Powerful. Amazing. Resilient. Badass. Inspiring. Gorgeous. I could go on and on, and still won’t run out of words to describe this woman who wields her #BlackMuslimGirlFly like the most beautiful katana sword created by Hattori Hanzō. Better than Uma Thurman ever could.
I got the chance to talk with Leah Vernon, and I love her spirit, and her unapologetic storytelling about how she grew into her sharp and unbreakable #BlackMuslimGirlFly. Read what the beautiful, thoughtful, and powerful supermodel had to say:
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is defined as that “it” factor Black Muslim Girls & Women have that makes them amazing, dope, & fresh-to-death awesome. How would you describe your #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Leah Vernon: My #BlackMuslimGirlFly: It’s Fat, it’s Black, it’s Carefree, and it’s mostly Unapologetic living in my truths.
Team BMGFly: How did you grow into your Muslim identity? And, how does being a Black girl impact that? (Or, if you’re bi-racial, or of multi-ethnic heritage, how does that impact your Muslim identity?)
Leah: Well, I talk a lot about it in a book I wrote that I’m trying to get published. Some of the essays surround that very question. It’s definitely been a journey. When I was a kid and teenager, being fat was definitely not “in.” It wasn’t well represented. If you did see fat characters, they were usually fat and white. They were always the comedic relief. So, it was always, “Oh, the funny fat friend, or the silly fat friend, or the secondary character to the thin perfect person.” If you look at characters in movies, you see that a lot, even now with the body positive movement, you’ll still see comedic relief fat characters. On the other end, now you’ll see overly sexualized “thick” characters who are just for lingerie, and looking seductive. So, either we’re comedic relief, or we’re very seductive, over-sexualized. There’s no in-between, like we don’t have complexity. We’ve been turned into these one level caricatures. For me personally seeing that I think, “You are in this identity limbo. You’re not only fat, but you’re also Black as well, which has their own stereotypes attached to them, then you’re female, which is another intersectionality that is facing inequalities right now, just generally.
Growing up with that, my default was that white people have perfectness. So, I’m gonna be white. I’m going to do everything that I possibly can do to erase my Blackness. And, I thought it was possible, until I got to college, and saw that it’s not possible to erase your Blackness, or to erase your fatness, or erase your Muslimness. Unless you take off your hijab (scarf) which I wasn’t going to do. What really started the self-love journey is the modeling. There are two parts to it. I started to model, and I kind of fell into that by mistake. I really didn’t want to see myself on pictures because of the double chin, and just me being big. Taking photos forces you to look into that mirror, and forces you to look at yourself. And, you can either accept it, or you can just harp on it, which takes a lot of energy. So, after the first two shoots I did, which people forced me to do, at the second shoot I looked and said, “Oh wow, these pictures are really dope, for a fat person. Oh, wow this looks really really amazing.” It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be, and people were giving me good feedback and stuff like that. And, people liked them. I thought, “That’s cool because we always see overly sexualized, or comedic relief. And, this is not any of those things, and people are accepting it.” So, I thought maybe I could model more, and just maybe tell stories underneath them. But, even at that point I wasn’t one hundred percent fully immersed in my Blackness, my fatness, my Muslimness. So, after the divorce that was when I thought, “Everything is temporary. Our traumas are temporary. Our failures, our accomplishments, people, even some of the ways we think, sometimes people have a thought that you can be strong one day and not the next day.” With that mindset, I thought, “You know what? Since life is temporary, and I could perhaps croak tomorrow. Why not do the things that I actually want to do? And, that’s embrace my identity, wholeheartedly and fully. Without the worries of what society’s going to think, what white women are going to think, what Black Muslims who are super traditional and very bitter, are going to think. I’m a hijabi in full force, and I don’t care what anyone fucking says about it.” So, that’s what happened, and this is me, and I’m okay with that.
Team BMGFly: How do you maneuver your industry as a Black Muslim Woman?
