Jamaica Puts a Different Face on the Runways

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A report by Guy Trebay for the New York Times.

His machete blade a blur, Tevin Steele whacks the top off a fresh green coconut. Deftly knifing a window through the tender pith, he inserts a straw and hands the fruit across the counter at Dinga-Fling, his roadside stall outside this drowsy coastal town. Selling coconuts is his livelihood, and Mr. Steele, 21, says it is a good one, though neither as promising, lucrative or downright implausible as his other.

It was just over a year ago that Mr. Steele was scouted at his stall by a modeling agent, who detected in his whippet frame and chiseled cheeks the same potential that soon led him to sign an exclusive contract to walk in a fall 2017 runway show for Saint Laurent.

Roughly 5,000 miles, and a universe, lie between Port Antonio and Paris.

“I never knew about modeling, I never thought about modeling or talked about it when they brought it to me that I have a nice style to be a model,” said Mr. Steele, who on a busy day during high season here might earn 15,000 Jamaican dollars (or $115) selling coconuts. “I always wanted to go on a plane and stuff. When they called me for Saint Laurent, my life just changed.”

As it happens, “changing lives and expanding horizons” is both the mission and the vaguely homiletic slogan of Saint International, a small, independent modeling agency in Kingston founded by Deiwght Peters close to two decades ago.

When he started in the business, Mr. Peters told a reporter on a visit to Jamaica, even the concept of ethnic diversity in modeling was a long way off. And the beauty standards of the multibillion-dollar fashion industry clung stubbornly to a “traditional ideal of thin, white and young,” as Jennifer Davidson, the editor in chief of the website The Fashion Spot, said.

From time to time, a Jamaican star like Grace Jones shot onto the scene, but not until Saint International was there anything one might credibly term a Jamaican modeling industry.

“Why would there be?” James Scully, a seasoned casting agent, asked. “Five years ago, the world wasn’t even open enough to racial diversity for anyone to consider the thought.”

Just how radically that has changed can be seen in the steady stream of island models Mr. Peters found at coconut stands and other unlikely places and developed into nascent superstars in a market that has suddenly taken them into its embrace.

Most notable of this new crop is probably Barbra-Lee Grant, a shy and leggy 22-year-old beauty who was working as a clerk when Mr. Peters first encountered her and who languished for a time at the agency until Mr. Peters encouraged her to grow her hair out in an Afro.

“We then sent her digitals to Balenciaga,” Mr. Peters said. “And they immediately booked her for the 2017 campaign.”

There is Brad Allen, a quiet 23-year-old from Kingston, who is currently starring in a Polo Ralph Lauren advertising campaign; and Jonny Brown, a 23-year-old whose hooded almond eyes peer out from behind a pair of tinted aviators in a new series of Topman ads; and the teenage Vivienne Westwood campaign models Shaun Holder and Tiffany Johnson; and the Saint Laurent campaign star Jenese Roper, whose soft features were toughened up when her hair was styled in a geometric Grace Jones fade; and the elegant catwalk specialists Naki Depass or Tami Williams, who at 19 is already a seasoned veteran of shows for Valentino, Dior and Chanel haute couture; and Kai Newman, a 19-year-old who is one of those beings with a beauty that seems to radiate from some deep inner source.

Like Mr. Steele, Ms. Newman had no ambitions to become a model when she was spotted on the streets of Kingston on her way to the dentist.

“We saw her walking with her mother, and we slammed on the brakes,” Mr. Peters said. “I said to her mother: ‘Is that your daughter? Make sure you have her come in to see me. That’s a star.’ ”

The path to success was far from direct for Ms. Newman, who first misplaced Mr. Peters’s business card and who, eventually sent for development by an affiliated agency in New York, was judged too green and packed off home.

“I said: ‘I don’t care if they return her. I’m going to send her right back,’ ” said Mr. Peters, whose belief in the young model was rewarded when she embarked on a tour of the European circuit and immediately booked a runway exclusive for Gucci.

The hits scored by an obscure agency on an island of fewer than three million people owe much to the missionary zeal of Mr. Peters, a voluble and avuncular man (his models call him Pops) with a shaven head and a cowcatcher smile who, besides running his modeling agency, organizes Style Week Jamaica and is host of a popular talk show on cable TV. They also underscore the economic impact that lack of diversity has had on those excluded from opportunity.

“My thought was always to give young Jamaican kids the chance to dream and see a world they may never had known existed and a chance to be world phenoms that they may have thought impossible by their circumstances,” Mr. Peters said.

Though his rhetoric may be that of a public service announcement, the facts bear out Mr. Peters’s message. A persistently sluggish economy and the high levels of public debt that have plagued the island nation for decades have kept Jamaica among the slowest growing developing countries in the world, according to the World Bank. And in 2016, the Statistical Institute of Jamaica found that the country’s overall unemployment rate of 12.9 percent was more than twice as high among the young.

“Now the whole Caribbean is becoming a new space for people to be scouting that wouldn’t have existed without this new wave of diversity,” said Mr. Scully, the casting agent.

What that means for people like Mr. Allen, Ms. Newman or Ms. Grant is a ladder out of Kingston neighborhoods like Central Village, Waterhouse or Allman Town, where drug gangs divvy up and control the unpaved streets and gun violence is commonplace.

“No, we never saw Vogue,” Ms. Newman’s mother, Kerriann Brown Walters, said one afternoon at a betting parlor in Allman Town, a scabbed wood building where she sells lottery tickets from behind a wire screen.

In an adjacent shack, a television blasted out a cricket game as gamblers cheered and some women with the chemically bleached complexions common here idled on a bench listening to Lil Uzi Vert on their smartphones.

In a nearby part of Allman Town that his mother calls “the heart of the ghetto,” Mr. Allen was raised in a modest frame structure set behind a gate of corrugated aluminum. Handsome and at ease in Ralph Lauren ads, he looks like a natural inheritor of a world of affluence and boundless opportunity, a sphere sharply unlike the reality he returns to when the fashion shows come to an end.

A thin sheet covers the cot where Mr. Allen sits to talk to a reporter in his childhood bedroom. An emaciated dog wanders through a dirt courtyard, and Tasmin Hamilton, his mother, who single-handedly raised her four children here, hangs in a doorway.

“I can’t really guess what he would have done if the modeling hadn’t come along,” she said, “because in Jamaica no matter what drive you have, the opportunities are not readily there.

“It is like a blessing that he can earn a living and go to places we never heard of,” Ms. Hamilton added. “Sometimes Brad will call home and say he’s in Milan or Paris, and we ask ourselves ‘What part of the world is that?’ ”

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