Harmony ‘Anne-Marie’ Ilunga is the founder of Harmony HK, Asia’s first diverse modelling agency.
Harmony moved to Hong Kong aged 12 as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a city still grappling with racial inequality today, the discrimination Harmony faced on the playground bled into her professional life as a model. Her experiences inspired her to start her own agency in 2020, representing models from all races, ages, sizes, backgrounds and gender identities.
In this interview, MediaCat Magazine’s Editor-at-large, Natasha Randhawa, talks to the 24-year-old Congolese model about her work, creating a safe space for talent from all walks of life, the role of AI in eliminating bias and more.
Harmony, so great to chat to you. What first drew you to modelling as a career path?
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to model. I don’t know what it was, but I just had it in me. The way I dressed, the way I stood — you should see the pictures I used to take! Growing up, everyone would call me ‘mannequin’ and I’ve always been skinny, so I guess that gave me the belief that I could pursue modelling as a career.
I read that out of Hong Kong’s 7.5M residents, only 3,144 are of African descent. What was your experience like growing up? How have you bridged the gap between cultures and stayed connected to your roots?
This is very interesting. Congo will always be in my heart and no matter what, I am always going to be Congolese — but Hong Kong is home. Nowadays I have a new home in Canada, where I’ve been given permanent residency and am currently expanding my network. All I can say is that I have learned to become multicultural. Each of these countries have had an influence on who I am, how I think and the way I approach and appreciate life. You have to embrace all of the cultural differences. I stay connected to my Congolese roots through music, food and talking my mother tongue with my family.
Speaking of cultural differences, your agency’s tagline is ‘Think Diversity and Act on Inclusivity’. What does this mean to you? What advice would you give to companies who want to make an authentic difference?
Most of the time when we talk about diversity, we’re not touching on or understanding the power and importance of inclusivity. ‘Think Diversity‘ is about acknowledging our differences and ‘Act on Inclusivity‘ is to create a space where those diverse people have a say, a sense of belonging and feel empowered, within our company and society.
To make an authentic difference, companies should first define their values and mission to guide their actions. Focus on a cause that aligns with these values, and incorporate social responsibility into their business operations. You can achieve more when you collaborate with organisations that have expertise in the cause, involve your employees in these social responsibility initiatives — and transparency about your efforts is key! You have to demonstrate your commitment to making a meaningful impact on society, and that in turn will strengthen your reputation and customer loyalty.
Your agency is doing lots of exciting work in this space. As a leader, what have been your top three proudest moments to date?
The first has to be bringing greater diversity to the fashion industry. As an agency, we’ve had the opportunity to work with models of all sizes, ages, and ethnicities, and together we’ve challenged traditional beauty standards.
We’re also proud to support social justice causes through our work. Whether it’s partnering with organisations that also promote diversity and inclusion, or using our platform to raise awareness of other important issues, we believe that modelling can be a powerful tool for social change.
And of course, I’m proud to be building a strong and inclusive community within our agency too. We prioritise treating our models with respect and fairness, and fostering a supportive and collaborative environment. Seeing our models thrive and support each other has been a source of pride and inspiration for me as a leader.
It’s clear that you’re keen to keep evolving and growing. You teamed up with RPA HK to find out how AI could help eliminate bias in the industry. Can you tell us a bit more about the project? How do you think AI will impact the beauty/fashion sphere?
We’ve been working with RPA (HK), Ltd. for about two years now. Our first project together was to help a mutual client of Harmony HK and RPA (HK) to use automation technology to improve the equitability of their HR hiring process. We created a software robot for the client that automatically removed information that could potentially lead to bias from CVs, in order to make the reviews of job candidates more fair.
I definitely think AI will impact the beauty/fashion sphere! Currently, Harmony HK and RPA (HK) are collaborating on projects to (1) build virtual fashion models and (2) create AI tools that help human beauty models identify the best makeup and clothing designs for their unique skin tones and body types.
There are so many use cases to leverage technology for creating a more inclusive world. It is also really an exciting time in the beautyTech and fashionTech world!
What role can the advertising industry play in facilitating change around diversity and inclusion, both in Hong Kong and Asian markets at large?
By creating advertising that is itself diverse and inclusive. Advertisements and marketing should reflect the diversity of the audience they are targeting, and should avoid perpetuating stereotypes or excluding certain groups. And partner with diverse suppliers and agencies like Harmony HK. It’s important to work with people and talent from a range of backgrounds, including those from underrepresented groups.
What’s next for Harmony HK? Any fun, exciting projects that you’d like to share?
A couple of projects spring to mind. We’re currently working on our fifth Charity Fashion Show, and all the proceeds will go to support a local charity in Hong Kong, focusing on the education of local refugees. We’re also branching out internationally, launching Harmony HK Model Agency in Toronto — so watch this space!
Featured image: Fashion Show 2 / Harmony HK