Mahalia Handley On Modelling, Activism, And The Repercussions Of Tokenism


In conversations around diversity and inclusion, one of the sayings that remains at the forefront of my mind is: “A fish doesn’t know what water is.” I like it because it serves as a reminder that no matter how well-intentioned I am in my pursuit of these things, there will always be blind spots born out of my lived-experience as a straight, white, privileged woman. It’s the kind of blind spot that, for example, prevented me from seeing how problematic the 2007 Vogue cover of Gisele Bündchen and LeBron James was.

For top plus-size model Mahalia Handley, it’s these blind spots that galvanised her to launch Shine4Diversity in January alongside fellow model and activist Shareefa J, and it’s something she speaks candidly about in our conversation below. Mahalia, who is represented by Vivien’s Model Management, also shared with me the repercussions of being a Maori/Irish woman in Australia, the progress she’s seen in her ten-year career, and the important questions she now asks on set.

Mahalia Handley | image provided

Let’s start at the beginning. Growing up in Darwin, Australia with a Maori Irish heritage, what are your earliest memories of the limitations born from having an identity that is under-represented in mainstream media?

I have an early memory from when I was in Grade 2. My birthday party was coming up and I wanted to invite a boy who lived close by so I asked mum to drive me to his house to drop off an invitation. When I got there, he was in the yard playing with his sisters so I gave him the invitation. Kids being kids, he got really excited and ran inside to ask his dad if he was allowed to come; he walked back outside a few minutes later looking disheartened, handed me back the invitation and said, “My dad said I can’t come because your mummy married a black man and he said that’s not okay, and that I can’t play with you anymore.” When I retold this to my parents they were furious and quick to explain that it wasn’t anything I’d done, but rather a residual trauma from my friend’s fathers past. That wouldn’t be the last time something like that happened in my childhood – I can remember other instances where parents disliked their children playing with a child who was visibly ethnic.

As an adult, I am still frequently monitored in stores by staff who presume I will steal something or act recklessly – as if my skin colour is a neon sign that says “trouble”. I’ve even been in stores where my face is in a campaign on the wall and I am still monitored. I sometimes wonder if my experience of being followed around stores from such a young age subconsciously influenced my desire to be in the campaigns that would later feature in those same stores – as a way to prove to society that I deserved to be there like every other customer. But what it ultimately came down to was my realisation that there was a complete lack of representation in body and ethnic diversity. I knew the industry needed me and I knew other women needed to see someone who looked like me.

At 26 year’s old you’ve now been working as a model for almost a decade! Looking back on those early years compared to where you are now, what has changed about the fashion industry? Where has there been progress and where are there still blind spots? 

Great question! Wow I can’t believe it’s been almost a decade. Reflecting back, there has definitely been an increase in visibility of plus-size models, and the misconception that plus-size women can’t look fashionable, cute andsexy at the same time is slowly being broken. When I first started in the industry, being plus-size was associated with being “matronly” or old, and I’ve seen people push back on companies that perpetuate this narrative. However, as excited as I am by the plus-size movement, there are still blind spots. For example, many of the plus-size women who are booking the top campaigns are actually smaller than the majority of plus-size women, and they’re also predominantly white. I want to note that when I say “white” I’m referring to women with European, Caucasian or mixed-race features that put them on the lighter side of the spectrum in terms. Not enough plus-size women of colour are being celebrated, and when they are included it is generally in a tokenised way. This is, of course, rampant throughout the fashion industry but is particularly problematic in New Zealand and Australia. Some brands and companies are paying a lip service to diversity by including plus-size models but “playing it safe” with white plus-size models, or creating one “curve collection”, or using one a model of colour, and then not doing it again for months on end because “they’ve already done that before.” It’s frustrating because Australia and New Zealand have the potential to be pioneers in this space, with both countries having strong indigenous cultures and a range of female figures to draw from, and yet these countries are living in a bubble, each playing into the other’s behaviours and patterns instead of advocating for generational change.

What was the catalyst for you and fellow model/activist Shareefa J to launch Shine4Diversity

For me, it was hearing these words from a former colleague: “Race has already found equality in the fashion industry, don’t you think? I think the industry focuses on it a lot.”

