In a world where those who go against the grain are often shamed the saying “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”, made famous by Dr Seuss, rings especially true for Anne-Marie “Harmony” Ilunga, the founder of Hong Kong’s first diverse modelling agency. Her experiences fighting against discrimination based on the colour of her skin inspired her to bring representation and opportunities to others who may not fit traditional Asian or western beauty ideals.
After moving here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her mother and younger brother as refugees when she was 12, Ilunga quickly realised her road ahead was not the same as the average Hong Kong schoolchild’s. “My life was different and very limited. I needed to figure out who I was and why my life was the way it was. As an asylum seeker, I didn’t know where I was going, but I did know I loved to model,” the 23-year-old says of her teenage years. Having loved fashion and posing for photographs since childhood, Ilunga’s move to Hong Kong and discovery of the TV show America’s Next Top Model gave her the confidence to follow her dreams and carve out her own place in an industry historically rife with discrimination based on ethnicity, body size and sexuality.
Aged 17, Ilunga went to her first casting call but was rejected. “I remember crying so much. There were not many people that looked like me, but that just motivated me to be one of the first Black models in Hong Kong,” she recalls. “What I wanted was a seat at the table of the fashion and modelling world, but that never happened because of my skin colour. I did not fit the typical Asian beauty standard.”
At the start of her career, Ilunga walked the runways at local secondary school fashion shows and worked as a freelance model at events like Indian designer Manish Malhotra’s 2017 show at the Indian Women’s Club 60th anniversary gala. After persevering through discrimination and overt racist remarks like “We prefer white models over Black models like you” from casting agents, she eventually broke through when she was cast in a campaign for Hong Kong Airport.
“Being part of a diverse agency is important because we tend to lose sight of what beauty is. It’s so easily forgotten. Having a place where you can be represented is rare, and for someone who is Black I don’t have a lot of places where I belong. Harmony HK is one of the rare places where I don’t have to try and fit in.