"We did it Philippines," 21-year-old rising star Kelsey Merritt posted on Instagram in September. She was announced as the first Filipina model ever to walk in the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show — which is scheduled to air on Dec 2 on ABC. "It feels like a dream," she told Teen Vogue. "Getting the show is the dream come true but being the first Filipino woman to walk in the show means I’m making history. The show is broadcast on more than 190 countries with models from 20 countries and I got chosen to represent my region. Blessed!"
While Kelsey is undoubtedly making history by bringing more diversity to the runway, she has also received plenty of backlash from the Filipino community. "My only issue with Kelsey Merritt, is that you can almost see that she’s pure American," a user shared on Twitter. "It would not be that difficult for her to get cast as VS as she fits the ff standards: tall, skinny, and white." Another said: "tbh what’s the point of celebrating Kelsey Merritt as the first Filipino to be in VS when she a) is white passing so it’s not exactly representation and b) VS is trash anyways?"
The issue of colorism has always been a huge part of Filipino culture. Kelsey has a Filipino mother and a white American father making her half Filipino. Similarly, a number of the Philippines' well-known actors, singers, and models are often multi-racial with lighter skin as it fits the country's ideal standards of beauty, naturally leaving little opportunity for anyone else trying to make it in the industry.
As an immigrant who moved overseas, I haven't been able to escape this problematic mindset. There's not a summer that goes by when a fellow Filipino doesn't admonish my complexion by saying "you're so dark" in the most condescending tone. And I can't count how many relatives have offered me a skin-whitening product after a sunny day at the beach.
It's clear that our attitude toward darker skin tones must change, but going after Kelsey is counter-productive especially given her strong connection to the country she calls home. "Pinanganak ako sa Pilipinas at lumaki ako sa Pampanga. Tinapos ko ang pagaaral ko sa Manila bago ako lumipat sa US last year. Mas pinoy pa dugo ko kesa sa mga 'pure' na hindi pa nakatapak sa [Pilipinas]," Kelsey explained on Twitter — which translates to, "I was born in the Philippines and I grew up in Pampanga. I finished my school in Manila before I moved to the US last year. My blood is more Filipino than the 'pure' who have never set foot in the Philippines." Kelsey's lighter skin tone doesn't negate the fact that she proudly identifies as Filipina.
Several commenters spoke out in Kelsey's defense. One chimed in about what it really means to be "pure Filipino." "I think people are being really unfair to Kelsey Merritt," he said. "She lived in the Philippines, studied there...and doesn't shy away from her cultural identity. Yet some of you wanna shame her because she shares a few features of Westerners." Kelsey is thankful for the support and she isn't letting the criticism get her down. "People will always have their opinion of you despite of who you are," she mused, just hours before the VS Fashion Show started. If she had the chance to respond to each critic individually, she says, "I would love to tell them that I am just me."
The truth is Filipino people run the gamut from light skin to dark skin and everything in between. Though you can't deny that there needs to be more representation for darker-skinned Filipino people on the runway and in media in general, that doesn't mean we can't celebrate Kelsey's appointment. It doesn't mean we can't acknowledge the significance of a Filipina model on the Victoria's Secret runway — even one that has more "Western features." Her casting is still progress for a brand that's never booked a Filipina model for the VS Fashion Show. In fact, Victoria's Secret only booked the first Filipina model (Janine Tugonon) for their ads two years ago.
I hope that in the future there are more Filipina women who look like me on the runway, but that won't stop me from cheering Kelsey on today — a model who is fighting for representation for all of us. She is determined to break down barriers for Southeast Asian models, on the Victoria's Secret catwalk and beyond. "I would love to see not just more Filipino but also more southeast Asian models in the fashion industry," she said. "If you ever visit the Phillipines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries, the women are so beautiful and charismatic. With Crazy Rich Asians being such a big hit, I am hoping the industry picks up more and more on the richness and culture of my people."
Additional reporting by Jessica Andrews
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