M People uncovers the layers beneath those baby blues

Eyes the colour and vibrancy of a Tolkien elf are a standout feature on anyone, but they are even more striking when paired with perfect coffee dark skin, a statuesque frame and a firmly polite but unapologetic attitude. From the cover of Barbados’ fashion style guides to a resident of Themyscira, Jalicia Nightengale is waving the Bajan flag proudly wherever she goes.

I didn’t expect her to be so nice, warm, and funny. I didn’t know her at all, and like many others I’m sure my perception of her was coloured by the goddess-like quality she exudes in many of her photographs. She often seems as unreachable as the moon—distant and cool and quite as lovely. In conversation, however, Jalicia is open and friendly with an uncontained effervescence that infects every word and gesture.

This 26-year-old model knew from very early that she was considered different. A simple trip into Bridgetown was often like navigating a minefield of whispered but overheard remarks, straight-up staring and invasive questioning by strangers. School offered little refuge and Jalicia was often bullied for her unusual eyes. When asked about the experience, she notes that once outside the safety net of her family, the harshness of being different in a small society was apparent. At primary school, she recalls, “my mother had to bring a letter to the school to prove that I wasn’t blind.”

“They wouldn’t just take her word for it,” she laughs. Her eyes are not just blue, but of such an unusual shade and clarity that everyone took note. “I was bullied for my eye colour, so much so that, unlike other dark-skinned girls, I wasn’t as conscious of the reality of being a dark-skinned woman as some because everyone was so focused on teasing me about my eyes.”

She admits that the teasing hurt and caused her to respond a bit more aggressively than she now considers optimal.

“In my early teens, I used to be angered by all the staring. It took me a while to realise that people are just curious, and now as an adult I’m much better about it. Even I am curious!” she adds with a laugh. “I want to know more about my eyes. It’s a random genetic mutation that pops up in my father’s family from time to time. My family doesn’t know much about how and where it came from, but my mission in life was always to find out as I’m quite curious myself now. I would love to get tested but I’m not sure where to start.”

Most would shy away from such constant attention but, instead of shrinking, Jalicia learned to take those early stares and whispers and turn them into a career.

She says because her eye colour was so often the focus of people’s curiosity, the stark reality of racism didn’t enter her consciousness until she left Barbados for New York City to visit agencies.

“That was the first time I realised I might not get work because I was black. They (casting people) would say, ‘We already have a black girl’ and I’d look around and there’d be one black girl and then 20 white girls who all looked like copies of each other. Then there would be clients who were afraid that my eyes would distract from the product.”

She laughs freely and openly about these challenges. It’s laughter she admits would not have come to her so easily a few years ago.

“I’ve had to grow so much over the years and I have a thick skin now. I’ve heard just about everything, so that nothing anyone says bothers me anymore,” she adds.

One of the things that Jalicia has acquired is a sense of self and confidence. She knows exactly who she is and has learned that apologising for essential parts of oneself does nothing but chip away at the soul.

“When I first started modelling, photographers would sometimes edit my birthmark in my right eye. This is me, all of me, this is who I am and if you want to book me, you have to accept me for who I am with my blue eyes and birthmark in one of them. It’s like a photographer editing Winnie Harlow’s skin to make her vitiligo disappear. It is our differences that make us uniquely beautiful. Never let anyone try changing that.”

A staunch advocate for dark-skinned beauty in a world that often views such skin as a negative trait, as a token to be added simply for the sake of diversity, or simply ignored, Jalicia felt she had to use the platform she had to make a better path for other dark-skinned women.

“It all came from a vision—a vision that’s been so clear it’s like someone sent me a message with instructions and I knew exactly what to do,” she says with laughter in her voice.

Jalicia organised a photoshoot featuring only dark-skinned women, as homage to the beauty and power of dark skin and as a rejection of the idea that “dark/black and ugly” are words that go together while being “light and pretty” is optimal. Jalicia says she reached out to models and creatives, some of whom she had never met and had only seen on social media. “[We’ve]…been following each other’s work for years now and after sharing the rough concept they both agreed with no hesitation…The project is called Melanin on Melanin. It’s…very inspiring…but the main message is within the images.”

