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Why Are Israel’s Top Models All Blondes?

Model Galit Gutmann in an ad for ‘Crazy Line.’ Photo by Dudi Hasson/Haaretz

(Haaretz) — It was supposed to be her big break after winning the Israeli version of “Big Brother.” In March, Ethiopian-born model Tahounia Rubel was chosen to appear in a new ad for the April Cosmetics chain. She was to appear alongside blonde model Esti Ginzburg, who has been the chain’s public face for years. However, when she arrived on set, Rubel soon realized her role would be less promising than expected.

Artistic directors at the Zarmon DDB ad agency described what would happen in the ad: Ginzburg lies on a chaise longue, the wind ruffling her light colored hair. But there’s a twist: She has a maid, or a friend, who is black and polishing Ginzburg’s toenails. Judging by the ad’s closing words – “Set your beauty free” – it appears that whoever produced the ad intended that the hints of slavery would create a furor that would only advance the media exposure.

However, Rubel was not partner to this excitement. She refused to cooperate with the production, claiming it was insulting and humiliating. For more than an hour, producers, the director and even representatives of the ad agency tried to convince Rubel that the ad flattered her. When these attempts failed, her personal manager, Ofer Refaeli, was summoned. He told her the toenail polishing would be mutual and that Ginzburg would also do her nails as well. Only then did she agree to continue.

The April Cosmetics incident continues to reverberate here. Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that the Walla! website pulled a story on the filming of an ad for Golf Kids, in which all the models had fair-colored hair and eyes. Three weeks prior to that, there was a report about the Education Ministry’s website, which featured photos of children with light skin, hair and eyes, and who, like in the Golf Kids ad, appeared to be European (it turned out that the photos had come from an overseas database). Surfers on social networks were furious, leading to a hasty – although reserved – apology, as well a substitution of faces for photos of neutral images such as books or hands. In the past, many complaints were directed at mobile phone provider Pelephone, whose ads featured only light-skinned customers, most of whom looked Scandinavian.

Tahounia Rubel as she appeared in a April Cosmetics ad

These small incidents add up, creating the impression of a phenomenon. Where did all the brunettes go, and how is it that “Israeli beauty” is exemplified only by the blue-eyed, blonde model Bar Refaeli? A quick glance at billboards, TV and newspaper ads reveals a very clear picture – the dominant Israeli “look” reflects the European and American ideals of beauty: slim women with light-colored skin, hair and eyes. This is true for the Fox, Renoir, H&O and Golbary fashion chains. Only the Castro chain appears to represent a more diverse and mixed Israeli character.

Veteran event producer Moti Reif, who has produced and managed many Israeli fashion weeks in recent years, can’t understand what all the fuss is about. “That’s not fair criticism. When Golf carried photos of Ethiopian-born Israeli beauty queen Yityish ‘Titi’ Aynaw for four seasons, no one said a thing,” he notes, adding that he strives for catwalk diversity in the fashion shows he produces. “Regrettably,” he says, “there aren’t enough dark-skinned models in Israel.” He is proud of the fact that some of the models who aren’t light-skinned – such as Shani Zigron – star in his productions.

Zigron provides a perfect example of the phenomenon of acquiring “albino” features for the local fashion scene. At 18, she is one of the great hopes in her field, after leading campaigns for brands such as BECCA, ASOS and Gottex. She has walked the catwalk at major fashion shows and was photographed for leading magazines such as Vogue. However, she still remembers her first days in the industry when she was less sure of her beauty. “It was very hard for me to enter this field in Israel,” the Ra’anana-born model recalls. “I really looked like many Israelis do, whereas stylists and photographers prefer light-skinned and blonde looks. Looking for work, I got many responses saying they were looking for someone more light-haired or blonde.” The turning point came in 2012, when Zigron went to work in London. After her first international campaign, people in Israel also began to take an interest in her.

Betty Rockaway, a fashion veteran in Israel and founder of the Image Models Agency – which nurtured talents such as actresses Ayelet Zurer, Yael Abecassis, Mili Avital and Yael Bar Zohar – knows of many dark-skinned models who eventually gave up and dyed their hair a lighter color. “Nothing can be done about it,” she says. “The dominant look is of light colors, such as Bar Refaeli has. Occasionally there are exceptions, such as [the late] Tami Ben-Ami or Pazit Cohen, with dark skin and hair.” Rockaway explains how she took on dark-skinned or dark-haired women at her agency, knowing they would mainly work abroad. “I remember, for example, how I took on actress Ronit Elkabetz, but she was never chosen to lead any campaign.”

