"We are all sluts. You're a slut, all these dudes behind you are sluts." And so begins one of history’s greatest clapbacks, when model Samirah Raheem took on conservative reverend Jesse Peterson at Amber Rose’s SlutWalk 2017. As Peterson attempts to shame Raheem and her fellow protesters—for their choices, their appearance, their expression—Raheem seems to grow stronger—even more joyful—with each confident comeback. When the video surfaced this summer, Raheem became an instant sensation, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers in a matter of days. We spoke to the Brooklyn-based model about the reaction to the video, reconciling her voice with her career, and where she kicks it in NYC.
What are you up to right now?
I’m just getting ready to go to London, because I’m trying to tie down international representation. I’m working on building my brand internationally and getting in position for a strong fashion week.
How has the video affected your career?
It’s definitely been affected. Certain castings that wouldn’t even see me before have requested me. It’s a bit of a trickle effect. I feel a little more confident asking for stuff. Like: This is what I think I should do, and this is why I think I should do it.
The good thing is that the video is like a two-minute showcase for how fierce you are.
Yeah, it’s real. I don’t have to play the [hyper-feminine voice] “Oh my god, I’m so nice! I’m a model!” role, which is not a role, it’s definitely also a part of my personality. I’ve been raised to be respectful, but to a certain point I was being respectful to a fault, letting people talk to me any way or tell me I was wrong, or too small or too big. The truth is out: People now know I have a voice, I ain’t taking no shit, I won’t let them talk in that tone.
I think the video hit for a lot of us because you were ready to go as soon as Paterson started challenging you. As a woman of color and a model, what sets you off? What do you find yourself battling against the most?
Being a woman of color is a fight in itself. If I speak up on something people will automatically assume: Wow, she’s argumentative, she’s ghetto, she’s this, she’s that. And just because my passion might make me roll my neck or say something a little quicker than you would like me to, it doesn’t mean I’m going to hurt you. It doesn’t mean I’m aggressive. It just means that my political thoughts don’t sound like jargon. I went to the same classes as you, I care about the same issues as you. But the way I speak, people automatically assume I have no decorum. And that was very frustrating—just going to college, I felt like a lot of kids could get passionate, but as soon as I said one thing, the whole class would be like: “I’m uncomfortable!” And I’m like: Why are we uncomfortable now? I’m just saying my perspective, you know?
And as a model, I was never one or the other. I was a size 12 when I got signed. I was too small for plus-sized and too big for the runway. I grew up in a home where we never had to conform. My mom really wanted us to push the boundaries, and my dad too—even though they were both Muslim—I never knew a box. When I went to school and moved to New York, and I started hearing people telling me to fit in a box and make myself smaller, it was a big internal battle. What I was raised to be versus what society wanted me to become.
Photograph: Andrew Tess
It’s in conflict with much of the modeling industry, which gives men the ability to literally silence women.
Definitely. A lot of: “Don’t say that; you don’t want to offend anybody.” That is a horrible way to feel in your workplace: I hope they like me, and I hope they ask me to come back! Other models who weren’t of color didn’t care as much—they spoke how they spoke, or they had a big Instagram following that gave them confidence. But I was just like: I don’t want to get fired, but I got these militant thoughts, I got things to say! I felt like I was living a double life: I was like one girl at the New School, and then I would go to work and hear stuff that I knew wasn’t O.K. I’d let people body shame me, and let it pass out of fear of getting fired.
Why do you think people are connecting with you so much in the video?
People wanted to hear somebody say—in my funny way—that it doesn’t matter. No more shame. No more judgment. I don’t care what you come from, what you look like. I took the pressure off it when I was like: This is my sexual situation, and I still cuss, and I’m still out here butt-naked, and I still wear two ponytails made out of fake hair, so what’s good? It was like: Alright! What you gonna say now? I’m a walking contradiction. I really exist, just like everybody who is watching this is. We all got nuances in our lives; we’re not one dimensional beings. I feel like people resonated with that. People were like: I’m like that too! Sometimes I’m on the block, and sometimes I want to talk about political things. As young people, we assume that to be political or to have a voice, you have to be cookie-cutter clean. That’s what I was sold my whole life: If I wanted to go into politics, I’d have to scrub my past, I’d have to lose my voice, dress boring. People are over slut-shaming because it’s really dumb. People slut-shame like they don’t like sex. You know what I’m saying? How do I know that people like sex and I haven’t even gotten down with it yet? I’ve watched movies, I know what’s going on, and we need to be into it! Sex is sexy!
