around the kitchen table
Updated: Oct 23
We talk to Faustina Agolley, Jennifer Atilémile and April Hélène-Horton about representation, inclusion, tokenism and how they’re working to create new narratives.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but creating new spaces for ourselves is the only way forward.” - Faustina Agolley
I sit at my kitchen table on Gadigal and Wangal Lands at 8am on a Sunday morning. The first face to pop up on the screen, smiling ear to ear, is April, dialling in from Gundungarra Land. We wave, slightly ecstatic, when Faustina joins in from Aotearoa. Dialling in from Tovaangar (Los Angeles, USA) is Jennifer. It’s a surreal experience to see their faces smiling from different corners of the world. We’ve been planning this conversation for weeks and now it’s finally here. I dive right in, 100% nervous, 100% starstruck. To me, these women are trailblazers. Filled with integrity and courage, living their truth. Never, and I don’t use the word lightly, had I ever imagined I’d be ranting, questioning, listening to them all.
We start off with introductions – despite their reputations preceding them. All three work in media but their work extends much further than the usual realm of acting and modelling. They’re advocates for diversity and authentic inclusion, they speak out on the issues they care about and use their platforms to create change. April bravely goes first and starts off acknowledging how much it meant to her, years back, seeing Faustina and Jennifer doing what she wanted to do. ‘I wasn't seeing anyone who was happy and confident and loving themselves and I wanted to share that with other people who actually looked like me. That's how I found myself wanting to create space with The Bodzilla. I really wanted to see a representation of self-acceptance that fought against what people would, I guess, normally say is not normal… [Often people say to me] “you're so confident” or “you're so happy all the time” and I'm like, well, I live a pretty great life. I've got a great family. I've got great friends. If the only problem I have is the fact that the world is not willing to accept my body for the way it looks, then… I want other people to feel as free to be themselves and to love themselves. [And] loving yourself doesn't have to be about you being “every part of me is amazing”, “I love every part of me”, but being able to say I love my body enough and appreciate it enough to accept it for what it is, and not try to force it into some kind of stereotype’.
"That's the view of Australia. It is literally a place where only white people can live, thrive, flourish." - Jennifer Atilémile
Jennifer nods in agreeance. She mentions Home & Away, one of Australia’s biggest media exports, the lack of people of colour on the show and what it means to grow up feeling invisible. ‘That's the view of Australia. It is literally a place where only white people can live, thrive, flourish. It's so much harder if you're a person of colour, if you’re Indigenous, to make it, to be anything. And it's always met with such criticism and push back that you literally have to work twice as hard to get anywhere. Growing up, I was curvy as well. I didn't see that kind of representation. And then to be Black and not be seen by Australia… I didn't realise it until probably two or three years ago that it actually really, really impacted me. When you’re constantly bombarded with messages that you don't really fit in, you just kind of create your own space and you navigate in your own lane because you just kind of accepted that you don't fit. I know that's what I did. I took my career overseas, because maybe, maybe, if I go overseas and make it, then maybe I'll be accepted in the place where I was actually born. But even now, I feel like I'm at the peak of my career, I'm doing really amazing things, but I'm still not getting the recognition that I think other people would get in my situation if they were white.’ She makes me swoon a bit by recognising the importance of this space, of creating safe spaces by and for Women of Colour (WOC) ‘to share their stories and to find a community. It's something that if I had growing up, I probably wouldn't have been as confused and that's also what I'm doing in my modelling. Showing people that you can be your size, your skin colour and just be confident and comfortable in yourself and that there is a community out there that will accept you’.
‘Australian media is overwhelmingly white, but I held onto those nuggets of representation’ Faustina tells us. She grew up watching Video Hits and The Oprah Winfrey Show on Channel 10 and knew that was where she wanted to be. ‘That's why I pursued working at Channel 10 so aggressively; to be in that space, I just knew and believed that I would be working at that network and eventually working on that music show. I made that path for myself, flew myself over from Melbourne to Sydney. I did mediocre work experience roles of mopping floors at networks and just made space, bit by bit. I didn't allow a lot of that negativity or the knockbacks to come in, but every now and again I would, and it was painful, but I just kept going. But as I've grown older and throughout my 20s and 30s and having to come out, I've had to go through an internal reckoning, if you will. And that's been really hard. The mental health stuff has been really difficult. Trying to come out in safe spaces and not being accepted for who I am and being threatened has been pretty scary.’ She continues to tell us about the impact of being confronted too with things she didn’t realise she was excluded from. Attending a wedding after marriage equality was passed, she was at the same time delighted for her friends and confronted by the realisation something so commonplace as a wedding has been systemically denied to queer people, for whole lifetimes. ‘How do you even process that?’ she asks.