Leah: It was difficult at first. I got my master’s degree for creative writing, back in 2015. I have a double master’s; I got one and then I got the MFA. But, when I got the master’s I was still married, and I was still trying to figure out my identity. I was blogging a little bit, but didn’t really have a direction. And, at the time I was writing fiction, because that’s where I started. Fiction writing kind of got me away from the traumas, and I delved into fiction. So, basically I got a mentor, and they really wanted me to pursue non-fiction instead of fiction. I said, “No, I don’t want to talk about myself. I don’t know how to talk about myself in a way that won’t hurt other people’s feelings. I don’t want to offend white people, I don’t want to offend Muslim people. I don’t want to offend my family, because if I write it I have to tell the truth. I’m not going to just sugar coat it and just write half the story, and make it pretty and nice.” My mentor said, “Leah, when you write something you don’t have to appeal to other people. We write for us, first and foremost. So, if people like it, that’s great. If they’re offended, that’s more publicity for you.” I realized, “Wait a minute, I can offend white people and get away with it?” It gave me a new found confidence, to combine all those intersectionalities that I have. He really gave me the push that I needed to say what I want, of course, respectfully. I want to dog the hell out of people, but I don’t. And, if I do, it’s a learning experience in it, and I’m not going to name names, and go random and nasty. It’s just the confidence to combine all those three things, because all those things are part of my identity, and I can’t leave one out without the others. And, I’m still maneuvering the industry because most companies don’t want to work with someone like me; which is ridiculous. They want to work with someone who’s very moldable and foldable and who’ll do what they want for money. Which is why I’m usually broke, because I turn down gigs that I don’t believe in. I’m also not “marketable” in some fields, and I understand that. But, I believe that it’s a bigger pay off once you go through the struggle and find that person who’s going to say, “I can fuck with you one hundred percent how you are.”
Team BMGFly: You host the blog, “Beauty And The Muse.” What made you decide to take that leap of faith and publish a blog?
Leah: Well, I had two or three failed blogs prior to that. Where I came from, it wasn’t as prevalent for a Black Muslim girl to do that. I didn’t have a support group. I didn’t have artists or other writers telling me, “don’t quit, keep doing it.” I didn’t have enough know how, or discipline to continue those. So, I had a failed YouTube and two other failed blogs prior to this one. Beauty and the Muse came out of basically me wanting to skew… It was a shallow reason and also a non-shallow reason. The non-shallow reason was that I got hurt at work. And, I told myself, “You are sitting in the bed, very angry that you hurt your knee at work. And, you’re in your master’s program so you can actually write, so you write well, so why don’t you just write the blog. Also, I wanted to fill a void, or a gap about what beauty was. The shallow reason is that I wanted to make lots and lots of money, and ball out everywhere, but of course that never happened. It’s definitely been through a lot of transformations, especially in content and confidence. You can definitely see from my old blogs, the growth.
Team BMGFly: What were the steps you took to complete your blog?
Leah: I ended up being divorced two years ago. At that point I was very, very down because he left me with nothing. And, I didn’t have anything. You know that’s what happens when you get married, everything is kind of combined. So, I was left with nothing. It has definitely been a whirlwind of things. But, there’s one thing that I wasn’t going to do, I wasn’t going to be that person who got divorced from a man and was discouraged about everything. That was not happening. I had built a semi-brand for myself, and I thought, “I’m going to roll with this because the only thing I can trust is myself at this moment. I don’t care if I don’t have money, I don’t care if I don’t have the best pictures or the newest clothes. I’m going to create something that’s cool, create something that’s relatable. And, also help others by helping myself, and living in my own truths. So, here we are now.The Instagram was started first, and then I got a WordPress platform shortly after. Then, I moved to a Squarespace, an actual website that was hosted, two years ago. I tried to do YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, and Snapchat, but I cut some of those out because I cannot maintain all of the stuff that I’m doing. Because, I also write content that’s not on social media. So, it’s hard to juggle all those things. I’m actually about to start a podcast, so that’s going to be something I’m working on. That I’m really not working on, because I’m procrastinating. It will be good to do a podcast with other people, instead of focusing on me. I feel like a lot of stuff that I do is focused on me, and sometimes I do not want the focus to be on me. People are holding me accountable, asking, “Where’s the podcast?”
Team BMGFly: How do you keep aware of what you deliver as model, as well as a blogger, and what you have that separates you from others in your industry?
