Tracie Tyler said, "No way."
Tracy Hudson wanted no part in something she figured was yet another dressed-up scheme to exploit black women.
Angelle Brooks balked at the idea of exposing her "chunky" hips and thighs for consumers around the country to see.
But photographer Ken Townsend convinced all these women--and 10 more--that they were just what he and his partner, Brian Skyers, were looking for to grace the pages of their swimsuit calendar, "The Darker Image."
And the result is a deft enough balance of class and cheesecake to become the first black female swimsuit calendar to make it into national bookstore chains. "The Darker Image" is one of only four swimsuit calendars Barnes & Noble bought for 1995; it will share shelf space with calendars by Anna Nicole Smith, Kathy Ireland and Sports Illustrated.
"Most black calendars I'd seen depict black women negatively. They're not really something you'd want to have hanging in your house," said Hudson, a veteran model who appears on the cover as well as inside the calender. "But black models are always downplayed, always given the basic JC Penney outfit."
Townsend, a 26-year-old UCLA law student and Crenshaw District native, said what he conceived as a business venture became something of a crusade to get black women a corner of the beauty-imaging market.
"It's our job to glorify black women because magazines aren't doing it," he said.
"The Darker Image" seems a sure contender in the fiercely competitive calendar wars. Its titillating mix of surf-and-flora locales and exquisite models are photographed with enough soft-edged light and strategic poses to render even the obligatory thong shot aesthetic.
"When you see images of black women, they're usually either put-upon urban mothers or rap-video sluts, but rarely just gorgeous people," explained Townsend, a mile-a-minute talker. "That always bothered me, especially since so many women try to copy the physical attributes of black women. The relatively few black supermodels like Naomi Campbell are essentially white ideals of black beauty. Doing the calendar seemed like a way for us to start leveling the playing field."
At least some of corporate America has been willing to see the light. Townsend and Skyers have cracked top bookstore chains--an essential step for large-scale calendar distribution--and have sold the bulk of their 10,000 copies of "The Darker Image" to Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks, which are placing them alongside swimsuit calendar mainstays such as Sports Illustrated in about 600 outlets in 20 states. An additional 3,500 copies are going to liquor stores, barber shops and newsstands.
Bill Costello, calendar buyer for Barnes & Noble, says it's about time.
"The market is crying out for it," said Costello, whose company also owns Scribner's, Doubleday, Brentano's and Bookstar. "It's rare that you can say in the business, 'This is needed, there's nothing else like it.' In this case, it was true."
Needed or no, Townsend said it was a tough sell--but one well worth the effort. He believes that simply having his product displayed in mainstream outlets will begin realigning consumers' thinking and literally make them see that black women are just as sexy and glamorous as their white counterparts. And while some would hardly call Townsend's product social progress for African Americans, the photographer insists that it is because he is striking at the most rudimentary and pervasive of all stereotypes: that black is simply not beautiful.
"We're just never seen that way--sexy and sensual," said Theressa Rice, an African American actress and poet who perused the calendar at the Culver City Bookstar. "In the media, it seems like we're either the bitch, the straight woman or businesslike to the point of being unfeminine. Uptight. It's like we're afraid of showing softness.
"I look at this and I'm inspired to accept myself more. I wrestle with my body image every day, but looking at this, I feel like \o7 I\f7 could model in it."
But not everyone views the calendar as a giant step for black womankind.
"It's a non-issue," said publicist Bernice Sanders, who lives in the Fairfax District. The swimsuit calendar "is something I never really thought was a good idea. Black people have too many other things to do and be."
Townsend said the scarcity of black women in glamour industries has made stereotypes of them as sex toys that much more glaring, especially in recent years: scantily clad bumpers and grinders in 2 Live Crew and Big Daddy Kane videos, incarnations of the rap-bred "bitches and ho's" imagery.
Costello said that is exactly the sort of imagery he steered clear of as Barnes & Noble hunted for a high-caliber black calendar. He rejected the dozen or so that crossed his desk in an average year, including Howard Morehead's perennially popular but decidedly risque "Bronze Beauties."