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Part African-American and part Korean, Chanel Iman, above, is one of the rare mixed-race models enjoying success today. (MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Part African-American and part Korean, Chanel Iman, above, is one of the rare mixed-race models enjoying success today. (MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Beauty

Diversity is beautiful. So why the whitewash in fashion? Add to ...

We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but a new study out of Britain suggests that most beholders find one thing especially beautiful: a mixed-race face.

According to Michael Lewis of Cardiff University's school of psychology, "people whose genetic backgrounds are more diverse are, on average, perceived as more attractive."

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Lewis, a senior lecturer at the school, came to this conclusion after asking what he says is the highest-ever number of respondents on the subject to rate more than 1,200 pictures of black, white and mixed-race faces on the basis of physical appeal.

In his view, the study proves that Darwin's theory of heterosis - the belief that cross-breeding leads to genetically fitter offspring in the animal world - also applies to humans, who in turn equate fitness with beauty. If that's the case, it also reveals how truly unevolved the fashion industry is.

For years, the clamouring among outsiders for greater displays of diversity on fashion runways and magazine covers has been a steady din, nothing new. If anything, the Cardiff study slaps a scientific stamp of approval on long-standing demands. What is remarkable, though, is the fashion industry's continued indifference if not outright resistance. In the past decade especially, it has been swamped by a wave of unequivocally white faces, from Eastern European models to the recent Dutch invasion - all blonde, all stunning and many indistinguishable.

I would say that 80, 90 per cent [of models today]are blond and blue-eyed," says industry veteran Elmer Olsen, owner of Elmer Olsen Models in Toronto.

So why the ongoing whitewash, even in the face of our apparently natural preferences? Some have argued that, notwithstanding the intermittent success over the years of black supermodels such as Beverly Johnson and Naomi Campbell, the homogeneous approach takes the focus off the model and puts it on the fashion.

Flare editor-in-chief Lisa Tant, whose magazine has a rare reputation for depicting diversity on its pages, sees it another way. "It's safe and it reflected the majority for a long time, but it's not the majority any more," she says.

Norwayne Anderson, agent and owner of Toronto's NAM Personal Management, agrees. "It's a cop-out," he says. "When are we going to open our eyes to the fact that the world has changed, that the races are mixing and that we see beauty differently now?"

A timely case in point: The first Arab American, Lebanese-born Rima Fakih, was just crowned Miss USA.

Therein, though, lies the rub. Beauty pageants comprising "real" women, however beautiful, are one thing. But fashion, as Olsen points out, isn't always (or ever) about reflecting reality. If it were, the streets would be awash with size-zero women.

"It's about fantasy and selling that fantasy to a client," he says.

At a time when designers are trying to tap larger markets through mass-market lines for the likes of H&M or Target, however, creating fantasies that appeal to a wider audience might seem like the obvious, smarter choice.

"You'd think a creative industry would take more chances," says Bernadette Morra, acting editor-in-chief of Fashion magazine, "but it doesn't."

That said, there were some small, encouraging shifts on the recent fall/winter runways. Aside from a switch to slighter older (read 20 to 24), curvier models, "I've noticed [the presence of]more African Americans and Asians," Tant says.

Mixed-race models such as Chanel Iman (who is African-American and Korean) and newcomer Lais Ribeiro (with her multi-ethnic Brazilian looks) were also standouts.

But widespread, consistent change continues to be elusive, especially when it comes to magazines. For instance, two years after Italian Vogue published its wildly popular "all-black" issue, necessitating the printing of 40,000 extra copies and dispelling the notion that "colour on the cover" doesn't sell, the launch this past March of Vogue in Turkey, where Europe and Asia meet, didn't see a Eurasian model on the cover, but blond, blue-eyed Canadian Jessica Stam.

"It's as if we're always on the verge, but we never have a breakthrough," says Olsen, who figured that the 2008 election of a mixed-race (and very handsome) Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency "would help [the cause] and maybe it will.

Anderson adds: We need the Karl Lagerfelds to set a precedent."

Whether it's blessed by Lagerfeld or another top tastemaker, "all it will take is one mixed-race girl to become the next superstar and then the tide will move that way," Morra says.

But if Tant is correct, she will, alas, have to be Obama-style spectacular. "The fashion industry is very insular and I really believe it needs a big kick in the pants."

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