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The new Pirelli calendar reimagines Alice in Wonderland with some of Black Hollywood’s biggest names

The famously exclusive calendar has cast RuPaul, Lupita Nyong’o, and Naomi Campbell in a version of Lewis Carroll’s work that challenges ideas about black identity.

Actores featured in the 2018 Pirelli calendar
Actress Lupita Nyong’o and actor Djimon Hounsou
Getty Images

The Pirelli calendar, known for its exclusive readership and tantalizing imagery, is defying its own conventions with its 2018 theme.

First published in 1963 by an Italian tire company of the same name, the Pirelli trade calendar has historically been home to sensual and evocative images of women, often captured by the photo and fashion industries’ most prominent photographers. However, its latest 12-page spread is going in a fantastically different direction.

Photographed by Tim Walker and styled by British Vogue’s new editor Edward Enninful, the 2018 calendar will reimagine characters from Lewis Carroll’s beloved tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — specifically, with an all-black cast. Celebrities such as RuPaul and Naomi Campbell, rappers Sean Combs and Lil Yachty, and actors Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita Nyong’o, and are among those who will grace the monthly spreads, breathing new life into characters like the Mad Hatter, Caterpillar, and Queen of Hearts.

“The story of Alice has been told so many times and in so many ways, but always with a white cast,” Walker, whose work is famous for its eerie and surrealist fantasy and romanticism, told the New York Times. “There has never been a black Alice, so I wanted to push how fictional fantasy figures can be represented and explore evolving ideas of beauty.”

This wasn’t just some sudden change of course on Pirelli’s behalf. In recent years, the tire company has dropped its legacy of scantily clad women in favor of photos that go to new, more creatively challenging heights. It’s also given photographers the keys to the castle, with “zero creative or commercial demands” from the company, according to Walker.

(L-R) Djimon Hounsou, RuPaul Charles, Duckie Thot, and Tim Walker at the 2018 Pirelli calendar shoot.
Alessandro Scotti

As a result, in 2016’s calendar, famed photographer Annie Leibovitz celebrated women like tennis champion Serena Williams and investment banker Mellody Hobson not for their physical attributes but their accomplishments. A year later, photographer Peter Lindbergh explored beauty with his series of black and white photographs featuring make-up free (and fully-dressed) actresses like Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, and Julianne Moore.

Walker argues the 2018 calendar is more than another politically correct PR stunt or stab at diversity for money’s sake.

“This is not about trends,” Walker said. “I think we are living in a fantastically exciting time, particularly when a story like that of Alice, that has held so much resonance with people and been told in a certain way for so long, can now be told compellingly in another.”

Lewis Carroll’s original tale about a young girl falling down a rabbit hole into a world of weird adventures is, as Walker points out, typically told with a white cast. It is not, however, a tale that requires a white cast to be told. Anyone can realistically play these characters without dramatically altering the plot, making Walker’s creative move more about expression — through the universalization of a narrative — than being socially aware.

Cast members behind the scenes at the Pirelli 2018 calendar shoot.
Alessandro Scotti

The decision to feature colors and shades across the black identity spectrum — everyone from Refilwe Modiselle, a South African model with albinism, to dark-skinned Australian-Sudanese model Duckie Thot — also makes the calendar’s diversity about more than simple inclusion. It is as much about creatively playing with the convergence of color in makeup and lighting, as well as the mixture of 19th-century British style with Ghana-born stylist Enninful’s appreciation for Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo.

Ultimately, though, the calendar is only accessible to an elite few — the company typically gifts copies to insiders like celebrities, politicians, and chief executives. So there is no new audience to win over with a progressive message, and no marketing diversity "cookies" to be won. Instead, the Pirelli calendar’s focus on black beauty feels like one of Hollywood’s more genuine efforts, both artistically and socially, to make colorful art.