Model Nikia Phoenix: "Being A Freckled Face, Natural Haired Girl Isn't Easy"

Culture & Entertainment

The first thing that draws me in about 35-year-old model and content creator extraordinaire Nikia Phoenix is the striking way freckles paint her face.

Her unconventional beauty, no doubt, is the thing that grabs you first, but it's the quirks and fearlessness of her bold personality that echo enough within to make you stay. I could be biased though. I have been an avid reader of her blog, Model Liberation, for years. She talks style, beauty, hair, advice, and of course model life, and in a way that was very much “no bullshit". She gives it to you straight, no chaser, and it makes her beauty resonate with me more. It's so much more than what you see on the surface, it's skin deep.

“Being a freckled face, natural haired girl isn't easy. I've always felt different," she's said of herself, “Because of faith, I've been able to embrace who I am and prosper."

Phoenix had humble beginnings as a graduate of University of South Carolina, whose first job post-grad was that of a television news producer. She's always valued education and learning as a life long process. Somehow a chance meeting with Greg Alterman of Alternative Apparel led her to venturing off into modeling, which led to commercials, campaigns, and billboards. This, of course, brought about the fruition of her blog Model Liberation, which no doubt gave her the motivation to take her content creation to a new level with her work as Managing Editor for the women's lifestyle brand, Simone Digital and the revamp of her official site, Nikia Phoenix.

On one fine day, she was able to give it to me straight. We talked the modeling industry, self confidence, and what motivates her as a young creative.

On her first taste of modeling:

In the 90s, there were always these model searches held at malls that me and my friends would go to and try out for because we lived in a small town and had nothing else to do. Strangely enough, I always got picked for those. My mom was always like, “no, no, no, not gonna happen." Finally, one time she said it was okay because it was for a modeling school. Because it was just for a modeling school, it seemed so superficial to me, so I decided to go for the acting portion. I knew I wanted to pursue journalism in school and needed some time in front of the camera speaking, so what better way to get the best of both worlds? I did that. I had agencies in Atlanta interested in repping me and the plan was to do that part time while taking classes at Georgia State. I think that scared my mother because it ultimately ended up being a “no" so I had to walk away from it. At that point, I was like, okay well that's not supposed to happen.

On the jumpstart of her career as a working model:

I took the traditional route, went to college, got out of college, and got a job. That didn't really work out, so I went to L.A. While in L.A., I was in a coffee shop and got discovered by the owner of Alternative Apparel. It was funny because we were having this long conversation about community fashion and design. At the time I had reenrolled in school for fashion design. And you know how it is when you go to get coffee in the morning – if you have a scarf on your head you don't care. I had a hat pulled halfway down my face, but from that, he was like, “I want you to be in my campaign." (laughs) I was like, alright! When I went to see it was a legit set, it was a legit shoot. From then on, I took it seriously. This is what I'm supposed to do because modeling was something that kept coming up in my life, so this was what I'm supposed to be doing.

On the conflicts of being dubbed the “edgy girl" in her industry:

Even after having a major campaign running and other campaigns going, I still couldn't get representation. It was very difficult because they kept saying that I was this “edgy" girl – they kept giving me excuses for why I couldn't [model]. I felt like, 'Don't you see that I'm still here because I can?' Even now, I can walk into an agency and probably hear similar things. I've been doing this for 11 years, I'm obviously still good for it. When this dream of mine started in the 90s, that's when models were allowed to be “different". That is when unique beauty was embraced. Stacey McKenzie was the first black model that I really saw landing major campaigns. I was like, oh snap! If she can do it, I'm good, I'm good! (laughs). Then the industry started to change where they wanted more cookie cutter models that looked all the same. I was dubbed the not-so-PC term “exotic". There's nothing exotic about me, I don't know what you're talking about. I'd hear exotic or “edgy". I know I can give a mean side-eye, but I'm approachable (laughs).

On using the modeling industry's obsession with youth to her advantage:

I'm actually glad that my big break was when I was 25. That's the age most models retire, but that was when I got my first foot in the door professionally. I couldn't walk into agencies and be honest about my age. They'd assume that I was washed up if I told them my real age. What I'd like to say is first of all, black don't crack (laughs). I'm glad that I did start when I was 25 because by then, I was coming into my own as a woman and knew what I would and would not do. I knew that I wouldn't stand for a “no". If I was 16 and someone told me “no", I'd probably cry in a corner and be miserable for the rest of my life. When you're 25 and someone tells you “no," you're like really? Watch. So imagine now being 35 when people tell me “no" (laughs).

