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Model Salem Mitchell Wants the Beauty Industry to 'Give Credit Where Credit Is Due'

The 21-year-old model discusses cultural appropriation, cyber bullying, the impact social media has had on her generation's view of beauty and more.

If there's any current face of the beauty industry that most embodies what it means to be authentic, it's model Salem Mitchell. Her smattering of freckles and hair, which is usually put into a protective style or worn naturally, may make her recognizable, but it's also the 21-year-old model's honesty and tendency to let her personality come through that have helped her land campaigns with Gap, Converse and Rihanna's industry-rattling lingerie line, Savage X Fenty.

It's clear that her wisdom far exceeds her youthful age. Mitchell is aware of what a double-edged sword social media can be; digital platforms both ignited her modeling career and caused her to become one of the thousands of victims of online bullying. She pays close attention to the culturally appropriative behavior of the fashion and beauty industries, but chooses to educate rather than berate. 

"It's important that in situations where it's not your culture, you always just take a step back and look to the people that actually know it and actually live it," she told Fashionista in a recent interview. "And that's something that I learned too, just by watching. If this is not my culture and somebody has something to say about it and it's their culture, it's always important to listen to what they have to say because you can't invalidate somebody who comes from that background."

Ahead, Mitchell discusses cultural appropriation, cyber bullying, the impact social media has had on her generation's view of beauty and more. Read on for the highlights.

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What's your first beauty memory?
Probably just trying to figure out my hair with my grandma. When I was in fourth grade, I really wanted to have straight hair. We went to the Navy Exchange in San Diego and we bought a straightener. It took so long and it turned out so bad and so painful. That's probably why I always have braids or something protective now.

You wear your hair naturally or in protective braids quite often, and hair representation is big part of the conversation in the beauty industry right now. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

I think that the industry is moving in the correct direction from what I've seen, what I experienced. I remember when I wanted to get braids because I was tired of putting heat on my hair and doing shoots where I felt like the stylist wasn't managing the type of hair I had correctly. I actually talked to my hair specialist and she recommended no heat for six months. So I told my agents that this is what I'm going to do, and it's not really negotiable for six months, I'm not going to put any heat on my hair. And I was pretty afraid of how my clients would take to it or how it would affect my work, but I can honestly say I feel like I gained more work with the hair change. Not that my hair is definitive of who I am, but I expected a lot of these big commercial clients to not be as interested in me with a protective style like that. I see so many people that I work with embrace it, and also I've noticed that amongst some of my peers. I see a lot more protective styles and natural styling in Target and all sorts of places that you go. I think it makes a big difference because 10 years ago I would've never gotten braids because I had people in my life telling me that they had 'ghetto' connotations to them. And 10 years ago I would've never seen anybody in an ad with braids.

But, I do think that there's a long way to go. I think that even though we've made progress, there are still a lot of people out there who pretend that they know how to work with all types of hair and they don't. 

But on the other side of that is appropriation. Lately we've had pages like Estée Laundry calling out different models and publications for appropriating Black hairstyles countless times at this point. 

As a woman of color, how do instances like that make you feel?

When we speak out about cultural appropriation, it's not really to say 'We own the hairstyle and only we can do it.' It's just about understanding that we deserve the same respect that you're going to give to the white models or celebrities that would be considered 'innovative' or 'trendsetting' when it's something that comes from our culture, has actual significance and has been around for a long time. I just think it's mostly about giving credit where credit is due and making sure that if you're going to embrace or replicate something, you trace it back to where it came from.

You're a very big advocate for self-love and being comfortable in your own skin. But you've also talked about being bullied online because of your freckles. Can you tell me a little bit about your self-love journey?

My self-love journey is still in progress, it's a constant fluctuating process. One day you're going to feel amazing and one day you're not going to feel so amazing. But over time, I don't think a lot of my self-love journey and acceptance of myself has anything to do with my freckles. That's something that I was actually very taken aback by when I started using social media. I went to great schools and I had a really great groups of friends and my mom has freckles and my dad was very encouraging. Everybody around me was so just nice; I'm very grateful and privileged to have experienced that growing up. But [on social media], it was like a whole different world. I was so confused as to why everybody had something to say, and I think that coming from my background and having that strong support system really made the difference in how I was able to handle it and how I was able to make jokes back with people and not really take things too seriously. But, even though that was my experience, I like to be up front about stuff like that because there's going to be somebody out there who is similar to me, but not me and doesn't have the same support system or maybe doesn't feel as confident as I feel.

I think another thing that I noticed about my self-love journey is that the internet is like a blessing and a curse. I'm grateful because I see so many wonderful role models and people that I look up to that helped me figure things out. But also being in the public eye can be very stressful. In this current stage of my self-love journey, it's more about just existing as I want to exist and not really trying to fit expectations with what anybody would want to see or what my clients would want to see, or what my followers want to see.

You were discovered by Ford Models on Instagram, but you've also been bullied on it; how would you describe your relationship with social media?

Now I have a really good relationship with social media, as compared to in the past. I don't necessarily think that I've made any wrong decisions on social media, but growing up on the internet, there's a lot of things that you say or you think are the right thing, and it's not even that you're saying the wrong things, maybe you just don't know as much as you think you know.