Like with the example of Aynaw, one can find a few dark-skinned models – such as Moran Atias, who was recently selected to lead a campaign at the Honigman fashion chain. However, Atias’ case is similar to that of Zigron. Only after she enjoyed success in the Italian entertainment industry – and later also in Hollywood – was she deemed a suitable face for a local brand. Rockaway notes that Rana Raslan, the only Arab to be crowned Miss Israel, did not fare well here. If Ethiopian models are the weak link in Israel’s fashion chain, placing slightly behind Mizrahi women (Jews of Middle Eastern descent), Arab models are completely absent.

Poet and activist Shlomi Hatuka believes this is no coincidence. “There is a complete correlation between Mizrahi representation in advertising and in the centers of power,” he says. “Moran Atias is akin to a Mizrahi Supreme Court Justice – it’s the same level.” Hatuka, who is very active on social media, has a lively Facebook page that he frequently updates with pictures from various campaigns. They are almost all dominated by light skin. “What these ads transmit as a subtext is a self-image, defining the ideal of beauty and success,” he says. “A myth of a white woman is constructed – an Ashkenazi one, in Israel’s case – and this creates a gap between the concept of the ideal beauty and Mizrahi beauty.”

Dr. Dalia Liran-Alper, from the School of Media Studies at the College of Management, explains that one can occasionally find a dark-skinned model here such as Ben-Ami. She was used to show a glimpse of the exotic, but would always represent the “Other,” says Liran-Alper. “Last year, there was a trend with Tahounia and beauty queen Titi, but it was only a passing phase. Their selection was a brilliant casting move. The ultimate ideal of beauty – including in Israel – is light skin and blonde hair, and this will remain so, since this ideal is dictated not from here but by [children’s TV channels] Disney and Nickelodeon.”

Rockaway refuses to get carried away when explaining why dark-skinned women are almost totally absent from the current generation of Israeli models. In other countries in the region, such as Turkey and Greece, women who closely resemble the local populace will not be used either, she says. However, there is some room to question this, since in other areas within society there is progress and a growing diversity.

Ron Cahlili, a documentary director who specializes in showing inequality between different communities, has made a new series for Channel 8. It deals with new elites composed of low-class, Mizrahi characters, referred to by the derogatory terms “arsim” (literally, pimps) or “frehot” (bimbos). Leading advertising personalities we talked to claimed the use of light-skinned models is not a conscious choice, but one of habit on the part of the producer, deriving from stereotypes of beauty formed in childhood. This only sharpens the puzzle. How is it that while almost every other sphere is undergoing changes, blonde hegemony is maintained in the world of fashion and cosmetics?

Hatuka believes that capitalism changed many aspects of “Israeliness,” providing Mizrahi Jews with a springboard, “enabling their upward mobility through democratic processes. If a lot of people want to hear Mizrahi music and there is a demand for it, its status will change,” he says. “However, when it comes to the decision makers, you’ll find Ashkenazi Jews there, not Mizrahi ones.”

Liran-Alper also tries to explain the phenomenon. She claims the advertising world, and the fashion world in particular, is the most salient one for shaping an ideal of what is beautiful. Even though in recent years children’s advertising strives for political correctness, advertising aimed at adults is less conscious of these issues. “Where there is no awareness, dark skins are dramatically underrepresented,” she says. “We are so accustomed to seeing Bar Refaeli and her clones that the phenomenon has become transparent – we don’t see it as a problem. Israeli companies specifically choose light-skinned models, and the idea is that if a blonde look is the global ideal, we have to conform. Should we agree to this? That’s a different question.”

“Israeli centers of power – such as the government, the Supreme Court and the media – are not yet egalitarian,” says Cahlili. “Mizrahi Jews have been victorious in music, entertainment, television – anywhere that is democratic. Anywhere that is dependent on a mediator who decides according to his own tastes, Mizrahi Jews will be less well received.”

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