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The Wall Group's Jay Lopez on How Managers Can — and Should — Advocate for BIPOC and Latinx Artists

In this op-ed, he discusses why he's set out to built a roster of primarily BIPOC and Latinx artists and what the industry can do to better support them.
The Wall Group Jay Lopez

Jay Lopez is a manager at The Wall Group, representing a range of makeup, hair and wardrobe stylists. His roster is primarily made up of BIPOC and Latinx artists — which is intentional, as he sets out to make space for professionals like himself in the fashion and beauty industries. In an op-ed for Fashionista, he discusses his career, the discrepancies he still sees when it comes to opportunities given to BIPOC and Latinx artists and the role managers can and should play in leveling the playing field. As told to Ana Colón.

The importance of having representation behind the scenes in fashion became apparent to me early on, as I started to grow in my career.

I was introduced to this profession by a Latina named Vanessa Cruz-Setton. That's something I've often seen with people of color and Latinx people in the industry: It's usually another person of color or Latinx person bringing them in. She was a manager for 20 years and became a mentor for me. I started as a producer and gradually worked my way up to becoming a talent manager, representing hair, makeup and wardrobe stylists.

I've been at The Wall Group for two years. I first met Ali Bird, the managing director of the New York office, at an event. A year later, I sat down with her and discussed who I was as a manager, my aesthetic, my style. I was honest with her about how it was important to me to represent people of color and Latinx people. It has always been a priority, but at past agencies I was met with resistance, veiled replies of "They're not the right fit," "Their book isn’t strong enough" or "Their book is too 'urban.'" But when you stop to think about why an artist of color or a Latinx artist's book isn't strong enough, you have to think about the opportunities that weren't afforded to them to build their portfolio in the first place. So when I met Ali, I was straightforward: "As a manager, I want to be able to give those opportunities to people of color," I said. She and The Wall Group have been nothing but supportive.

Now, my roster is about 70% people of color and Latinx people. I'm proud of the diversity of my roster in many ways — I have artists that focus on celebrity, others on fashion editorials and advertising; some are influencers. Talent and skill are the first things I consider when signing new artists, and each opportunity (and each artist) is different. But I'm conscious about my artists of color and Latinx artists being afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

As a Latinx person myself, I've noticed a lack of people of color and Latinx people in the industry — not because the talent is lacking, but because of there are barriers of entry. I wanted to even out the playing field and be part of the solution, as much as I can.

Following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement took on a resurgence. I started seeing the influx of emails asking for artists of color — especially Black talent, mostly from new clients. One example: Jessica Smalls has seen a particularly huge rise in requests since the summer. She's a seasoned makeup artist who works with A-list talent like Janelle Monáe and who brands should have been inquiring about long before this. I'm happy that Jessica and other talented artists are getting recognized, of course, but there are still disconnects I see with brands looking to support and work with artists of color and Latinx artists.

First, there's the issue of pay equity. When I'm negotiating rates on behalf of white artists versus artists of color — before and even now — I have to do more work for the latter, even when the rates are industry standard. Oftentimes, they'll be met with distaste and dismissive attitudes. This shouldn't be the case. Fair and equal compensation needs to be normalized.

Recently, I've seen a huge rise in brands looking for artists to consult on product development. After Fenty Beauty, many brands expanded their product offering to include more skin tones and hair textures, but many more still have not. It's a huge undertaking that requires months, sometimes years, of work. I've gotten more options for this since June than I did in all of 2019, but now I'm seeing budgets that are 10% of what they were before. In conversation, a brand will tell me, "Full transparency, we feel like this is important, but we don’t have a budget for it this year." That's not how it works: If you really want to make this change, you find the budget. You figure out a way. You don't ask a person of color to put in a ton of work for a fraction of what you would've given somebody else.

Brands are also looking to promote projects featuring artists of color and Latinx artists. That's great, as long as you do it right — and compensate the artist for it. When an artist is asked to be featured in behind-the-scenes footage, post on social media or be shot for the campaign, in addition to their work as an artist and without the offer of an additional rate? As a manager, I have to draw the line. If a brand is using and benefiting from their likeness, there needs to be a fee.

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The intentions are often good, but brands need to ensure that they're working in an equitable and authentic way. As managers, our job requires flexibility and an ability to work with clients to find solutions and the best artist for a job. We're also in a pandemic that has greatly impacted our industry — that's obviously an additional challenge, but we still have to be able to work fairly and for fair rates.

The gap in pay between artists with similar careers, similar years and similar experience plays into gatekeeping, which to me, is the second biggest disconnect. The industry is notoriously hard to break into, but for people of color and Latinx folks, it can be at least twice as hard to make it in.

Gatekeeping is an issue across all parts of the industry. Huge PR firms will pitch great celebrities to work with our artists, and yet, for my artists of color and Latinx artists, they'll often only send the names of BIPOC and Latinx actors. It's a problem more broadly, this thought that, "Well, if they're a Black artist, they're only capable of working with a Black talent." No, they're equally capable of working with a white celebrity. This can also be seen in fashion editorials and ad jobs: I'll have an artist on hold for an ad shoot with two Black models, and when it falls through I'm told, "The casting changed, so we went in a different direction." So, because the models are now white, you booked a white artist? 

As a Black artist, you have to know how to do white hair or makeup, as well as Black hair or makeup — but it's not always the same vice versa. There are a lot of seasoned white hairdressers and makeup artists who never had to learn how to do Black hair and makeup. Every artist at a certain level should know how to work with all hair types and all skin tones. I think that's an industry standard that we need to set.

Managers are the connectors, and we advocate for our talent in every aspect — financial, creative, overall growth potential. It's about having those uncomfortable conversations on an artist's behalf. As managers, we have to stand up for what's right. It's not coming from a place of combativeness, but from a place of wanting to move the industry forward.

With this influx of requests, I've found myself having to communicate so much more and, to some level, educating the client — whether it's a brand, a producer, an art director or whoever's reaching out — on how they can execute their vision, while also doing what's right and fair for the artist. That means fighting for fair rates, speaking about these issues and finding a balance between ensuring my artists earn a living and making the best decisions for their careers. A lot of my artists have also been really clear: "We love this newfound energy, but we want to be booked for our talent, not just because we're Black, brown, Latinx, etc."

As a brand, even if you mean well, you can still miss the point. I've had huge, global companies reach out and begin an email with, "We'd love to do a campaign around social justice." But then the rates are terrible. When you're not taking pay equity into account, you're not really fighting for social justice. And if you're shooting a campaign that's based on social justice, because you're inspired by what's happening in the industry and in the world, you need to pay those artists the same amount you would pay a white artist.

I've seen a lot more openness within the industry. The fact that we're even talking about this is progress. Now, it's time to take concrete steps to fix the imbalances.

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. Nobody can deny that there are disconnects in the opportunities granted to artists of color and Latinx artists versus their counterparts. The influx of requests I've received is a sign that brands know this and want to address it. With open dialogue and education, I'm hopeful that we can continue to move forward.

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Homepage image: Ferda Demir/Getty Images for IHKIB