When Briauna Mariah first arrived in New York City to model a decade ago, she experienced what many young models do: agents who didn’t have her back; being constantly told she wasn’t good enough or thin enough; never being paid on time.
Mariah decided to do something about it and in 2013, launched her own agency, We Speak Model Management. She was determined to upend the fashion industry, from representing models who reflect the diversity of our planet to making sure her models are paid fairly and on time.
Despite an industry resistant to change, Mariah has found success by staying true to her mission and her models. Bit by bit (and brand by brand), she is changing how we see and define beauty, with fashion finally starting to catch up to what she already knows: Every community deserves respect, recognition and representation.
This Game Changer speaks exclusively to Grazia about change in the time of BLM, how to combat tokenism and if anyone really can be a model.
How do you even start a modeling agency, especially one that’s not traditional in the models it represents?
It really was “fake it ’til you make it!” I had no agent experience and just had an idea of how it all worked. I didn’t have connections and my biggest obstacle was that I didn’t know anyone. I was given feedback that my model board was too “all over the place.” People told me that Curve [plus-size] modeling was already a thing, but I wasn’t doing just Curve models. [We Speak’s model categories include Fluid, Curve, Classic and Duos along with Women and Men.]
It was really slow growth, but We Speak has nearly doubled in growth, year over year, especially in the past couple of years. It’s been phenomenal to see the industry change and finally catch up to where I’m at.
How has the atmosphere changed since 2013? When did you feel like you started getting traction?
Traction started in 2019 and I definitely think the 2020 protests in support of Black Lives Matter played a part in the industry wanting to expand its representation. We Speak was already authentically repping people as they are, so we saw a lot of growth after the protests and Covid. People are just ready to see themselves and We Speak had a moment to leverage our voice in the industry and become a leader within this niche. We are probably the only ones advocating against tokenism.
Can you explain what tokenism is?
It’s that idea of checking off the representation box, specifically looking at a brand that has a very white presentation of models and wants one model who has certain intersections. That can feel a little icky, being the only model booked on a set like that. While representation is important, it has to be authentic—and tokenism isn’t. We advocate strongly for our models so they don’t feel tokenized.
We’re working on education because the problem lies at the top of the brands. They don’t necessarily get it. There are a lot of people who do get it and want to see change, but they may not have the capacity to make those decisions for change. So we work with people and with what they can do—like showing more diversity within the certain specifics that a brand still requires. However, we make sure to look at their sets and see what their campaigns have consistently looked like.
Do you think that anyone can model?
It’s not necessarily that anyone can model. The market has to be right and it’s an extremely difficult industry to navigate as a model. You need the right resources and the right drive. You have to build up your social media presence. But things are opening up a lot more and I have seen people see a lot of success.
Tell us about the photos from this shoot.
This shoot was inspired by a few luxury brands. We wanted to emulate their famous ads and show them what more diversity in their campaigns could look like. It’s a chance for the luxury fashion and editorial market to catch up with the times. It’s a great moment for representation and it’s really necessary.