Leah: I think I have assimilated in some ways. I think it’s impossible for you to not assimilate. Because, you follow other bloggers and if their picture clarity is really really good, so my picture clarity has to be good, too. There are basic fundamentals of blogging, content creation, writing, acting. There are basic fundamentals that you have to do. You can’t just say, “I’m just going to do my own thing one hundred percent!” That’s not going to work, because in the industries that are entertainment or art, there are set guidelines that you have to abide by. So, I have assimilated in that I need to have these type of photos, because cruddy photos ain’t it, dark photos ain’t it. So, there’s professionalism that I have to do. So, in that case, I have assimilated. And, who knows if I’ll assimilate more as I get more commercial. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. What I like to do is always maintain the storytelling element of my posts. And, I actually don’t like to be called a blogger, I know that’s easy to put me in that group because that’s what it says on my page. But, I like content creator, because I don’t just— I’m not just an “insta-blogger.” I actually create content. I have a degree in content creation. So, I think my education sets me apart from the others. A lot of them are just kids, or some of them have just turned to advertising agencies. I am not either one of those things. I actually write. I have a style of writing. There are not a lot of Fat, Black, and Muslim content creators or bloggers, or models that are like me. There are a couple, but they’re either baby bloggers, or they’re not really serious about it. I’d like to maintain a community where people feel that they can freely talk about their experiences on my page, and be authentic. And, I would like to remain authentic to them. Yeah, my pictures might change. But, at the same time, I want to maintain some type of originality which is the storytelling element, and just being a platform people feel is a safe space.
Team BMGFly: How did you come up with the title “Beauty And The Muse,” and what’s the story behind it?
Leah: Back in 2013, my friends told me I needed to get an Instagram, because “there’s so much drama on there!” So, the next day when I woke up, the name “Beauty and The Muse,” just popped into my head. It’s a construction of actually who I am. I always tell people that I’m like two or three different people, not in the schizo-affective way. But, I’m just very, like… I think one of my personalities is a drag queen, the other one is like an introvert, and the other one is like very, very beautiful, and thoughtful and feminine. I have the beauty part, but also the words are the muse part from being thoughtful and just very intellectual. So, that’s like the perfect mix of who I am.
Team BMGFly: What’s the number one thing you hope people will gain from reading it?
Leah: Well, there are two components. The first component is the photos. I want them to look at my photos, and be basically like I’m taking you by the collar and jerking you around. That’s what I want. I want my pictures to captivate and grab you, whether you’re a KKK member, or you’re an atheist, or whatever. I want you to look at the pictures and say, “Damn, I ain’t never seen that before.” That’s what I want to do. I want to captivate them. And, in the second component with my writing, is that the takeaway is that I want people to understand that life is not surface. Life is not a one-way path from here to there. There’s “V” formation. There are squiggly lines, there are circles, there are spirals, mountains, bear traps, there are all types of stuff along the way of finding yourself. And, that’s okay to explore. I’m just really getting tired of everything being perfect on social media. I have mental illnesses, and I am in depression a lot. But, I just don’t want people to think that, “Oh, her life is better than mine because her pictures are crystal clear.” That’s not what I want you to take way from the pictures being bomb. I want you to take away from it that, she’s outwardly attractive and she dresses well; I’m pretty to somebody and I’m ugly to somebody, you just never know. And, it’s okay. I want people to understand you can be pretty on the outside and have problems.You can be ugly on the outside, and be beautiful on the inside and have a beautiful life. It’s not about the outward. There’s more depth than the outer crust.
Team BMGFly: What is your typical day like? And, tell me about any special events you recently attended as a blogger or model?
