Briauna Mariah was 20 when she arrived in New York to pursue a career in fashion and modeling. Relentless requests from her agency to keep losing weight led to an obsessive fixation on calorie counting and exercising to exhaustion.
“I had this image in my mind of what I needed to do and look like in order to be successful as a model,” she says. "It was that voice in my head that told me: You need to be thinner.”
Today, the now 27-year-old has instead dedicated herself to We Speak — a modeling agency she founded that centers on inclusivity and diversity, and treating the models she works with fairly.
By cold-calling potential clients and prospective models, photographers and casting directors, Mariah slowly built her “big plans” into an agency that represents over 100 models.
To date, We Speak models have done campaigns with brands including Aerie, American Eagle, Gap, Aeropostale, Athleta, Universal Standard, Nordstrom, Tommy Hilfiger, Target and Sephora.
The best part, Mariah says, “is calling someone up to tell them they’ve booked a major brand or campaign, especially if it’s their first booking. I’m always so excited for them.”
Models for We Speak, says Mariah, represent diversity in gender, ethnicity, height, shape, culture, age and aesthetic. What they have in common is a genuine love of style, fashion and performance and a drive to be role models in making diversity in media the norm.
Born and raised in Texas, Kiara Marshall now lives in Brooklyn. She’s been represented by We Speak since April last year.
“Both my mom and sister participated in pageants and I remember taking my mom’s trophy to show-and-tell in elementary school,” she says.
But after losing her leg in a car accident when she was 10, Marshall felt alienated not only from the prospect of modeling, but from the people she knew.
“My family told me it was okay to be a black disabled girl but movies, songs, TV and magazines did not, and I chose to believe the media. For so long I let my modeling dreams be just that,” she says.
Marshall spent “endless nights” researching modeling agencies that might not rule her out based on her height — 5′4″. If they accepted shorter models, she’d then look to see if they represented black models. If the agency accepted both short and black people, she’d apply.
“I submitted myself to over 10 agencies. I never heard back from any of them and was getting more and more frustrated,” she says. “I realized none of them had models with visible differences so I narrowed my search even further.”
Then, she discovered We Speak.
Since joining We Speak, Marshall has worked with Target, DSW, Tommy Hilfiger and done editorial work for Allure, Self, Teen Vogue and FTL Moda magazines.
Marshall is direct with clients when she arrives on set. She explains how her prosthetic leg works to avoid any frustration for herself and the production staff.
“My mom tells people I am changing the world and I can’t put into words what that feels like when I hear her say that,” says Marshall.
When she was growing up up in Bergenfield, N.J., Nouri Hassan was regularly likened to Cindy Crawford. She had no idea what that meant, so she searched the Internet and was delighted to see that she shared Crawford’s iconic birthmark. Bolstered by her likeness to the supermodel, Hassan emailed a bunch of photographers in New York. “I told them I was a 14-year-old aspiring model,” says Hassan.
It wasn’t so simple, though.
“After attending my first fashion week castings, I became extremely insecure about myself. Everyone was towering over me, even though I was wearing five-inch heels. Everyone was skinnier than me, even though I was a size 2 at the time. I didn’t feel good enough and never thought I would, before I joined We Speak.”
Mariah had scouted Hassan at 16 but waited another two years to sign her — the agency doesn’t sign anyone under 18.
Since then, Hassan has been on a billboard in Times Square, but she’s setting her sights higher: “My dream is to have a Chanel campaign, whether it’s couture or beauty. Magazine-wise, it would be a huge milestone to be in American Vogue,” she says.
Hassan has begun working in production and casting, even founding her own casting collective, Xyne, as a means of providing opportunities in fashion and advertising to underrepresented communities.
At 4′9″, Chelsea Werner was a shoo-in as a gymnast but perhaps not as a mainstream model. The record breaking four-time Special Olympics champion gymnast was born with Down Syndrome and joined We Speak a year and a half ago. Werner has appeared in print and digital ads for brands including H&M, as well as also recently landing the front cover of Dazed magazine.
“I really would love to work with an athletic brand,” she says. “Nike and Lululemon are two of my favorites. I would also love to walk the runway for Christian Siriano.”
DeLong Le is part of the We Speak Fluid division that represents androgynous models.
Growing up in a “typical Asian household,” Le says they never believed modeling was a career option. At 33, Brooklyn-based Le recalls being labeled “exotic” for being among one of the only Asian people in their school.
“I never fathomed that my outer shell would get me anywhere, let alone in fashion," Le says.
To date, Le has worked with Adidas, Venus razors and test shoots for local designers.
“Embrace the feeling of being alone because all that means is that you are special and different and not like anyone else,” Le says. “Those are beautiful things to be. We are raised in a world where we try to be like one another, assimilate each other’s cultures, but honestly, embrace the weird.”