Looks like me

Selma Nicholls is fighting for better representation in the media. Liza Vallance tells us more

In the summer of 2015, theatre producer Selma Nicholls’ daughter asked if she could have straight hair. She then asked if she could be white. She didn’t want to be brown any more.

In an attempt to show her that she was perfect and that there were lots of children just like her out there, Selma showed her daughter the recent remake of Annie with Quvenzhané Wallis in the title role. Her daughter exclaimed excitedly that: “Annie she’s SO beautiful and looks like me”.

Selma knew that the lack of media representation was having a real, tangible effect on her daughter, and other children and their parents too.

Selma decided to “be the change she wanted to see” (her words) and do something to redress the balance. The result was the creation of Looks Like Me, a talent and model agency with the aim of increasing inclusivity, visibility and employability of BAME children in the creative sector and advertising, offering casting directors diversity when selecting artists or models from BAME backgrounds.

Nicholls registered the company in 2015, and spent a year getting under the skin of the media industry, figuring it out as she went along, with the support of some “great mentors”.

How did the industry respond to her presence, I asked? “Generously. They loved it – they could see that our work was industry standard and they had to take me seriously. They couldn’t ignore me,” she replied.

This is patently true.

Selma co-founded the #sowhiteproject – an “attempt to end visual bias on the internet and normalise diverse imagery through real photography; real life people in real life situations”.

Their #christmassowhite campaign garnered huge social media traction and by December 2016 Nicholls was widely credited as helping to diversify the Christmas campaigns of companies such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

The major challenge for Nicholls
is one of sustainability: she wants to expand the agency and build a team around her. More briefs from clients will allow Nicholls to achieve this – she wants to work with new brands and offer up more diverse talent to the industry. She says she’s “learnt the art of patience” and she now understands that the process of being an influencer can’t be rushed.

She’s also learned that with great vision comes great responsibility – that very many people are looking to her as a pioneer. Selma really acknowledges this in her work – she cites her standout success as “creating images and opportunities that allow young people (including my daughter) to be part of the change – thinking and speaking positively about their identity and others that look like them or are different to them”.

I asked Selma about what drives her. “It’s about being a great parent,” she said. “I never doubted that I could do this. Why? Because I have a six-year old daughter watching my every step. Just by doing this I’m showing her that working hard is important.”

 Liza Vallance is artistic director of Studio 3 Arts. You can find out more about the So White Project, here: www.sowhiteproject.com

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of LEAD. To make sure you never miss an issue, subscribe today for as little as £50 for the year.