Leah: The days vary. Sometimes, I just wake up, just like, ”Damn, I have to get up and do things.” Because, everyday I’m doing things. There’s not a time where I’m not doing things. Like yesterday, I was doing things and I was thinking, “Okay, wow, all day though? Okay, cool.” And, I don’t have help. I don’t have a team, or an intern. I don’t have a man, or family that helps. So, everything I do. Everything you see is me. Everything you see I’m doing it. I’m my own make-up artist, my own stylist, my own creative director. The only thing I’m not doing is taking photos, because somebody takes them for me. But, sometimes you gotta do that yourself, too. I wake up usually and I write, or edit. I’m sending out emails, or responding to emails. Signing contracts. Negotiating fees or terms, which seems to be like a long process every single damn day. I try to eat sometimes in between that. I go to the gym a lot, because that keeps me sane. It keeps my body from failing, because I have issues. I occasionally, like this weekend, I have photo shoots everyday. That’s a lot to do, because photo shoots take a lot out of me. Physically they’re a lot. I take things very seriously, and I’m not just out there twirling around in circles. Modeling is an actual art form, and it’s not something that’s easy to do. Some people try to know my life and say, “Oh, it must be so easy to stand in front of the camera.” Okay, no, it’s actually not. But, okay. It’s the clothes, the make up, it’s a whole process of getting a shoot up off the ground. And, most of the time I’m not even getting paid, actually I never get paid for modeling really. But, I need the content, so then I model. As far as events to go to, I actually do not go to blogger events or fashion related events, because everyone’s fake as fuck. When I first started blogging, I was at every single event. I wanted my face to be seen. I wanted this, this, and that. And, then, I started blowing up nationally and internationally, and I’m just like, “Wait a minute. These people want to be local celebrities. They’re really mean, they’re really nasty. They’re not even real artists. They’re in it for money and local fame. You’ve already achieved all that and plus some. Why do you need to be around these people, again?” So, I don’t go to any fashion shows. I don’t go to any fashion related events. The only events that I will go to, is if a friend has an event if they’re a visual artist, or a singer. I will go to their event if I’m personally invited by a friend that I know. I’ll give my “Hi,” and get my pictures. But, I don’t go to fashion related or blogger events, ever. I’m not trying to be extra, but they cannot compete with me. They can’t. They try to, but, my presence is my presence, and that alone just overpowers people. So, if you are that kind of person, and you’re not rooting for other women, and you’re trying to always take the spotlight. It’s not going to happen when I’m around. Not now, but I used to try to dim my light, because I felt like people were very angry that I was there, and didn’t want me to come places because they didn’t want me to get the attention. So I would go, and try to dim my light, and, even then, people would still be kind of flocking to me and it would make other people feel uncomfortable. So, if you don’t welcome me wholeheartedly including with my essence and my aura. Then, I can’t be there.
Team BMGFly: How does your career impact the other aspects of your life, including your family?
Leah: Unfortunately, it’s impacted me in very interesting ways. People sometimes only want to talk to me or be around me, because they know who I am. I met with this one guy, informally, and we were talking. And, he asks what do I do. I say I’m just an artist. I never actually tell them what I do exactly, because once they know they start to act differently. People sometimes focus too much on what I do. And, that is not only what I do, I’m actually a human being. I don’t want to talk about modeling all the time or about photo shoots. There are other things we can talk about. Then there are some people who are very opportunistic and try to get into my circle, thinking I can get them somewhere. When I really can’t. Then there are people who try to use me to get stuff, or to be in my presence. So, a lot of people are either intimidated by me, or they are trying to jump on the bandwagon; which affects me sometimes. So, I have to be careful who I let in my circle. As of now I think my whole career basically is my life, there is no separation, unfortunately. My brand has become me. I am my brand, and my brand is me. And, my family have never really been involved. I had my own way with thinking. And, so a lot of my family just wasn’t available. And also, I was doing something that they’ve never seen someone like me do. They are the kind of people, unfortunately, who’ll fall in line. They’re the kind of people who will do what they need to do for their families to make money, and not really care about art or about expression. They’re the kind of people who basically fall in line, and I love my family to death. But, they are not people who are willing to chances to get where they want to be. They took their cards, and wanted to assimilated. But, when I took my cards, and said I’m not assimilating. They’d say, “You have all these degrees and not making any money.” I never talked about it to them ever again. But, when they started to see that I’m getting features and stuff, they started congratulating me but it’s kind of too late, because when I really needed the support, you guys weren’t there. The only person who has supported what I’ve done, on a moral support level, is my older sister, Tahira (Tonisha) and that’s my road dog. She’s the only person who’s been down since day one.