I never had problems with girls growing up, but I was always bullied by boys that couldn’t handle how big I was. I remember I came home from school one day—I was like 12—and my friends were like: “You need to go back to the school.” I went back and all these high school boys were staring at me, licking their lips. We get to the front of the high school and “Samirah Sucks Dick” is written in six-foot letters, dripping wet paint. It’s because I had run for president of the school and I had challenged the boys. None of the girls wanted to run, to challenge them. It was the first time I had witnessed toxic masculinity, right at me. I thought these boys were my friends. I literally played football with them; I was a tomboy. I didn’t even know what a dick was, so it was like: What the hell? It changed my perspective of what women go through. What if I was a girl that did feel sexually liberated and did suck this guy up? I would feel so ashamed! And he took part in it! I have friends that were sexually liberated ahead of me, and I would never want them to feel shame for taking part in their true essence, which is love. Are we serious?
Now that we’ve seen a lot of supposed moral leaders in politics and in media be exposed, it’s even more absurd to have any man impose shame on you. That age is over.
It’s so over. The hiding is done. It’s been happening. In terms of acting like these powers that be are so much better than us...we’ve seen too much. The whole environment built up to that moment. It was an irrational moment, but I was in an irrational place. I’m not always like that. There’s people I know who have seen the video and they’re shocked; they’re like: That girl is so quiet, you know, because I’m not one dimensional. I have that side to my personality. I wasn’t drunk, I was just waiting for my friend to leave her gig, and somebody asked me a question and I answered.
Photograph: Andrew Tess
In the video, you mention that your face is on billboards. In Times Square.
Seeing it in Times Square was crazy. Maybe this is me being a cliche Cali girl, but when I moved to New York, I stood in Times Square, thinking: How hard is it to get on one of these screens, you know? I was 17. When it actually happened, I was like: God! Universe! You holding me down! It’s just an ad, but we lit! I had one in Soho too. I didn’t get a subway turnstile yet—that’s when you know you really made it.
Where do you live in NYC?
I have a spot in Brooklyn. I went to the New School for four years, graduated, and lived in Harlem, then I moved to Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy. When I first moved here, I was like this little girl from L.A., not knowing where to hang out, scared of the subway. When I first saw the Plaza, I was like: This place is a palace to me. I would walk up and down the 50s and stare into the Bergdorf’s windows and watch those women, because to me they were like the other side. My experience was a hard contrast: I was this camo-wearing, Air Force One-wearing girl who would be in these super-bougie and highbrow spaces. My agent made me go to the 50s. She was like: “Go watch these women, watch how they hold their bags. That’s how you need to pose, that’s what you need to emulate. Go watch these women, because you don’t photograph rich.” It was such a crazy message to hear at 18 years old, like, these women are the pinnacle? I had a cousin who really came into her own as far as fashion and really became a big time influencer. She was the first person I saw go into Bergdorf’s—as a woman of color—and buy it out. It was the first time I had been like: We can do this? We can come in here? We’re allowed to go in Barney’s? Oh snap! We up in here!
Where do you like to party while you're here?
Up&Down. If I can get in. [Laughs] I’ll take my chances, honey, I’ll take my chances!
Would you not be able to get in?
What are you talking about? It’s Up&Down! I’ve seen Laverne Cox get curbed at Up&Down! They ain’t playing; they don’t care! I’ve had some nights when I’ve been like, alright: I’ll wait it out! I wear sneakers when I go to the club now, because I don’t have time, honey. I’m here to wing it, I’m here to get in!
Photograph: Andrew Tess
Where do you like to go when you’re free?
I didn’t grow up in New York, so I love going to the Met. Especially when I was really broke in college, and it was donation-based, I would just give what I could. It was a safe place for me; I could disappear and nobody would rush me. I would go to the little cafeteria and get a horrible plate of fries, or I would pack a lunch when I was really doing bad. I loved getting lost in the Met; I don’t care if i’ve seen the stuff a million times. I’m from L.A. and museums are very different there. Even the craziest person in New York, the one you’d never expect, has been to the Met. You know what I’m saying? A kid from the Bronx who’s never been downtown has definitely been to the Met on a field trip. In L.A., it’s not like that. We do not go to the Getty regularly. I just got to the Getty for the first time two days ago. The Met is so grandiose—I feel so bomb when I’m there.
I also love walking around Lincoln Center. I’ve literally sat around and gotten ballet tickets, like, three times. You can’t return the tickets there, so people will just come up to you and say: “Do you want to see a ballet?” And I’m like: “Yeah! I’m going right now!” It’s a different crowd, you know? I’m like: What do people who watch opera look like? I wanna go with binoculars to know I’ve really made it. That’s my New York dream: Coming full circle, having my Carrie moment, honey.