Image in everything? - Beauty standards then and now in the entertainment industry
In today's entertainment industry, image seems to be everything. Women take special care in their appearance to look a part, the end result an industry permeated by myriad female artistes as thick, human-sized dolls - 'luxury dolls'.
International superstar Nicki Minaj and even our local acts like Yanique Curvy Diva and Shauna Chyn seem to subscribe to this, with dancehall act Spice weighing in on this phenomenon by uploading images of herself with very light skin for her single Black Hypocrisy. She notes that over the years she has received comments to lighten her skin tone in order to be more successful.
The importance of image in today's industry is in contract to the one Carlene Davis entered in the 1970s.
"In those days, the focus was on one's gift to sing, deliver, and articulate a good song. the focus was not on one's image per se," Davis told The Sunday Gleaner. "you still, however, have the responsibility of presenting yourself. I did a modelling course to learn how to present myself, and I taught myself how to do my own make-up. I didn't have anybody who said, 'you need to do this' or 'you need to do that'. I always wanted to be comfortable in my own skin. I'm not saying those things didn't exist, but things weren't as challenging as it is for artistes today."
UNIQUE AND SPECIAL
Davis migrated to the United Kingdom as a teenager and started singing professionally while at the Wilson's Secondary High School, where, she was the first black head girl and where she won the school's beauty pageant.
"In terms of colour, the whole black and white thing was there, but I didn't face it head on. As a matter of fact, back then, if you were black, you would have been considered to be unique and special."
Davis then moved to Canada, and there she noticed that "If you were a young girl and you were cute, you probably got the job; I struggled", she revealed. "I used to sing with a band, and they were in a rut so I quit. They held an audition for a singer, and they were looking for cuteness, and it didn't work out because the people they auditioned didn't have the talent. They had to call me back because I had the talent. It goes to show that at the end of the day, you can look cute and have the image, but you can't deliver unless the talent is there."
Davis soared to success with songs like Going Down to Paradise (1984) and Dial My Number (1991). After transitioning to Christianity in the 1990s, her career further blossomed with tracks like My Forever Friend (1994) and Rock Me Jesus (2005).
Pam Hall is another of Jamaica's most successful female artistes, and she echoed Davis' experience.
"Back then, the emphasis was more on talent - good vocals and stage performance," Hall said. "I felt no particular pressure to bleach, process my hair, wear wigs or weaves, or visit a cosmetic surgeon. I was able to simply enjoy doing music while learning more about music itself, recording, and performing."
Hall started her career in the 1970s as part of the chart-hitting duo Pam and Woody and achieved her break as a solo artist in 1986 with the song Dear Boopsie, which landed at 54 on the UK Pop Chart. She has also had a series of hit songs on the New York Reggae Chart including Let Me Tell You Boy (1989), Truly (1993), Broken-Hearted Melody (2004), and Make It Up To You (2017).
"I have had occasional suggestions about wearing make-up every day, creaming my hair, wearing a batty rider, talking on stage with an American accent ... someone even suggested that I wear blue contact lens," she recalled. "For the most part, I haven't been pressured in any significant way to change my looks. It could be that people know that such suggestions would be useless. I made the decision to cream my hair simply for ease of management."
She added that musical icons like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight would not have "seen the light of day" in today's climate.
"Nowadays, I see male producers light up with utter excitement when they are told about a female artiste who is white or light-skinned," she said. "It's difficult for me to relate to female artistes completely changing themselves in order to 'make it'. I guess it's a choice that some make. I think it's fine to try to make the best of oneself in the entertainment business in order to maximise one's appeal, but I think it has become somewhat of an extreme sport, sometimes with detrimental results."