewing that level of hate. I think this only affirms the idea that fashion and beauty companies need to stand for a wider and more diverse show of beauty.”

Tomi Gbeleyi, 24, an educational consultant in Toronto who started anInstagram feed last fall to help promote black makeup artists and bloggers, was upset but not surprised to see the response to the close-up photo of Ms. Lagum’s lips.

On a whim, Ms. Gbeleyi took a screen shot of an image she had seen on another social media feed: a face-forward close-up of a woman’s lips belonging to Santucha Liesdek, 28, a makeup artist and YouTuber. Over the lips, Ms. Gbeleyi added the words, “I love my big lips.” The post has received more than 1,150 likes and has been shared by other women as well. “I thought I was doing it for myself but it shows there are women who feel like me,” she said.

In the days since the brouhaha, thousands of people similarly have taken to the Internet to try to promote inclusiveness.

And Ms. Lagum is among them. She reposted a digital representation of her pucker posted by a graphic designer in South Africa, urging followers to share pictures of their lips with the hashtag #PrettyLipsPeriod.

“I saw I could be an activist for young women of color or any woman out there who feels like she looks different,” she said, having flown from London (she modeled for Burberry during that city’s fashion week) to Milan, where a new slate of runways awaits.

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