Hong Kong's First Diverse Modelling Agency Pushes Back Against Prejudice
After years of facing the Hong Kong’s backwards beauty ideals, Harmony “Anne-Marie” Ilunga decided to start her own modelling agency. The 22-year-old Congolese model, who has called Hong Kong home since she was young, runs Harmony HK, an agency with a portfolio of diverse faces.
Ilunga moved to Hong Kong in 2011 as a child asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She describes facing normalised racism in Hong Kong growing up—something that failed to change as she grew older and ventured into the world of modelling. Ilunga recently told SCMP she had been turned away from jobs because people openly told her they “prefer white models”.
Founded in 2018, her modelling agency Harmony HK works to represent this overlooked group by focusing on promoting refugees, people of colour and those from minority groups through fashion shows, music and art.
At Tatler’s inaugural Front & Female event in July, an event championing unconventional women, 10 women gathered for a discussion on defying expectations and forging your own path in life. Ilunga and 11 other women from all walks of life joined the evening, including our June cover star, Josie Ho.
The event sparked a partnership between our cover star and Ilunga, with Ho inviting her to join forces and take part in a shoot for L'Officiel magazine in Australia.
Here, Ilunga discusses the power of her work, her future goals and her recent collaboration with Ho.
Who are the women who have helped you get where you are now?
I give the highest credit to both my mother, the founder of ArtWomen HK, and my grandmother for helping me get to where I am now. Since my formative years, they repeatedly taught me to create the impossible—even when the world attempted to tell me that there is no way I could accomplish my goals. They instilled in me a firm conviction that my personal circumstances should never stop me from achieving what I want to get out of life.
Other than my mother and grandmother, other strong women who have significantly contributed to my success include my mentors Chantal Wong and Tegan Smith, who both serve as advisory board members to Harmony HK. I have been tremendously blessed with so many positive female influences and am so grateful to all the women in my life that have played a constructive role in my development.
How does your work elevate other women?
Through my work at Harmony HK, I have developed a platform to support the career ambitions of a group of diverse female models, as despite some progress being made in the modelling industry regarding greater inclusivity, both race-based and body-type based exclusions remain prevalent in the Hong Kong fashion industry.
As a social enterprise, Harmony HK is driven by its mission to promote and encourage diversity and inclusion through fashion and art. We provide events and an inclusive environment for all types of women from a variety of backgrounds in Hong Kong to be able to express their beauty to the world.
What is the best advice you have ever received and who was it from?
I have received and continue to receive excellent counsel from my parents, mentors, and friends. I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by a broad network of wise people that genuinely want to help me in my life journey.
I think the best advice I have received is from life itself because I often receive good advice but to truly understand the advice, I’ve had to personally experience certain life situations. I remember growing up and my parents advising me to be cautious in my personal and business relationships. They often told me, “everyone that is nice to you is not someone to trust” and “the world is not as sweet as it often appears.” I didn’t learn to appreciate this advice in its richness until I was hurt by someone that I would least expect to harm me.
What are the issues closest to your heart when it comes to women's rights and opportunities?
The issue closest to my heart related to women’s rights and opportunities is the equal treatment of women in society. I have been raised in two societies – Congo and Hong Kong – where in both, men are typically viewed as the breadwinners and the providers. Whereas a woman's goal in these more traditional societies tends to focus on getting married and becoming a housewife. While I don’t believe there is anything wrong with marriage or starting a family, if these are the only opportunities afforded to women, then I have a problem with that.
One specific women’s issue I wish to help change in my home country is that of providing equal access to education for girls and women. There is so much that women can achieve beyond the singular goals of marriage and child rearing, and education is key to opening up doors to expanded opportunities. I aspire to be a role model to women in my communities in both Hong Kong and the Congo.
One of my personal future goals is to build a school which will focus on helping women to acquire the skills needed to achieve their goals in order to make society a better place. There is an unfortunate saying in my language [Lingala]: “Muasi atongaka mboka te.” It means “a woman can’t lead or build a country”. I hope to play my part in removing this saying and educating young girls to know that they can achieve any of their dreams with faith, hard work and perseverance.
Read more: Tatler launches Front & Female, a new platform for women to inspire—and be inspired
What was your favourite memory you have from the Front & Female roundtable with Josie Ho in July?
The Front & Female Roundtable was absolutely fabulous. It was a wonderful opportunity to participate in a forum attended by such a powerful group of women. I was deeply impressed by how intimate the event was and how comfortable the group felt in sharing their personal life stories so openly. My favourite part of the roundtable was simply being able to listen to the women’s stories and the learning I acquired from these strong female leaders—hearing about the participants’ struggles and challenges, learning about what has led them to where they are at the moment. The inclusivity of the Front & Female roundtable also stands out as one of my favourite memories from the event. The host made sure that each of us was given a chance to be heard. We were all made extremely comfortable and given the freedom to express ourselves in our own way.
How did your collaboration with Josie Ho come about?
The grapevine cannot keep any secrets—and that’s because Josie is so amazing! Josie and I met for the first time during the July Tatler Front & Female roundtable event. After the event, we exchanged contact information and then met up again a few weeks later. After meeting up and getting to know each more, we stayed in contact and have grown as new friends during the past couple of months. I appreciate Josie for taking an interest in my story and my work at Harmony HK. Josie is extremely passionate about her work and beliefs; we both share a deep commitment to equality and social missions. She recently invited me as a guest interviewee for one of her shoots with L’Officiel Australia. She has also recommended me for some new opportunities that are still to come.
From my end, I’ve invited her to attend the fourth Harmony HK fashion show which will be hosted once government Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. I’m super excited that she has accepted my invitation as a VIP guest and I look forward to her and her husband sharing in this special event that promotes and encourages diversity and inclusion through fashion and art.
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