Harmony Ilunga, Founder of Harmony HK, Is Revolutionising Hong Kong's Modelling Scene
In a world where those who go against the grain are often shunned, the saying “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”, made famous by Dr Seuss, rings especially true for Gen.T honouree Anne-Marie “Harmony” Ilunga, the founder of Hong Kong’s first diverse modelling agency. Her experiences fighting against discrimination based on the colour of her skin inspired her to bring representation and opportunities to others who may not fit traditional Asian or western beauty ideals.
After moving here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her mother and younger brother as refugees when she was 12, Ilunga quickly realised her road ahead was not the same as the average Hong Kong schoolchild’s. “My life was different and very limited. I needed to figure out who I was and why my life was the way it was. As an asylum seeker, I didn’t know where I was going, but I did know I loved to model,” the 23-year-old says of her teenage years. Having loved fashion and posing for photographs since childhood, Ilunga’s move to Hong Kong and discovery of the TV show America’s Next Top Model gave her the confidence to follow her dreams and carve out her own place in an industry historically rife with discrimination based on ethnicity, body size and sexuality.
I value confidence, attitude and individuals who want to add value to society, and I knew I needed to create a platform that highlighted the beauty and diversity that’s not often celebrated or appreciated in Hong Kong
Aged 17, Ilunga went to her first casting call but was rejected. “I remember crying so much. There were not many people that looked like me, but that just motivated me to be one of the first Black models in Hong Kong,” she recalls. “What I wanted was a seat at the table of the fashion and modelling world, but that never happened because of my skin colour. I did not fit the typical Asian beauty standard.”
At the start of her career, Ilunga walked the runways at local secondary school fashion shows and worked as a freelance model at events like Indian designer Manish Malhotra’s 2017 show at the Indian Women’s Club 60th anniversary gala. After persevering through discrimination and overt racist remarks like “We prefer white models over Black models like you” from casting agents, she eventually broke through when she was cast in a campaign for Hong Kong Airport.
However, just getting to be in front of a camera or on a catwalk wasn’t enough, and her experience of being overlooked for not being a light-skinned model in Hong Kong gave her the motivation to generate change on a deeper level, so that others would not struggle as she had. In 2018, she founded Harmony HK, a modelling agency and media production house focused on representation for traditionally overlooked faces through fashion shows and art. Today, the agency represents 50 models selected for their uniqueness, including fellow refugees, ethnic minorities, plus-size models, people of colour and members of the LGBTQ community.
“I value confidence, attitude and individuals who want to add value to society, and I knew I needed to create a platform that highlighted the beauty and diversity that’s not often celebrated or appreciated in Hong Kong,” Ilunga says.
Though there is a dearth of statistics on ethnic diversity in Hong Kong media, one 2017 study notes that mention of minorities in the press tends to be tied to “negative representation” and “scapegoating”, indicating an entrenched prejudice in society that is further ingrained by brands that shy away from casting a variety of faces in advertising campaigns. “Hong Kong is rich in diversity but this is not reflected in its media,” says Bidhya Shrestha, a Hong Kong-born activist of Nepalese descent, who founded the non-profit Aama Ko Koseli to raise awareness of the challenges marginalised women of colour face. “It’s a problem that can lead to a raft of mental health issues, from depression to low self-esteem and eating disorders.”
On their mission to normalise racially inclusive casting and champion beauty of all shapes and sizes, llunga and her team want to create a sense of belonging and acceptance, not just for their agency’s models, but for anyone who has felt that they don’t fit prescribed notions of beauty. Ilunga says, “When someone sees a resemblance [between] themselves [and what they see] on screen, it helps their self-esteem. Minority groups are often represented negatively in the media and the goal was to show Hong Kong what we are able to do when given the opportunity.”
Since launching her agency, she has put her words into action, hosting biannual fashion shows at venues like Volar and Eaton HK to spotlight minority talents and raise awareness of refugees in the city. At each of these events, 20 percent of ticket sales are donated to organisations that support causes Ilunga cares about, including charities for female empowerment, refugee aid, education and the protection of children. To meet the needs of the wider community, in 2015 Ilunga co-founded Learning Together with fellow 2021 Gen.T honouree Chantal Wong, an organisation that runs an educational programme for asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong aged from 15 to 25.
Now that she has a platform, Ilunga is ensuring she and her organisation keep learning and growing. This summer, she graduated from Andrews University in Michigan, via the Hong Kong Adventist College in Clearwater Bay, with a degree in psychology. And her agency is working with robotic automation company RPA (HK) to experiment with artificial intelligence as a tool to eliminate bias and add objectivity to the casting process by filtering out gender and cultural prejudices often faced by those seeking work.
Though there are signs of improvement, spurred by the discussions around racial equality happening all around the world as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ilunga feels the Asian fashion industry still has a long way to go before it can claim to be truly inclusive. “It was hard being a Black model growing up and it still is. I cannot expect everything to change overnight, but with time things will be different. At least now we are having the conversation. The more people understand the value of diversity and representation, the better,” she says.
Ilunga hopes to emulate the success of singer Rihanna, who is shifting perceptions and paving the way for inclusivity in fashion and in beauty through her beauty and lingerie brands, Fenty Beauty and Savage x Fenty, which spotlight diverse models. To do this, Ilunga will spend the next few years expanding her reach within Asia before setting her sights further afield. “The goal is to go global,” she says. “My hope is that when people think of diversity and inclusion in modelling, the first thing that pops into their minds is Harmony HK.
See more coverage of the Gen.T List 2021.