On her journey to self acceptance through self love:

There are moments when I don't feel beautiful – there are moments when we all don't feel beautiful. We're so critical of ourselves and we nitpick everything. We stand in front of the mirror and find the tiniest little blemish and fixate on it. And I have a lot of them (laughs). I was in a coffee shop the other day and this lady comes up, she's standing beside me, and she has her baby with her. This little boy was staring at me – not looking at all – just staring, like, what in the world? I am assuming he never sees black people with freckles (laughs). When that used to happen, I used to get offended. In the same moment that there was a kid staring at me like I'm from another planet, this woman comes up to me asking if she can take my picture and information because she has a friend that might be interested in using me for a campaign. There's God saying stop looking at things negatively, let me throw you a bone really quick.

On what turns her on:

Photos by: Alexia Lewis

Oh my goodness, am I going to kiss-and-tell? I love a man who anticipates my needs and makes me feel like we are the only two people who exist in that moment. He is my king and I am his queen and with every touch he reaffirms that union. There's no room for selfishness in our universe. I am not attracted to cockiness and I certainly don't want a man who is timid either. If I'm not afraid to let go, he shouldn't be either. Put in work and we'll get each other high.

On when she feels sexiest:

I am loved, confident, and I know who I am. It's not about comparing myself to anyone else or trying to play someone else's game. The ball is in my court. Feeling sexy has so much to do with being appreciated and knowing your value. I've come to realize that I don't necessarily have to seek that approval from the opposite sex. It's within me, I only have to believe it.

On her love of social media:

I love social media and the fact that it allows us to see that yes we're very different but we have so many similarities. Outside of my own family, it took a very long time for me to find other black people who had freckles. When you talk to other black people who have freckles, they say the same thing, “People picked on me", “People said black people don't have freckles", this that and the other. There's strength in knowing that we've all been through it and that we're all still here. I look just like my mom and when my mom and I talked about accepting who we are, she says that I helped her accept who she is because she would see the same struggles that she had with acceptance coming up in me and my sister. In order to be able to tell us how to deal with it, she had to be able to deal with her own issues.

On what she doesn't like about social media:

I read through comments on Instagram and sometimes those comments are not very nice. People love the internet because they can be somewhat anonymous. They aren't going to get approached on the street for the bullshit that they put online. I let it roll off of my back, but I might also say to that person that I am a human being, not an inanimate object. You might not think I'm beautiful, that's your opinion, but I think that I am beautiful. But like my grandmother says, “If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

On L.A living:

L.A. has its moments. I love this place, but I also don't love this place. I feel like there's not room for growth. You hit a glass ceiling and I am sure everyone feels like that in the places they live. In L.A., you either have it or you don't – there's not much room for in between. Sometimes I feel like I'm sitting on top of the world, but when you go for months without booking jobs or you still live in an apartment where you have a roommate, you're kind of like, okay, I'm not where I want to be yet. So then I think, relocating could be the answer. It's a gamble. It's definitely a gamble. It's not like those 90s sitcoms you watched (laughs). There's not a whole lot of people of color here. That's a smidge of my reality.

On her creative entrepreneurial endeavors:

Last year, I started writing down all of the things I wanted to do and I called it my "Oprah Plan." I asked myself, why isn't there a black equivalent of Jessica Alba with her Honest company? Why isn't there a black equivalent of Martha Stewart? I said, let me just do it. When you think about the apps that are doing well or the businesses that are doing well, they don't own a storefront. They don't keep products in house, they source you out to over sites that do. You go to them for everything. Why can't I own a marketplace for black businesses to do the same thing? I am working on that with my business partner. Also, being so involved with the beauty business, I am tired of hearing black women go through so many difficulties with finding products that work for them. I am working on a beauty shopping experience where I bring the products to them called Black Girl Beautiful, starting in L.A. with plans to bridge the gap in Atlanta later. In Atlanta, I hope to pull our resources together and understand that there is power in the village and create a networking event called Crème de le Crème where black creatives can come together and create for ourselves by ourselves. I also have a secret dinner club series in the works called Nikia Phoenix presents: Supper. That's just a little taste.

On doing things that ignite her soul:

This is a really exciting time not only for me, but all of us. I am becoming who I am meant to be. Modeling and blogging - It's all evolved into this... what I'm working on now. Are you living your dream or someone else's? That's real talk. I want women to know the power we control and the clout we possess. I want other creatives to understand that every no is an opportunity for a bigger yes. Through various passion projects, I am creating content dedicated to helping you believe in yourself. It's more than group therapy, it's legit motivation. If you're going to talk it, be about it... so let's go for it.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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