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Viral sensation turned supermodel slams racist photographer Zara for calling her a “cockroach” during a photoshoot

A boycott of fashion company Zara is gaining support on social media after South Sudanese supermodel Anok Yai denounced the retailer's lack of response to the racism she faced during a photo shoot.

The 26-year-old breakthrough beauty said she collaborated with the brand in 2019, just two years after she was discovered. Yai was named “Model of the Moment” by Vogue after a photo of her at Howard University's homecoming went viral in 2017.

At the time, she was studying biochemistry at Plymouth State University. Shortly after making millions online, she was signed by the agency Next Management and continued to prove she was the industry's It Girl by appearing on magazine covers and opening a Prada fashion show – a feat only achieved by one other black supermodel: Naomi Campbell.

Viral celebrity turned supermodel Anok Yai slams racist photographer Zara for calling her a
Supermodel Anok Yai speaks out about what she considers to be a photographer's racist behavior during a photo shoot for the brand Zara. (Photos: @thesunk/Instagram, Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images)

But in the now-deleted series of tweets, which began with her reply to a Zara post with “Hi bitch. Remember me?”, Yai said she was “called a cockroach by a photographer.” She said there was a language barrier, but that didn't stop her from feeling some derision from people on set.

“I remember a photographer calling me a cockroach in 2019,” Yai said in her May 20 tweets. “It was from this brand I always worked with. I didn't speak their language and they didn't speak mine, but still, we were on set shooting one look after another. (There were days when I shot over 60 looks.)”

On the penultimate day of filming, she recalled being powdered by a makeup artist when the photographer put down his camera and shouted, “'Lotion la cucaracha.' Everyone on the set started smiling and laughing.”

“I can't react the way I want to react because at the end of the day, I'm young, I'm alone, I'm black… anything I do will impact me, my family, and other black models,” she wrote, giving some context as to why she held back her reaction in that moment. Instead, she refused to go to set the next day until the photographer was removed.

A member of Zara's team reportedly told her after learning of the incident: “We do not accept this behavior, we will fire him immediately. Tell me who he is and we will get rid of him.” However, when she arrived on set, “he walked past me and smiled.”

Yai said she was taken aside by another team member and told: “I asked the team what happened and they said you made it up. Honestly, when you come here, you never smile and you're never happy to be here.” In tears, the model explained to the staff member that she hadn't lied, but her words made no difference. In the end, she demanded that she be paid her full salary and taken to the airport.

“I remember wanting to publish the story in magazines, but I was told, 'Think of what this could do to your career.' That was the first (and not the only) time I was blacklisted. I'm sure they thought I wasn't strong enough to fight it.” Her supporters have spoken out against the upscale fast-fashion retailer, calling for “Boycott Zara.”

When her story was reshared on Instagram, one comment read: “Name him and we'll make sure he gets cancelled!” A second reaction read: “This is what I mean when I say these brands like to 'look' diverse but behind the scenes they are actually the biggest racists. It's heartbreaking that there are still people with this mentality.” And a third Yai fan commented: “And now she's a capital L for Zara at the Met Gala.”

The company, founded in Coruña, Spain, has not commented on the story. A week before Zara's unveiling, Anok Yai captivated photographers and onlookers when she wore a blue and brown ombre full-body jumpsuit embellished with 98,000 Swarovski stones at the 2024 Met Gala.

Her look was listed as one of the most memorable of the evening, which was also attended by Hollywood stars.