Team BMGFly: Who did you look up to while growing up? Who inspires you now?
Leah: I didn’t look up to any of my family growing up, or my mom, unfortunately. Not because I don’t love my mom. It was just that her life is something that I never wanted to go through. I looked up to Oprah. I really, really, really connected with her story, as the underdog. She was fat, she was dark-skinned, she was sexually assaulted. And, she was like, “You know what, I’m about to be the first, I don’t even care about what you’re talking about right now.” And, she was so eloquent with it. You never saw her lose her temper. You never saw her be messy. She was just like, “Oh, you so you don’t like what I’m doing? I’m going to do it anyway.” Very very regal with it. And, she was the first of her kind in her field. And, she said, “I’m doing this, I don’t care.” And, I love that resilience. I also looked up to Maya Angelou, because she also came from a traumatic background. She was like, “Yeah, I’m tall, and I’m not conventionally “pretty,” but I’m going to do this anyway.” She was so confident about it. She was regal, like a queen. She was so amazing to me. They don’t fit into societal mold. They made their own niche. They invited people to like them or you don’t. I loved the perseverance that both these women had. I cried for the knowledge that died with Maya Angelou. Now, I really really love Rihanna. I know she’s mainstream. But, Rihanna is like a chameleon. She can rock anything and everything, and wear it with the confidence of… like “Okay, I’m wearing a garbage bag, and I don’t give a fuck.” She does not care about people’s expectations of her. She’s going to do what she’s going to do. And, it’s funny because she’s not the best dancer. She’s not even the best singer, but she does what she does. She built a platform off herself. And, it’s just like “Wow, this is so cool.” I also love Cardi B. She’s really loud and can be obnoxious sometimes. But, when you look at her, coming from being a sex worker, and someone who’s looked down upon and disrespected, to somebody who’s that shit, and number one, breaking records. And, of course she’s not the best lyricist. She’s not the very eloquent in her speech. But, she’s doing what she’s doing because she’s living in her truths, and I have mad respect for that.
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt defeated, and how did you overcome that?
Leah: Well, that was recently, in November, December, and January I had not one gig. Coming from the summertime when I had won a Gilda Award and I was, like poppin. And, I co-hosted the opening ceremony of The Allied Media Conference, and that whole auditorium was packed. I was chosen out of how many people could they have chosen. Wow, it was amazing. And, coming off the high of working with Adidas Originals, and coming to zero. As soon as that zero hit, I was like, “Wow, I don’t have any money. I’m teaching part time at a job that I hate. Still poppin’ on Instagram. But, I’m not living the life that I want to live.” So, I was desperately trying to change that. So, after I was getting no response from people, and people were just turning me down and ignoring my emails. I hit a really bad depression, and it just was ongoing. And so as the money was dwindling out of my account, which was already little. It was like this is really sad, how you can put so much work into something and have nothing to show for it, but a pretty page. That was on my mind every single day for months. So, on the last month, I had seven days until my rent was due, and ten days until my car note and insurance was due, and I can’t cover of it. So, I told myself, “You basically have to be a sex worker, because you need to make money.” So, I was googling it, and I was getting even more depressed, because I don’t really want to do this. But, I also, can’t get a job in seven days. And, I also don’t want to ask my sister for money because she has two kids and a whole husband, and they’re struggling. So, I don’t want to ask them for money. And, actually one gentleman reached out to me on Instagram and said, “I’m looking for a sugar baby, and I’ll give you a monthly allowance.” So, I’m thinking okay what do I have to do for it. I’m thinking pictures, whatever, on the low low. My friends said don’t do that, it’ll ruin your career. So, he calls me and says, “I’ll fly in twice a month and we’re just gonna hook up.” And, I thought, “Oh no! I thought it would just be something on the phone.” So, I was at a crossroads, and thought, okay well this might have to happen. So, the next day, me and my friend went to a dinner, and this girl came up to me asking me questions about social media, and was literally drilling me on how to build a platform. After she left, my friend said, “You just answered all her questions for free. Why do you always do that? Why don’t you charge people for social media branding?” I said, “Ain’t nobody gonna pay for that.” And, she said, “But you didn’t even try.” And, I said, “You’re right, though.” So, the next day I prayed to Allah, “Allah, I don’t want to be a sex worker. I don’t want to do that. So, if you could give me some resources that I already have to use to make money, that would be amazing. And, I will be forever grateful.” It took me forty-eight hours to put together my webinar. The next day, I put it out on Instagram, and I got fourteen clients, at one hundred dollars a pop, and I was able to pay my rent and my car note and my insurance before the seven days were up.
