Where the rest of us saw the relief of the (sort of) peaceful transition of power at Joe Biden’s inauguration last week, IMG Models saw an opportunity for a shopping spree. The agency, which boasts such names as Karlie Kloss, Alek Wek, and the Sisters Hadid, scooped up not one but two new faces for its lineup following the Jan. 20 ceremony.* First was Amanda Gorman, the poet laureate, bestselling author, and recent college grad, who left something in all of our eyes during her powerful reading. Second was Ella Emhoff, the stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala (“Momala,” to Ella) Harris.
Far be it from me to criticize any young woman who’s gainfully employed in this economy. But there is something … frustrating about the way Emhoff’s deal has been conveyed and celebrated. It is not so much that Emhoff signed a modeling contract that doesn’t sit well with me (though that has teed up some critics) as it is the packaging of her so-called unique arrival to the scene. The contract feels like an annoying finale for the cooing, image-focused narrative that took off as soon as she appeared alongside her stepmom in that dashing Miu Miu coat of hers.
This is how the New York Times heralded the news, in a disturbingly fawning piece that reads like an ad for Ella, the Future of Fashion:
Ms. Emhoff throws a crocheted grenade at the image of typical D.C. political offspring, with a style that could be termed Wes Anderson chic. In her selfies, she doesn’t wear much makeup and doesn’t carefully blow-dry her naturally curly hair. She shows off her armpit hair and cartoonish tattoos, which include eggs and bacon in the shape of a smiley face and a cow.
Armpit hair! Bare face! Tattoos!
To those ensconced in body diversity movements or, truly, any kind of culture not defined by those who are white and wealthy, these details do little to inspire. Twentysomething inked Brooklynites have been the thing du jour for many jours now. Numerous media figures already sport all kinds of tats, shirk shaving, and play with traditional markers of femininity. Emhoff is just the latest to be noted for her deviation from the crumbling norms of makeup and body hair, following in the steps of women like Alicia Keys and Cara Delevingne, and others who go farther back still.*
But the other thing that bothers me here is that Emhoff—a tall, thin, white woman—is actually an extremely traditional model. That she gets credit for not blow-drying her naturally curly hair and is lauded as not “typical D.C. political offspring” for adopting a Bushwick aesthetic feels slightly absurd. Remember that two little Black girls (with relaxed hair, a reminder of who gets praised for being “natural”) entered the White House back in 2008.
None of this is Emhoff’s fault. She is a college senior with a documented love for fashion. Who could blame her for jumping at the chance to be a model? For women of a certain age, shows like America’s Next Top Model convinced us that this was a job we actually wanted. The growing influencer economy now makes the model life seem more attractive and attainable, too.
It’s the ignorance of outlets like the Times—and figureheads like Ivan Bart, IMG Models’ president—in failing to acknowledge how Emhoff does actually fit into that stereotypical model mold that chafes. The Times quotes Bart on bringing Emhoff on board: “It’s not really about shape, size, or gender anymore. Ella communicates this moment in time. There’s a cheekiness and a joy she exudes.”
Cheeky and joyful she may be, but her shape, size, and gender fit squarely into age-old notions of who gets to define what’s fashionable. And let’s remember that she is the daughter of the second gentleman, a former lawyer and now the husband to the most powerful woman in America. That means Emhoff is able to afford the expensive Parsons education that gives her time to indulge her own fashion design projects, just like she was able to afford the expensive coat that turned heads at the inauguration.
Agencies like IMG do their best to dance around how these privileges play into high-profile hires like Emhoff, even as they blatantly commodify the excitement around a new presidential administration. Emhoff does seem like a funny, talented woman with a knack for personal style. (Her hair? Love it.) But when the media offers long odes to why Emhoff is such a significant, barrier-breaking addition to the fashion industry, they perpetuate and resubstantiate the same problems that keep folks like Emhoff in and the rest of us out.
Correction, Jan. 29, 2021: This piece originally misstated that the inauguration ceremony was on Jan. 21. It was on Jan. 20. The piece also misspelled Cara Delevingne’s last name.