Fashion Rule Breakers

Fashion Rule Breakers: Meet The Model Who Started An Agency To Promote Health and Wellness In The Industry

"We won't stop until every woman realizes she's already beautiful."

For much of modern history, the fashion industry has received criticism for its unrealistic — and too often, unhealthy — standards of beauty. And while many designers, models, and agencies are now making strides to promote body positivity, there's still much work to be done. 

Committed to that work since 2013, Briauna Mariah founded We Speak, a modeling agency that blends "the two worlds of 'plus size' and 'straight size' fashion into one category, which is just 'healthy.'" 

By creating an agency that prioritizes the health of its models and promotes inclusion and body positivity in the industry, Briauna Mariah is being a fashion rule breaker. 

Briauna Mariah, founder of WeSpeak 
Briauna Mariah, founder of WeSpeak  Lindsay Geller

Like many young aspiring models, Briauna (Mariah is her middle name, and she doesn't use her last name for business) moved from Seattle to New York to pursue her dream. While she quickly signed with an agency, succeeding where many others had failed, this dream nonetheless began to resemble a nightmare.

"I was probably 10 to 15 pounds underweight, and it definitely took a toll on my well-being," she told A Plus. "Not only that, but I was bullied by agents, and I wasn't paid for several months." Only after filing a small claims action against her agent did Briauna see any of the money she was owed after nine months. 

Her story is not the exception, but the rule.

"I was meeting all of these other models with other agencies, and they were experiencing very similar situations," she added. Though the severity differed, Briauna bore witness to this unhealthy pattern pervading the fashion industry and, in many cases, still persists today. "All of these other negative things are still happening despite what you see …" Briauna said. "There's still young girls that are getting taken advantage of every single day." 

She didn't want to be one of them, and she wanted to do everything in her power to give women another option. 

If she couldn’t beat the agents, she’d join them — and, in doing so, change the game.

Photo Credit: Ryan Cain
Photo Credit: Ryan Cain Briauna Mariah

We Speak, Briauna's agency, operates primarily online, features a client pride directory, and accepts model applications through its website, reviewed every week.The name came from Briauna's mission to give a voice to women, to models, and to designers who want to make a difference in the fashion industry. "We Speak just gives a voice to people who want change," she said. 

Coming from "purely a modeling background," the transition from that side of the industry to the agency side was "interesting" for Briauna, to say the least. "It took me maybe the first year or so to get the hang of it, but since then, I've built a client base … It's growing every month, and every year is more successful than the last. It has been interesting to be on the other side of things and remember how I was treated as a model." 

While there have been some unavoidable frustrations with being an agent, like last-minute cancellations, Briauna is determined to do things differently.

Photo Credit: Zineland
Photo Credit: Zineland Briauna Mariah

"One thing I value about We Speak is that it gives models freedom." 

Those outside the fashion industry are often unaware of the hidden — and unequal — power dynamics between agencies and models. Several models signed to larger, traditional agencies don't have the autonomy Briauna offers her models. "When I first moved here, the agency was everything to me, so they controlled my schedule," she recalled. "I'm sure it could've been different for somebody else ... but I was coming here straight from Seattle. I didn't know anyone. I didn't have a job, so this was everything to me ... There was definitely a controlling factor that played into that, and it was very stressful." 

Since starting We Speak, Briauna has made it her professional and personal mission to do the opposite by ensuring her models are as comfortable as possible. "I never would ask them to do anything they don't want to do," she said. "I just really want them to be happy." 

First and foremost, that means being healthy.

Photo Credit: Christa Meola
Photo Credit: Christa Meola Briauna Mariah

For a model to be signed to We Speak, she must go through a health-approval process based on a holistic approach, as well as a completed doctor's physical. "It's not just what you eat or how much you work out," she said. "It's your financial situation, how you handle money, or how you handle relationships and how those affect you… and how work affects you, just all of these different environmental factors." 

Briauna is quick to note that, even with We Speak's mandatory health-approval process, she doesn't "discriminate against particular health issues, as long as they [the models] are feeling good about themselves, they're happy, and they're being treated." 

While We Speak is the only American agency with a specific health-approval process for its models, Briauna believes that, with all the fashion industry's recent strides in body positivity, "We Speak is the next step." Her agency marries the fashion industry's new directions toward greater inclusivity with its old traditions of "straight sizing" because her agency focuses on health, not size. 

"I prefer not to use it [the term 'plus-size'] just because our models are models," Briauna explained. "They're not plus-sized models; they're not straight-sized models. They're models." Even so, she acknowledges that, as an agent, avoiding the term has been a challenge because others in the industry use the term.

"I don't care if my models gain an inch or lose an inch. As long as they're healthy, and as long as they tell me about it, so I can make sure I'm giving my clients accurate measurements. Measurements, aside from that, don't really matter to me too much."

Lindsay Geller
Lindsay Geller

She plans to expand her agency over the next few years. Going forward, Briauna hopes to include male models and child models in We Speak's directory, as she believes personal health should be a priority for everyone, regardless of sex or age. 

"It's really easy to get trapped and bullied into going a certain direction, but a strong support network is really, really important," she advised aspiring models. She recommended a parent or family member as a key source of support to stay healthy. "Just stick to your guns," Briauna added. "Because if an agent really likes your look, you shouldn't have to lose weight for that or even gain weight… Just don't get pressured into changing yourself for this industry." 

This hard-won lesson guides Briauna's singular mission and informs everything she aspires We Speak to become: "We won't stop until every woman realizes she's already beautiful."

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.