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt like you defied odds or broke barriers?
Leah: I had so many of those. Everything I do is like, “Wow, I never expected to be here.” I’ve been flown out to colleges, and spoke at Stanford and Columbia, but those were amazing. But, I think the most for me was modeling in New York for Refinery 29. And, that was actually a paid modeling gig with a huge company. I thought, “Oh wow, I am a thirty year old woman, who’s modeling for a large media company, and getting paid to do it. There’s an all white staff, not one black girl, all thin white girls, as the stylists and the make up artists, and I’m this fat Black girl, who don’t give a fuck about shit. And, I’m here, whatever. And, so just modeling a whole day with them doing outfits all day in New York as a paid model. That to me was very wow. “This is amazing how I went from three failed blogs to I’m on a shoot modeling like a top model or some shit. Wow, this is crazy.”
Team BMGFly: What would you cite as the foundation of your success?
Leah: Well, I think it’s a mixture of things. First is Allah subhana wa ta Ala’ because of course I wouldn’t be able to do any of that without His decree. It was already written for me to do those things, right, because He already wrote them. I just did it, though. I had to go to the process of figuring it out and figuring out my truths in my path, and in my higher self. So, that’s first and foremost. Second thing is I am very hard-headed. I do not like people telling me, “No.” It makes me feel very, very anxious. But I’m going to figure out somehow to get a yes. It might not be you, but I’m going to get a yes from somebody. I’m just very hard-headed, and I’m a go-getter. I’m an opportunist, not in the way that I’m going to step on people’s faces, to get to the top. But I’m going to take an opportunity. If I sense an opportunity, I’m going to take that shit. I don’t wait on anything. I’m going to get it now. I don’t live for tomorrow, I live for today.
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is an empowerment brand created to uplift and remind Black girls that they are FLY in many ways. What advice would you give all the Black Muslim girls out there, worldwide, to cultivate their own individual #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Leah: Stop trying to fake the funk. People don’t want to add to Islamophobia, so they like to sugar coat shit. That’s happening in the Islamic communities. They also like to assimilate to Middle Eastern or white-passing standards. And, that’s not…that’s not… Of course people want “a seat at the table.” But, sometimes you got to build your own table, and make your own chairs, and make your owns rules, and sit at the head of YOUR table. Stop trying to always assimilate to what you think is going to be cool or hip, and do your own thing; which is living in your truths. Stop trying to fake the funk. Stop trying to pretend, using foundations sixteen shades lighter, trying to use bleaching cream so you can look like somebody you’re not. Embrace yourself wholeheartedly, embrace your culture. KNOW THAT THERE IS NOT ONE KIND OF MUSLIM. Islam is perfect, but we are imperfect, and that’s why we were created. Every day strive to be better. Strive to be pure. Striving to be more yourself. Who else is going to live your life but you? Who is else is going to root for you like you? Stop trying to seek validation from everybody else. Build your own validation within yourself.
Team BMGFly: What’s something you haven’t done yet, but would like to do next?
Leah: Publishing my book. If I could do that, I would do a back flip. Even though I cannot do a back flip. I want to be on the cover of a mainstream magazine; whatever fancy one they got. I’d love to be the face of a beauty campaign. Revlon, Cover Girl, Anastasia Beverly Hills, any of those. Fenty Campaign! I just want to keep breaking boundaries every year. Keep doing stuff to prove what they thought I’d never do.
Thanks again for sharing your story with us and the rest of the world. I believe it’s very important for us, Black Muslim Girls and Women, to stand up and speak up and let the world know we are here and we’re making things happen. For far too long, we’ve been made to be invisible.