The message of self-love is very important to Jalicia, especially in a world where dark skin is not always seen as a marker of beauty. Although she has defiantly arrived at a place of self-love, she knows the power of representation.

“I feel as if this [message] gets in the hands of any dark-skinned little princesses or melanin queens all over the world­—but especially Barbados­—who are struggling with embracing themselves like I once did, it could help them open up their minds about self-love. This is my proudest achievement. I never expected the reaction it has been getting and is still receiving to this date. It’s been published in a few black beauty magazines and on several empowering melanin blogs. It’s crazy how it’s blown up,” she says. “I’m speechless.”

Currently between modelling jobs, Jalicia works as a hostess at a private members-only club in London called The Arts Club. Her job puts her in contact with several prominent celebrities, but Jalicia won’t let me reveal any names.

Jalicia organised a photoshoot featuring only dark-skinned women, as homage to the beauty and power of dark skin and as a rejection of the idea that “dark/black and ugly” are words that go together while being “light and pretty” is optimal. Jalicia says she reached out to models and creatives, some of whom she had never met and had only seen on social media. “[We’ve]…been following each other’s work for years now and after sharing the rough concept they both agreed with no hesitation…The project is called Melanin on Melanin. It’s…very inspiring…but the main message is within the images.”

The message of self-love is very important to Jalicia, especially in a world where dark skin is not always seen as a marker of beauty. Although she has defiantly arrived at a place of self-love, she knows the power of representation.

“I feel as if this [message] gets in the hands of any dark-skinned little princesses or melanin queens all over the world­—but especially Barbados­—who are struggling with embracing themselves like I once did, it could help them open up their minds about self-love. This is my proudest achievement. I never expected the reaction it has been getting and is still receiving to this date. It’s been published in a few black beauty magazines and on several empowering melanin blogs. It’s crazy how it’s blown up,” she says. “I’m speechless.”

Currently between modelling jobs, Jalicia works as a hostess at a private members-only club in London called The Arts Club. Her job puts her in contact with several prominent celebrities, but Jalicia won’t let me reveal any names.“It is a great place to make contacts in this business and it is fun,” she says with her now infectious laughter. “My eyes do get commented on there a lot and it is a good place to network. Since I get most of my jobs via social media, being in that environment really is a perfect way to get my foot in the door.”

As for her future plans, she says although she does a lot of beauty work she wants to do more editorial work, more high fashion. “I want to flex my muscles in that area by the end of the year,” she reveals. So far, her biggest client is Rimmel London whose mascara ads will include her face in the next few months. In the long term, she wants to be an actress.

“I was an extra in Star Wars and was cast as one of the Amazons in Wonder Woman and that was fun! You can actually see me on screen in the scene where Steppenwolf comes for the stone. I was so excited to do that!” she says, her voice rising half an octave with excitement. “I’m going to model for a while though, because that kinda has an expiration date, then I’ll worry about acting. It doesn’t matter when I startacting, though, because at 30 I’ll still look 20…”

She pauses and we make eye contact and nod in black girl solidarity. When asked about her personal life, Jalicia ducks her head and starts to speak. Then stops. “Nope! I’m not gonna talk about my personal life.” That talk is off the record only. As we wrap up, Jalicia talks about how she has changed over the years.

“When I first left Barbados to go after my career I was 18, and moved to the UK at 21. I had to really grow up over here as some challenges in life force you to and, to be honest, I’m happy for those challenges as they made me the woman I am today! The one challenge that took me a while to overcome is loving the skin you’re in, but once you learn to love and accept yourself people will love and accept you for you.

“For me, the one thing I love the most is my personality, and I think that’s mostly because I’m a Bajan and we are generally lovely people to be around.”

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