What’s really helped get us all through the ‘peaks and troughs’ of mental health, in a world that continuously invisibilises women of colour, has been finding representation. Audre Lorde. bell hooks. Angela Davis. ‘Audre Lorde’, Faustina says, ‘I discovered her words and [felt] finally seen on the page. Everything she's saying as a Black woman, spiritually and politically is totally in alignment with what I'm about. bell hooks being the same, and it's in those times when I felt like I've been in the absolute pits that I found a way out.’
Jennifer shares her own experience of reading Audre Lorde and bell hooks. ‘I've been profusely reading and reading and suddenly everything is making sense to me. It's just a beautiful realisation that there is a space in this world for me and it just didn't make sense [before] because I was looking at it through the wrong lens.’
"The mental health stuff has been really difficult. Trying to come out in safe spaces and not being accepted for who I am and being threatened has been pretty scary." - Faustina Agolley
We start talking about stereotypes, and how easy it is for us to be stereotyped – the angry Black/Brown woman, for example. How when we swear in public, we’re soon put into the category of being less educated, when we speak with an accent, we’re taken less seriously. We have to constantly ‘uphold a standard of being proper that is built in whiteness’ April says. There’s also this ‘the idea of being excellent at everything all the time and also never being unhappy about the way things are, accepting and having to tone down the parts of you that stereotype you as well’. She goes on to talk about the effect of overplayed representation – the representation of only “stereotypical” characters. ‘Who do I relate to really? Because I'm Australian but I'm not white, but I also don't want to appropriate African American culture.’
On performative diversity & inclusion
From representation, the conversation moves on to diversity & inclusion and, of course, tokenism. I ask them about their experiences and how that’s affected their careers and beyond, ‘I have always been a tokenistic inclusion, my entire career’ Jennifer begins ‘because brands were finally opening up to the possibility of plus sizes and diversity. I've been described as ethnically ambiguous; you can’t really place where I'm from, so I was the perfect fit because I could be anything without actually pledging my ethnicity’. In the beginning, she went along with it, thinking it would be a stepping-stone, she’d pave the way for others, help open doors. But she soon became frustrated with the realisation that it was all performative. She reminds us of those wretched black tiles on social media last year, present for a day, or maybe even a month, and soon forgotten while Black people continued to be killed. Often finding herself the token Black person, she began to call out colourism. ‘Am I really the only Black you can see? It’s all performative. They wanted people to be inclusive without actually looking deeper. When you look into those companies, there’s no actual diversity within the structures that make decisions.’
"The limited inclusion of light-skinned Black people is ‘not inclusion. That’s a step… but they have to realise that there are different intersections, that we don't necessarily see ourselves represented because they’re only willing to tick one box at a time." April Hélène-Horton
That’s right, April nods, ‘amplify melanated voices, but only the right level of melanin.’ She recognises her proximity to whiteness and how that’s often afforded her spaces that others may not be included in. At the same time, that’s left her exposed to people pointing out how obviously different she is. The limited inclusion of light-skinned Black people is ‘not inclusion. That’s a step… but they have to realise that there are different intersections, that we don't necessarily see ourselves represented because they’re only willing to tick one box at a time.’
On forging ahead
We often hear narratives about women being shut out of meeting rooms, mostly taken up by white men. We hear that (white) women want a seat at the table, they want to be in that boardroom and at that table, making decisions. At this kitchen table though, we agree that that’s not our aim. A while ago, I heard Gabrielle Union say that she didn’t want a seat at that proverbial table – keep your damn table! I’m building my own table over here. After my long-winded table rant, we agree that we can and should create our own narratives, our own systems.
‘We’re forging ahead and will exist without having to necessarily define ourselves by pushing up against whiteness.’ Faustina reflects. She tells us about a project she’s working on and how they’ve decided to define themselves outside of white narratives (no all-Black Home & Away, then!) ‘I think that new narratives are being created outside of this now. I think that there's been a line drawn in the sand of just going “well, they've never accepted us anyway, not in masses, so what's the point?” Let's create something new.’
