Calendar gives black women day in sun


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.

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," says Ms. Hudson, a veteran model who appears on the cover as well as inside the calendar. "But black models are always downplayed, always given the basic J.C. Penney outfit."

Mr. Townsend, a 26-year-old University of California, Los Angeles, law student, says that what he conceived as a purely 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 says. "If black women are tired of the unrealistic beauty standard and want to change it, then they have to put themselves out there on the front line, in images like those in this calendar."

"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.

Black women are usually protrayed either as put-upon urban mothers or scantily clad rap-video sexual objects, "but rarely just gorgeous people," explains Mr. Townsend. "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. Mr. Townsend and Mr. 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 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," says Mr. 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."

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