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Front row with Desiree (RSA) of Boys Club

(Banner image provided by Palesa Desiree Shilabje)

Front row with Desiree (RSA) of Boys Club

The local creative landscape which we currently find ourselves in, which has unfortunately been ravaged by the impact of COVID-19, has also become an exceedingly difficult environment to navigate. This becomes even more difficult to achieve as an independent black female creative, but our next guest, Palesa Desiree Shilabje, is a profound example of someone who continues to defy the predetermined norms and stereotypes of the creative industries which she occupies.

Hailing all the way from her hometown of Johannesburg, Desiree operates as both a disc jockey (DJ) (slash sound curator and soon-to-be producer), as well as fashion model. All of her talent and hardwork has amounted to super impressive personal accolades, such as making her debut appearances at both Milan and Paris fashion weeks, as well as performing her DJ sets live at premiere local deep house events, such as Deep In The City.

(Image sourced on Instagram from: @desiree_rsa)

Whether Desiree is strutting her stuff on catwalks local and abroad, or running her joint business venture Boys Club with her two business partners and co-DJ compatriots, it is clear that one thing is at the forefront of her mind – which is to continue to create a holistic creative legacy which can inspire women from all over the world.

I asked Desiree a few questions regarding her upbringing, introduction to both the fashion and music scene, Boys Club, the current state of the local modelling industry, and much more. You can also follow both Desiree, as well as Boys Club, on their official instagram pages – and to listen to all of Desiree's music, you can visit her Soundcloud page.

(Image sourced from Palesa Desiree Shilabje)

Would you mind introducing yourself? Who you are, where you're from, how old you are and what you do.

I’m Desiree (RSA) – a born and bred Joburger, who's turning 25 on the 28th of March (bummed as that’s half of 50!). I like to describe myself as an aesthete, meaning that I’m sensitive to art and beautiful things. I guess that’s why, despite my education in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, I have still found myself venturing into the music and fashion scene. So I am a model, but more importantly, I am a DJ and soon to be producer (working on some music right now which I’m hoping will drop soon). I also have a young entertainment start-up called Boys Club, an electronic music events based movement which seeks to empower marginalised femme DJs.

(Image sourced on Instagram from: @boysclubza)

When did your first vivid intersection with fashion come about? Think back to the first moment when you realised that you wanted to pursue a career in fashion...

My granny, who raised me for a good chunk of my childhood, was a domestic worker. Sometimes at work, they’d give her old magazines like Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and sometimes even international renditions of Vogue. I think this was when I was about 10 or 11. So I’d have these school projects where I’d have to find some visuals or cutouts for collages in magazines, and of course, I’d use the plethora of mags my gran used to bring home.

This is where I first encountered fashion; through editorials in the magazines and seeing iconic ads featuring models like Giselle Bundchen in the Dolce & Gabbana ‘The One’ perfume ad. Contrary to popular belief, it’s quite difficult to feel represented in the South African context as a tall, skinny and awkward looking girl, so it felt liberating seeing those images of people, that had the same body type as me, being embraced for it! I had never felt beautiful. In fact, I was always teased for my different proportions. So yeah those images really stuck with me.

Then a couple of years later, we got DSTV at my crib lol. This was when I first encountered Fashion TV – and this was a game changer for me. It exposed me to a world that I didn’t even think existed. Fashion TV is special to me because it really carved my passion for modelling, fashion and most importantly, MUSIC. This is where I discovered alternative genres of music which I wasn’t hearing on TV or Radio, and I literally just fell in love and haven't looked back since.

(Image sourced from Palesa Desiree Shilabje)

Okay, got it! Now let's talk about fashion modelling specifically.. Who inspired you to actually want to become a model, and why?

Mmhhh.. I guess it’s the new faces that were everywhere in the international fashion industry which I found incredibly gorgoeus. The likes of Karlie Kloss, Frida Gustavsson, Natasha Poly, Magdalena Frackowiak, etc. The industry back then lacked diversity. The look was mostly an Eastern European one – so clear eyes, pale skin, incredibly skinny and tall figure. There were a few models of colour at the time, like Chanel Iman, Joan Smalls and Jourdan Dunn, but for the most part it was a very white industry so most of the models I looked up to were white.

And again, these models inspired me to pursue modelling because their proportions were very similar to mine. I had finally found a place where I felt like I could fit in, you know?