Shocked at this statement, I went out that same day into my local shopping centre and documented the ratio of white-looking models to visibly-ethnic models which I later posted on my Instagram Story (it’s saved as a highlight called #MeForHer). Shareefa saw my Story and felt the same way – that the modelling industry was disproportionately favouring those who looked white – and reached out to me about joining forces.

To be completely honest, when we launched our first Shine4Diversity project I had decided it would be my last stint in the industry. I wanted to quit. Having been in London for three years and coming back to Australia it felt like I had travelled back in time in terms of inclusion within the mainstream media. It was really, really disheartening, I cried a lot during that first year and had so many phone calls with my agency about why being a mixed-race model who fell on the “darker” side of the spectrum was so much harder in Australia than it had been in London – not only to survive financially but to feel accepted. So I decided I’d pour my heart into this project in the hopes that it would inspired brands to do better, and at least I’d go out with a bang knowing I’d given it my all. As it turned out, creating, producing and staring in that campaign alongside Shareefa was just the push I needed; it put the fire back in my belly and reminded me why I started modelling in the first place and why I needed to keep going.

In recent years, new voices have emerged in the fashion industry who are fiercely crusading for the inclusion of a variety of shapes, sizes, disabilities and ethnicities, many of whom have been candid about their disdain for tokenism, this idea that campaigns now often include a “token big girl” or a “token black girl” to tick the box of diversity. What has your experience been with this?

Tokenism has been evident in the fashion industry since I started almost a decade ago and it’s still present today – there have been more times than I can count when I have clearly been the token on set. I’m so glad there are more voices pointing out tokenism now and exposing the truth; when I first started speaking out on these injustices I would often be told that I was “coming across too aggressive”, or not to bring up issues of race “because you won’t be booked by brands. They’ll think you’re a trouble-maker.” I was constantly being portrayed by colleagues as a “whinging” model when all I wanted was to do my job with fairness, so to know that I now have this army of women standing beside me and speaking out is amazing.

My attention has shifted in the past three years to more actively look at the ratio of mixed-race and plus-size models on a shoot, as well as where those models are positioned – are they in the background? Are they being made to sit down to hide their figure? Is the model’s race being made to look “palatable”? Are the models of colour only being used in “urban” environments? Is diversity being addressed by this brand on a weekly or monthly basis? Do they only address it once a year? Some people might say I’m seeking out negatively, or bringing up a brand’s past to cause conflict, but what I’m actually doing is exposing a pattern in order to break it.

Lena Dunham recently said in an Instagram Post: “Being ‘body positive’ doesn’t mean you’re always positive about your body. It means you recognize the ways in which society influences your self-image and you choose to love yourself anyway.” Looking specifically at the society you grew up in, why do you think Australia is still struggling to overcome their diversity problem? Why is it taking so damn long?  

I actually saw that post and loved it. I agree with Lena whole-heartedly. I think Australia is struggling to overcome their diversity problem for many reasons, and it’s something that exists across many industries in this country – not just fashion. Starting with the more obvious problems; as a country, there still hasn’t been enough work done to reinstate the land that was stolen from the original custodians of Australia, and that is of course the indigenous Aboriginals. There are so many islands, towns, cities and well-known public spaces in Australia that need to be changed back to their original indigenous names, Ayers Rock being returned to “Uluru”, as one such example. Not to mention, the support by Australian schools to educate students on their indigenous heritage, changing the date of Australia Day, and investing in the celebrating of this country’s indigenous culture and vast multi-culturalism we have today.

More specifically, I believe the Australian fashion industry is living in its own little bubble. Myself and many other models have had to leave our homes and go abroad in order to find success before we can return to Australia and be celebrated here. We need more pioneers at the top of the industry investing in progress and innovation in this industry so that Australia and New Zealand can have their own top models that cater for diversity in size, disability, sexual orientation and racial inclusion. The bubble needs to be popped and I can guarantee that the first magazine who takes the plunge and stands for  generational change will not only sell copies, but also be remembered in history as the moment when things changed in this country. I’m ready, but the question is: are they?

Images provided by Mahalia Handley and Shine4Diversity