‘We’ve got a long way to go’ she continues. For starters ‘understanding that racism is trauma. Understanding that diversity is the outcome of anti-racist practice, deep anti-racist practice. There are a lot of mind shifts that are required. [Right now] post this global wave of BLM blackout Tuesday, is that clever organisations are taking optical language. Putting them into PDFs and policies, yet the organisation itself is tremendously unsafe for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour to thrive in these spaces. Because they’re saying all the things, but they're not doing the work and they're not creating the spaces. So again, line drawn in the sand. [We’re] creating something new, for us by us. I think that’s the true definition of how we're going to forge forward.’
What’s next for this trio? We start talking about legacy, being good ancestors and what we want for our futures. For Jennifer, the priority is ‘finding who I really am and healing a lot of the generational trauma that I feel like I inherited from my family, from both sides... Creating something worthwhile, creating space and opportunities for future generations. Something that I realised was that I was trying to fit into spaces that wouldn't accept me and that were never going to. So, I think it’s about creating that space for myself, a space that will accept me and will accept future generations as well.’
April talks about her child, growing up being a Brown boy, surrounded by mostly white kids. She says she’s working on ‘bringing good things to the world, too, and sharing that idea that he can go where he wants to. Knowing that he would live the confidence that I've tried to instil in him, that he belongs, and he's allowed.’ The simplicity of her statement rings true for us all. How many times have we tried to enter spaces and found ourselves locked out, othered, sidelined?
We’re silent for a moment when Faustina says ‘all of us existing in the spaces that we’re existing in, I think is enormous. And I think it's very hard to understand the impact of the ripple effect. I think it's quite immeasurable in a sense. Healing generational trauma is enormous. One of the things that I've had in my life is an enormous sense of pride in my Chinese as well as my Ghanaian roots. Understanding roots, understanding heritage, understanding lineage is so key and it's something that I hope that the next generation in my family is aware of. That they understand where they come from because I think it's enormous, enormous, knowing that. It gives you a sense of belonging in the world and a sense of being.’ She finishes up by telling us about a story she heard from Oprah a while back, discussing legacy with Maya Angelou. Oprah was saying that she wanted to leave a legacy and Maya Angelou interrupts “you don't know what legacy is. You don't know what it is. Legacy is every interaction you have. Every word you speak, every encounter. That is what a legacy is.’
As we close up the conversation, we share parting wishes of kindness. We talk about our ambitions, how we look back on the things we’ve done in life and recognise how far we’ve come. There’s peace in not holding a ‘vice grip’ on our goals. Working towards something but also accepting that things will come to us if they’re meant for us. We recognise that being in these spaces is lovely and unique, speaking without having to hold back, without excessive explanation or context – we all understand what we’re talking about. We face a lot of hostility in our everyday lives, so taking care of ourselves can sometimes be the most important task at hand. Kindness to each other and ourselves can lead to our biggest breakthroughs. 🔥
Faustina Agolley is a TV Host, Actor, DJ, Producer and Writer. She’s hosted Video Hits, The Voice and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. She made her stage debut with Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company’s co-production of the Molière award-winning play, The Father alongside theatre luminary, John Bell in 2017.
Faustina has toured Australia and New Zealand as Oprah Winfrey’s resident DJ and written for Sunday Life, Women of Letters and Growing Up African in Australia.
Jennifer Atilémile is a Franco-Australian model who has worked internationally for the past five years and is now based in New York.
With her mixed heritage, her mother having Irish and Danish ancestry, and her father from Reunion Island, her goal has always been to challenge traditional standards of beauty, and push for greater racial representation in advertising and media.
Holding a double Masters degree in International Relations and Journalism, it’s very clear she is more than just a model, and has been using her voice to advocate for racial equality and body diversity through her writing, and modelling career.
She knows how important representation is - having grown up not seeing anyone that looked like her, she set out to be that representation she never had growing up. Jennifer wants to inspire the next generation to believe in their power, to see themselves in spaces that they’ve never thought possible, while also challenging her generation to think about how they can be more inclusive.
April Hélène-Horton is a writer, public speaker and model - you might know her better as The Bodzilla. In February 2021, she led the way as Australia’s first truly plus size models to appear in a bikini on a billboard. Before that, she’d spent a year building the identity of ‘The Bodzilla’ to give a real voice to her passion for self-love and body acceptance.
The rise of anti-racism into mainstream conversation meant that the absence of representation she had felt keenly growing up was becoming another key part of her online work. April knew she needed not only to speak to her friends and family about fat positivity and anti-racism, but to anyone who would listen.
The world might not be ready for marginalised bodies to take up space but The Bodzilla is here to make room for everyone and show the door to anyone who wants to peddle diet culture and harmful BS based in social conditioning and bias.