(Image sourced on Instagram from: @desiree_rsa)

How filthy is the modelling industry? By filthy, I am referring to the negative stereotypical preconceptions which are associated with the industry, such as racial colourism, unhealthy weight management/ body dysmorphia, and much more.

Oh it’s filthy filthy lol. I think extreme skinny is no longer that much of thing these days though, since the industry is embracing other body types more and more, which I think is great! In South Africa (SA), I have always been too skinny though, lol. The models here do not have the same body proportions as internationally, so I was always called out for being on the "skinny side of things", whereas when I went to Paris and Milan, I walked into rooms where I wasn’t the skinniest. So weirdly enough, in SA, I have felt pressure to gain a bit of weight in order to fill out the sample sizes more, but it also depends on designers. Some have super small sample sizes and some don’t. Apart from body dysmorphia, one toxic thing I have experienced in modelling is colourism – but colourism of a different type... So, I have a medium toned/caramel skin tone, which is quite common in SA. This however, is not special enough. When casting directors are looking for ‘black models’, they tend to go for the Nubian dark skinned look, which is prevalent in countries such as South Sudan and parts of East and West Africa. If not this kind of look, then they’ll go for a mixed race model with a big loosely curled fro. So I have felt that my look was not special enough or did not stand out enough, and I know some of my peers that have a similar look and feel the same way. This is something that isn’t spoken about at all, but it actually exists. If you analyse most fashion shows, editorials and campaigns, they mostly consist of the two looks that I have aforementioned. Shuuu and do not even get me started on the hair issue! So my afro, which is 4c, is not the favourite Afro in fashion lol. Not sure if you’ve noticed, but black models with 4c textures usually put their hair in cornrows or shave it all off. This is due to both discrimination of hair textures (the loosely curled textures are preferred as they can be easily manipulated into hairstyles that are done on white girls), and hair stylists simply not knowing how to handle our hair, which is so weird, especially in an African context!

It’s like the people that have power in fashion have this misconception of how a black person’s hair should be, or what is beautiful. This preconceived, and utterly false, idea of theirs leads to a lack of diversity within the black model community. I have a friend who was dropped from a fashion show last minute because she did not want to remove her faux locs. Imagine.

We need to have more discussions about this sort of discrimination!

Have you ever walked in any fashion shows outside of South Africa? And if so, please tell us more about that experience.

Yup, I have. Last year I went to both Milan and Paris fashion week for the Autumn/Winter 2020 season. That was quite the experience. I didn’t end up booking any European shows, but I did walk for a South African designer who was showcasing in Paris.

I almost got booked for Hermes and Armani but they dropped me last minute lol. So that experienced taught me that you are literally so replaceable as a model, which is why I think models are generally not the most well-treated people on set.

(Image sourced on Instagram from: @desiree_rsa)

What has been your most memorable experience within your short modelling tenure?

Definitely doing Milan and Paris fashion week! Also, I’ve shot a couple of cool commercials for Opera Mini and Dark & Lovely! And definitely being a muse for designers such as Mmusomaxwell and Erre. I absolutely adore them!

Which is your favourite local fashion brand to work with, and why?

Erre and Mmusomaxwell! Firstly, they’re literally the nicest designers I’ve ever met. Shout out to both of them! Secondly, they’re incredibly talented (and underrated) but I know great things are coming their way! Their aesthetic is unique and has not been done – not just locally, but globally as well.

(Image sourced from Palesa Desiree Shilabje)

Aside from the fashion side of things, you're also a phenomenal Afrotech DJ, producer, and sound curator. Can you briefly chat to us about that, with specific reference to your joint business venture "Boys Club"?

To be honest, that is where my heart truly lies. Music has always been a big part of my life and I’ve always been good at discovering alternative genres of music, curating playlists and introducing them to crowds that eventually fall in love with the tunes. It’s been two years since I started playing and I’m really excited to see what the future will hold for me. Something that is definitely in the pipeline is me releasing my own original music. And I want to release music that was produced by me. That is something which is very very important to me. Stay tuned for that!

Due to the marginalisation of women in the electronic and house music industry, myself and two other amazingly talented DJs (that identify as women) started Boys Club – to try mitigate this. We’re hoping to alleviate this misrepresentation by hosting events, workshops, conferences and other projects that prioritize and put women DJ's at the forefront. We have some exciting projects coming up so keep your eyes locked to our socials!

(Both images above sourced on Instagram from: @boysclubza)


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