My relationship with social media is strictly just sharing what I feel I want to share and see what I genuinely feel and what I know. But I think something that a lot of people do is we give ourselves this responsibility that to have a platform, you automatically need to be doing all of this work and you need to be speaking to the masses to make change. That's important, but I think what I need to also remember is that I'm a 21-year-old young girl, I'm navigating life, I didn't go to college and I don't have the education on a lot of things that people are maybe expecting me to speak on. I just notice a lot of misinformation being spread.


As someone who's been surrounded by social media for most of her life, how do you think it has impacted your generation's view of beauty standards?

I honestly don't know. I'd like to say that social media has impacted beauty in a positive way for providing visibility for those who maybe didn't have it before, and through various beauty and modeling communities that people are kind of taking upon themselves to become more represented. But I also think that regardless of how much work we do, social media is always going to give you that room to compare yourself to somebody else. Sometimes you can feel left out. Social media is all a perception of what you want people to see. I don't post the times that I fail or I don't post the days that I look terrible. I only share the reflections of myself that I feel are appropriate to the masses. And I think we all forget that that's what everybody else is doing, too.

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The fashion and beauty industries have been kind of patting themselves on the back recently for prioritizing inclusivity in a way that they hadn't in the past. As a model, do you feel there has been a shift?

I think that it is going on the right track, but I think from being behind the scenes and actually knowing what's going on, while things might look inclusive, I don't think that they are as inclusive [as the industry would like to pretend]. Because I came into the industry telling my story and being very transparent about how I feel and always being outspoken, I think it set a tone for how my agents treat me and how my agency views me and the types of clients that I bring. 

It's 2019 and I know people who are still being asked to lose weight at agencies and I know people aren't on runway because they don't have the same height or the same body measurements, or sample sizes. And even though we're seeing great campaigns in the commercial world, I think that the high fashion world should take note and continue to include various body types, heights and more.

And I think another thing is that with inclusivity, it needs to just be second nature. I think a lot of inclusivity-based projects always include some sort of interview where the person who is considered 'unconventional' explains how they got there and the types of struggles that they went through. I don't really feel like the same questions are asked with some of the top white supermodels. But I think if you're going to include somebody, you should include them and treat them like you would treat any other cast member.

Something I've noticed now in social media is that people can sense disingenuousness. People crave genuine content because it feels like it rarely exist.

Yeah, I agree. And I always take that into consideration when deciding what moves to make because social media is a big part of everything now. Even though I'd love to pretend that it's not, but I think it's always important to be authentic because the people that are watching you and the people that support you, they have an idea of who you are and if you do something that isn't genuine, it's going to be noticed. If something's not doing well because it's usually because it's not authentic to you.

Let's talk more about beauty. Who are some of your biggest beauty inspirations right now?

I love this girl that I follow on Instagram, her handle is @sweetmutuals. Her name is Allie and she's this beautiful dark-skinned Black girl that always does really extravagant makeup work. They're so expressive and so funky that I'm heavily inspired by everything she's doing. And she just has a really great personality, I mean I've never met her, but from what I see on Instagram, she's great. And I also use Pinterest a lot. So it's not necessarily one person, but I'll just search for different looks. I'm really into glossy eyes and I'm really into matching eyes and lips, so I'll look up a lot of that. I really like graphic eyeliners, too.

Are there any other beauty trends that you're really excited about at the moment?

I really love the monochromatic looks. I think Gigi Hadid had think kind of look done by Patrick Ta that I thought was pretty nice.

Lately beauty is going into artistic territories. Not that it hasn't been artistic, but people are experimenting with their makeup more, especially after "Euphoria," and it's so exciting to see.

I know, it's crazy because before the "Euphoria" craze I feel like editorials were always kind of bordered on this playful makeup, but never really went above and beyond with it. So it's crazy that it took Euphoria to get that push. Even on one of my recent campaign shoots the info said "Euphoria eyes" and I was like, I love Euphoria eyes. So I'm excited about this new experimental take on beauty.

What do you do for self-care?

I mind my own business. I like to hang out at home. I like to hang out with my boyfriend and my friends as well. I love having friends and family dinners. I love to cook. I invite my friends over a lot and we all make dinner and sit around talking to each other, just asking each other random questions. I'm really into picnics and if I don't feel like going outside I'll turn my TV off and open my windows and have indoor picnics.

I also do a lot of pole dancing, which I've been doing for about three months now and I love it. That was a really big step for me because growing up I danced for seven years but I just didn't feel confident in it. I ended up gravitating toward modeling because I wanted to try something else. But now that I just took the leap and decided I was going to try a pole dancing class, I've been consistently doing it. I have my own pole in my house and I've made so many friends and I love it. I think it's getting way more popular, which is great. But, I hope that it's opening the conversation around respecting sex workers as well. Because I hate that... I mean, we all saw "Hustlers" and I do this for fun and there all these people that are very accepting of it, but we should be accepting of it in all forms, not just like a hobby form.

Could you tell me a little bit about your beauty routine?

I use Embryolisse Lait-Creme Concentre every day. It's a moisturizer that I have, and I love it. I've been using it for a couple of years now. It's been pretty inexpensive and everybody has the general consensus about it being pretty good. I have this new lip balm that I love, it's called LIPSMART, it's so nice. And then for makeup, I just do Glossier Boy Brow, Honest Beauty's Extreme Length Mascara and Lash Primer, and Glossier Lip Gloss.

What's one beauty tip that you live by?

I will always live by clean skin. That's one tip I have learned from a lot of different makeup artists: Clean skin paired with fun eyes and a good lip will go a long way. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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